Walmart to help you buy less
Adecade ago, Andy Ruben was i n c harge of globa l strategy at a company that environmentalists love to hate: Walmart. Adam Werbach was a f irebrand activist who had served as the youngest-ever president of the venerable green group, the Sierra Club, at age 23. It’d be hard to imagine a more unlikely pair sitting together in a San Francisco off ice in 2013. But today Ruben and Werbach are founders of a si x-person start-up with a grand plan: to reduce waste and change the retail economy by getting people to stop buying $200bn worth of stuff every year.
Their company, Yerdle, launched in San Francisco in November – on Black Friday – and in New York a month ago. A person logs in through Facebook and enters a well- designed marketplace populated by photos of items t heir friends and their friends’ friends would like to give away or loan them for free.
The idea is that people will check Yerdle before making a new purchase, and might pay Yerdle to get a shipment from a friend. The $200bn f igure is the pair’s own estimate of the percentage of the $1tr in durable retail goods purchased in the US each year that might instead be sourced from an individual’s own extended online social network. When I signed in I saw things l ike a colander, a PlayStation, and a “giant litter box”.
“Just because someone is going to have a Halloween Party, it does not mean that a global supply chain has to be kicked i nto gear with every item being manufactured, transported and procured,” says Ruben. In his various roles at the world’s largest retailer, he managed these very supply chains for its store brands and also led a charge to move store services, like grocery shopping, online. Every kilo of product corresponds on average with more than 63kg in waste, he says, a problem he grew to care about when l aunching Walmart’s f irst sustainability initiative i n 2005. That’s a l so when he met Werbach, who had just given a controversial speech “Is Environmentalism Dead?” and started to adopt practical green strategies like working with companies.
Sharing and reusing goods, whether the motive is saving money, reducing waste, or pure generosity, is far from new. Thrift stores spawned eBay and Craigslist and, now that smartphones and Facebook have entered the picture, companies l i ke AirBnB and RelayRides are making it easy for people to rent, rather than sell, their r o o ms and cars to strangers.
Markets t hat make consumption more collaborative and resource-eff icient have lately been termed the ‘sharing economy’. A number of start-ups just like Yerdle are now trying to make the sharing model work beyond highticket items. The challenge is attracting regular users and making it as easy as possible for individuals to transact with each other rather than with eff icient, convenient, and cheap global conglomerates.
A major barrier is that the convenience of shopping and joys in acquiring something new is deeply ingrained in US culture. The lower value the good, the higher the barrier to changing these habits, says New York University professor Arun Sundararajan, who has been studying the growth of the sharing economy for years.
About 12 000 people have signed up for Yerdle, and 25% of them have been coming back every week.
When one of t he site’s users wants a particular good, the site connects the giver and t he t a k e r v i a e mai l to arrange the exchange.
There are plans to improve and expand. Soon, for a fee, Ye r d l e w i l l