Is Walmart The Most AND Least Responsible Company?


Flickr: mjb84

The debate over Walmart seems as long as a superstore aisle: are they good and green, or just good at greenwashing and papering over a dubious record?

The American public can't quite make up its mind either: according to a recent survey by BBMG, Walmart tops the list of the most socially and environmentally responsible companies in the nation.

But it's also, say Americans, the least socially and environmentally responsible company in the nation. What's going on here?That is, is Walmart going good, through serious efforts like its ground-breaking sustainability index and its renewable energy push, or just getting better at looking good?

Most likely, it's a mix of both. Raphael Bemporad and Mitch Baranowski, the authors of the Conscious Consumer report, write about the "Walmart paradox" at triplepundit:

For fans of the global retailer, the finding underscores all that Walmart has done to become a leader in sustainability, including the recent news that it plans to launch a comprehensive sustainability index for its 60,000 vendors. But for many critics, it signals that Walmart’s PR machine might be doing its job, getting the word out about positive developments while skirting larger, more complex issues such as its big-box carbon footprint or worker issues like sustainable wages and the right to air grievances.

The Public Is Confused
As companies and consumers treat sustainability and CSR more seriously and become more informed, the demand for good practices both in and outside of companies has grown stronger. But during this growth period, corporations have struggled to match their message with their actions. And the public's ability to measure a company's credibility seems mired in persistent skepticism and a lack of understanding.

Consider these two sets of data from the report:

According to the report, 2 out of every 3 Americans (67%) agree it’s important to buy products with social and environmental benefits and over half (51%) agree that they’re willing to pay more for products with social and environmental benefits.

However, almost 1 out of every 4 consumers (23%) also say they have "no way of knowing" if a product is green or actually does what it claims... This suggests a lack of confidence or efficacy in green marketing, something that Joel Makower also points out over at GreenBiz. BBMG calls this the "green trust gap." There is a disconnect between the desire for green, sustainable, or otherwise socially responsible products and skepticism about the validity or authenticity of those types of claims.

Walmart's critics may find it increasingly harder to hate the company, recognizing the bold steps it's taking, but the general public continues to scratch its head over Walmart's reputation, which is saddled by historically unsavory practices.

But if part of Walmart's motive behind its CSR efforts is to build a better image, will the public's confusion serve to weaken that motive for Walmart and other big companies? Is the lesson executives will draw to truly be a better company, or to get better publicity?

Or, as CSR researcher Sherie Winston asks at CSIC Blog, "Is it enough to be recognized by industry peers and experts if the public doesn’t know about your good works? Or, if the public thinks you are socially responsible, is it time to boost your industry standing? What is the true goal of CSR: making a difference with your employees and in the community or being perceived as making a difference?"

Linking Message With Action
It will need to be a mixture of the two: better CSR efforts matched with demonstration of impact and outcomes.

The results underscore the idea that, even if their efforts are sincere and powerful, Walmart and other values-focused companies will need to rely on transparency and independent verification to validate their green claims and show they aren't just talking the talk.

By the same token, the survey also highlights the need for better communication of CSR initiatives -- ie, more talking the talk while walking the walk -- say the authors of the report.

Unifying action and image-making on the sustainability front, especially for a company as powerful as Walmart, could be a force multiplier. Stronger initiatives and better branding could more quickly transform "sustainability" from a buzz word or a way of placating parochial interests into a standard way of being for all companies.

CSR, writes TriplePundit,

is quickly moving beyond company-centered monologue and well-intentioned education to meaningful 360-degree dialogue, engagement and empowerment. It is looking beyond efficiency gains to ask more challenging questions around socioeconomic justice and corporate governance.

Or Could Walmart Actually Be The Most and Least Responsible Company?
But perhaps the respondents are onto something else: maybe Walmart, by dint of its sheer scale, is both the most and least responsible company.

Wal-Mart's carbon footprint is enormous, and its labor policies leave much to be desired. But the company is clearly making huge strides to reduce its impact on the earth from what it might otherwise be.

But this non-paradoxical paradox begs the question: amidst the high expectations for -- and sizable carbon footprints of -- big companies like Walmart, what do we mean when we talk about a "green business"?

More Walmart on TreeHugger
Wal-Mart's Sustainability Index: The Greenest Thing Ever to Happen to Retail?
Wal-Mart Now US' Largest Buyer Of Locally Grown Produce
Monsanto Dumping Bovine Growth Hormone
Is It Getting Harder to Hate Wal-Mart?
Wal-Mart's Sustainability Index: The Greenest Thing Ever to Happen to Retail?
Wal-Mart Reports Its Global Carbon Emissions in 2009 Sustainability Report

Is Walmart The Most AND Least Responsible Company?
The debate over Walmart seems as long as a superstore aisle: are they good and green, or just good at greenwashing and papering over a dubious record?

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