In Pulitzer Prize-winning author Edward Humes’ latest book, Force of Nature, Walmart is the unlikely hero in a tale about the environment and sustainability, which Humes calls “the most important story of our age.” I spoke with Humes—who will discuss sustainability storytelling at the BSR Conference 2011—about what makes Walmart’s story so compelling, how to make your business’ sustainability story part of company lore, and how to avoid the trap of “mego” (shorthand for “my eyes glaze over”) when chronicling your own experience.

Why is sustainability such a good story, and what, in particular, made Walmart so compelling to you?

Sustainability touches everything that we do, and, for most of us, this is still an evolving concept that we’re trying to get our heads around. Finding a way to drill down into that and tell that story in a graspable, human way is the great challenge. It’s one thing to talk about the big concept and another to smell it and feel it and touch it and see how it plays out on a personal level.

My way into this story was through Jib Ellison, the river guide—Walmart’s river guide. What a great story: You have the CEO and the river guide, two very different people living in two very different worlds who come together and find common ground through sustainability. And their journey is what sparked Walmart’s journey to try to figure out how a global company that outsources everything could make itself greener.

Part of sustainability storytelling is the difference between telling a real story and greenwashing. And as a journalist, you’re probably coming in skeptical. When did you become convinced that Walmart’s story was something real?

First of all, I was skeptical. But there’s real data, there’s numbers, whether it’s on packaging, carbon, energy, or waste to landfill. You can actually see between 2004 and today what progress has been made and what progress hasn’t been made.

The second thing was looking at the people who were working with Walmart, the Yvon Chouinards and the Jeff Hollanders—the people who were not just willing to reverse their previous adamant positions against the evil empire but who were willing to undertake sustainable initiatives of all sorts and say publicly, “This is real, and we think this is important, and it would be crazy not to take advantage of the reach of a Walmart, when they’re willing to bring transparency to the fashion/apparel/manufacturing business.”

The third piece was being out on a river with these people and in Bentonville and at conferences where Walmart is making its case. It didn’t have the feel of greenwash. Quite to the contrary. The story as it unfolded was a struggle to figure out how to be more sustainable in a way that made sense for the business. Walmart’s honesty about tackling the things that make money but also are making the company more sustainable wasn’t a lot of happy talk. It was just a very nuts-and-bolts focus on finding ways to meet those twin needs.

In reading your book, it occurred to me that one of the reasons Jib Ellison was able to convince then-Walmart CEO Lee Scott to pursue some sustainability initiatives was Ellison’s capability as a storyteller (he has even been nicknamed the “CEO whisperer”). What do you think made Ellison so successful in making his case to Walmart executives?

He is an excellent storyteller. He also had these seemingly disparate but also very complimentary elements of his background. His days in the nonprofit world really established his credentials as an environmentalist and as a figure who was able to build bridges between very adversarial groups.

The other part was when he left that world and got into leadership and management consulting with CEOs and senior executives, he really learned to speak their language. As he says, “I learned what keeps a CEO up at night and how to address those concerns.”

It was that sort of melding of complementary skills that allowed him to sit down with Lee Scott and make the case of sustainability and greener business practices as an untapped opportunity that was just waiting for a smart business to seize.

A company’s story is an important part of defining its culture. But for some companies, the story of sustainability is relatively new and might even run counter to the story of its history. So if your traditional company story says one thing (“everyday low prices”), and your new story says another thing (as Patagonia’s Rick Ridgeway puts it, “everyday high quality and durability”), how do you reconcile those stories and make them meaningful to your employees and board?

Walmart is still trying to figure out the ultimate transition Rick Ridgeway was saying is going to have to happen sooner or later. The bigger challenge, initially, was that Sam Walton’s message about Walmart being the low-price leader—EDLP, everyday low prices—to the exclusion of almost everything else was interpreted for many years to mean, among other things, that environmental initiatives were getting in the way of that. Because everyone knows, this environmental green crap is more regulation and expense and compliance, and more importantly, it’s not our core business to be concerned with that. It’s something that’s grafted on top of it, and we reluctantly have to deal with.

So the real transition that has happened is to somehow take the Sam Walton ideal: Here’s a guy who wanted his executives to stay in really cheap hotels, to double-book, and to steal the pens. This is not a guy who wanted to be wasteful and inefficient. And that was the key: Efficiency has always been Walmart’s great pride. It’s how they have beaten the competition, and it’s how they’ve been able to keep their prices down and their operating costs down. And what Jib Ellison and Lee Scott realized, was, well, the biggest enemy of sustainability is waste. If Jib Ellison had met Sam Walton, he might have sold Sam Walton on sustainability ideas by talking about getting waste out and efficiency in.

That’s what helped Lee Scott take that Walmart culture and the story that people tell themselves about the foundations of the company and use it not as something that was anathema to sustainability but that could go hand in hand.

The public is another big audience when it comes to sustainability storytelling. I think many people might be like the New York Times’ Bryan Burrough, who, in a review of your book, compared “sustainability” to the war in Bosnia—a knot of  “major, perhaps global, issues that some of us simply don’t follow” because it’s just too complicated to get your head around. How, then, to tell a sustainability story in a way that’s meaningful and not construed as greenwashing?

In the newspaper world, where I started my writing career, some editors used the term “mego,” which is an acronym for “my eyes glaze over.” Sustainability has some mego aspects to it that you really have to watch out for.

The human side of this story is what counters the “mego” side of it, and also the very concrete examples that tell the stories so much better than any kind of treatise. [When it comes to the Walmart story], people want to talk about the toy truck. It’s such a great example. Toy truck: Big package, make it smaller. Save trees, save money, save fuel. But because of the scale of Walmart, a couple of inches of packaging is millions of dollars and tons of carbon. It’s so simple, and yet it’s emblematic of all the other opportunities that are available to be more sustainable.

Toward the end of your book, you imagine a scenario in which a consumer with a smart phone can gather incredibly detailed information about what went into making a pair of jeans—information that includes an interview with the farmer who grew the cotton. Is there really a market for this level of detail about a product’s sustainability?

That is the key question of this whole idea of transparency. Is there really a demand for that information, and are people going to use it? Right now, I think that demand is relatively small. But this idea that Walmart is pursuing with the Sustainability Index, where the consortium has been formed to try to build a lifecycle database for all of its products, doesn’t depend on there being a whole lot of consumer interest in it. That’s because the initial phases of gathering that information is to help companies like Walmart and the manufacturers who make the products that are sold in Walmart make more sustainable decisions that are mostly invisible to the consumer. That’s the big selling point of that whole initiative right now: It is the tool for making a more sustainable consumer industry in general.

Ultimately, there’s a belief among Walmart leadership that the next generation of consumers will be much more involved in using this kind of information in their purchasing decisions: Walmart seems to believe that today’s teenagers are going to be looking for this kind of connection to the sustainability information that you could theoretically access on your smart phone. That’s their great hope for continuing to be a dominant player in the retail business. Their thinking is, “Hey, we’re going to be ready when that next generation becomes the main family consumer source. We’re going to have this great information, and if that’s what they want, we’re going to be able to compete.”