Walmart and CSR are not words normally associated together, which is why it makes such a fascinating study in what CSR really means and how one of the largest companies in the world can help create a more sustainable society. What got me thinking about this was the convergence of three events.
The first was the Supreme Court’s dismissal of the class action lawsuit against Walmart for “alleged” systematic discrimination against female employees. The second was a talk I gave to several hundred leaders in the health and wellness business at Walmart, giving me my first “hands-on” impression of the company. Finally, I read a fascinating book titled Force of Nature: The Unlikely Story of Walmart’s Green Revolution by Edward Humes, in which the author chronicles Walmart’s epiphany around green business.
Walmart is now the largest company in the world employing over 1.5 million people across the globe. It has also served as a poster child for anti-corporate critics for a whole variety of reasons, such as its union busting history, the displacement of small businesses when its stores enter communities and its ecological impact from providing inexpensive products, many of which are produced in China.
Just before my trip down to Walmart, I started reading Humes’ book which provides a fascinating study of how Walmart came to catch the “green business” religion. There is little doubt after reading the book that Walmart is making sincere efforts to lessen the company’s impact on the planet, from reducing packaging to leaps in energy efficiency in stores and in its trucking fleet, all the way to greening its supply chain. The book provides important lessons on how big companies change.
For years, I have told people that all change is ultimately personal. Companies don’t change, people do. Sometimes I think people who are religiously “anti-corporate” forget companies, even large multinational ones, are run by real human beings. Humes’ book chronicles numerous stories of individual “ah-ha” moments for Walmart executives, such as when one of the senior executives visited cotton farms in Turkey and saw firsthand the difference between organic and pesticide ravaged farms. These stories reminded me leaders often don’t “get” the impact of their decisions, and when they do see it, the right decisions often come naturally.
This book makes it clear Walmart’s efforts to go “green” were driven mostly by a desire to improve their reputation and the recognition that next generation customers would be more concerned about the company’s eco footprint.
It’s also clear the company’s early efforts - spurred on by Jib Ellison, a lifelong conservationist and river raft guide - were driven by how much they could save on the bottom line by increasing efficiency. The intent was less about saving the world than saving their image (and dollars). But, to this I add a large “so what.”
Publicly traded companies exist to create wealth for shareholders. These companies are not nonprofits. Doing “good” in the world must coexist with making profits. While it is easy to criticize companies like Walmart for having less than pure motives, the truth is if Walmart’s team can save hundreds of millions of dollars while improving their reputation, the lessons they learn will reverberate through their supply chain. Personally I care less about their motives than I do about their results and so should you.
That all brings me to what I learned in my firsthand experience speaking to leaders in the health and wellness business of Walmart. What struck me the most was the genuine pride many of its people had about making prescription drugs and vision care affordable. For example, Walmart packaged a set of the most commonly-used medications in America and sold the generic versions of these meds for a flat $4.00 for a 30-day supply. In many cases this significantly lowered the cost of necessary medicines for seniors and others on limited incomes. As the son of an aging parent on a fixed income, I can tell you firsthand getting prescription drugs at a reasonable cost is no small concern.
What Walmart teaches us is the role large multinationals play in the CSR conversation is inherently complex. Any large company will exhibit these contradictions. Low cost drives certain unsustainable practices, but the largest company in the world getting passionate about “green” is also having a large impact. Drug companies and other suppliers may make less money and small pharmacies may suffer, but people on fixed incomes are able to choose health without financial ruin.
Walmart is no simple story. What Walmart teaches us about CSR is this: Real change is possible, it is always imperfect and inconsistent; and if we want to change the world, we are going to have to talk to each other. One more confession, at Walmart they have a cheer they chant at corporate gatherings. This life-long conservationist and CSR advocate did indeed participate in the Walmart cheer-give me a “W”... give me an “A”....
Photo by Walmart Stores/flickr/Creative Commons
Reprinted with permission from CSRwire