Walmart to help you buy less

JES­SICA LE­BER

Finweek English Edition - - INTERNATIONAL -

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

Adam Wer­bach

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