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Connecting Disciplines: Helping Big Business Go Green

Michelle Harvey (Weekend Executive ’89) partners with Wal-Mart to improve the environment without harming company's bottom line.

By Elizabeth Michalka — This article was originally published in the alumni magazine Team Fuqua.

September 29, 2009
Michelle Harvey
Michelle Harvey

“I am the boots on the ground,” said Michelle Mauthe Harvey (Weekend Executive MBA ’89). And she has certainly covered a lot of ground promoting sustainability efforts at Wal-Mart over the past couple years.

Harvey co-leads the Environmental Defense Fund office in Bentonville, AR, with Andrew Hutson, a 2001 master's graduate of Duke University's Nicholas School of the Environment. With their office just up the street from Wal-Mart’s home office, Harvey and Hutson advise the big-box company on environmental initiatives at the strategic decision making level.

“We see businesses as our partners and the environment as our client,” Harvey explained. “We look at how businesses can be a player in improving and protecting environmental resources.”

Harvey focuses on chemicals, sustainable food and agriculture, environmental health issues, and alternative energy. Among other things, she co-chaired the development of a screening tool for the chemicals (cleaners, make-up, insecticides, etc.) Wal-Mart sells. The tool assesses alternatives that can be used in place of unsafe chemicals.

“When you go to the store, you shouldn’t have to wonder if what you’re buying is safe for you, your family, or the planet,” Harvey said.

In April 2009, Harvey visited Fuqua Professor Bob Clemen’s class on Decision Tools for Environmental Sustainability, where she talked to Daytime MBA students about her work. The students had just completed a case study of Wal-Mart.

“Energy, environment, and sustainability is really a thread running all the way through Fuqua and, in fact, across Duke,” Clemen said. “With all those connections, it’s really important to have people like Michelle who have expertise in multiple areas.”

Harvey's background includes a bachelor’s in forestry, which she received in 1976. Eight years later, she took a position at Duke’s Nicholas School of the Environment. She developed an interest in business after realizing that the environmental field was becoming increasingly interdisciplinary with clear connections to the business world. In the 1980s, Duke extended its educational benefits for staff to attend Fuqua for a fraction of the tuition cost. Harvey said she could not pass up the opportunity, and she enrolled in the Weekend Executive MBA program. Soon after graduating, she accepted an executive director position with the American Forest Foundation in Washington D.C., and her career took off.

In 2007, Harvey joined the Environmental Defense Fund, primed for her current position as not only an environmentalist, but also a negotiator. “My education gave me the language of business and increased my credibility,” she said. “When I sit down with Wal-Mart, I understand where they are coming from — I understand the business side.”

Harvey said her ultimate goal is to balance Wal-Mart’s business needs with the need to shrink their tremendous environmental footprint. According to the Environmental Defense Fund, of all companies, Wal-Mart has the greatest potential to effect environmental change because of its size.

“Whenever Wal-Mart makes even a small positive change, the ripple effects are amazing,” Harvey said. “They put energy-efficient light bulbs in all their stores’ ceiling fans and saved $7 million in electricity costs. Wal-Mart has really taken the lead, and they are serving as a great example for other companies to also minimize their degradation of the planet.”

Harvey believes even greater strides can be made to decrease Wal-Mart's affect on the environment, and she plans to keep her boots on the ground to do just that.