For a couple of years running, I devoted my July column to a summer retail-reading list. But over time, the new books seemed more or less interchangeable with the ones from the previous year, so I moved on.
This summer, I decided to bring back the annual list. I did so because of two titles that caught my eye. Literally. On a surface glance, they couldn’t be more different. But each is fascinating in its own way — and each addresses some very timely concerns. So start reading — it’s already July!
Force of Nature: A former river-rafting guide named Jib Ellison is the unlikely hero of the very lively “Force of Nature: The Unlikely Story of Wal-Mart’s Green Revolution,” by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Edward Humes. It was Ellison and his BluSkye consulting firm that arranged global trips where Lee Scott, then-CEO of Wal-Mart, encountered the impact of the planet’s changing climate, pesticides and air pollution.
Beyond all the interesting detail, this is a must-read for anyone who remains doubtful that going green can actually be profitable. The book lays out how Wal-Mart executives came to understand that pollution was just another word for waste, a word long anathema to the chain’s culture.
Ellison brought an important message to Wal-Mart: Going green wasn’t about the PR. Instead, sustainability was the biggest untapped opportunity for businesses of the 21st century, ultimately making for a more efficient and more profitable retail operation. And it’s that bottom-line drive which made the Bentonville, Ark., behemoth a game-changer in nearly everything it undertakes, including reducing its environmental footprint.
Malled: There have been lots of books written about the retail industry, but only a handful have ever taken on life behind the cash register and on the sales floor. Credit author Caitlin Kelly for bringing the subject to life in “Malled: My Unintentional Career in Retail,” which offers a blunt, brutally frank assessment of life on the retail frontlines.
After losing her job as a journalist in 2007, Kelly took a part-time job at a popular clothing store in her local mall. Along with supplementing her freelance income, she thought the job would help maintain her sanity and sense of worth. And she thought it would be simple. She was proved wrong on all counts.
Middle-aged and mid-career, Kelly was thrown headfirst into the harsh reality of the retail workplace, an environment where everyone was expendable. The unexpected physical pressures and low wages, coupled with what she saw as relentless — and often unreasonable — demands from a remote corporate bureaucracy and a dead-end career path, eventually took their toll on her as they did most others.
Kelly stayed on the job for two years and three months — a lifetime compared with most of her peers. Her observations, along with those of other mall workers and industry experts, paint a mostly depressing picture. But she leaves the window open to improvement, noting that companies such as The Container Store, Costco, Trader Joe’s and others have succeeded in creating a different kind of workplace.
Ultimately, there’s nothing new about Kelly’s message: Hourly associates and, ultimately, customers deserve better. That it still needs to be said is also depressing.