Is Walmart No Longer the Bad Guy?

Source: Thinkstock
Source: Thinkstock

Wal-Mart is the kind of behemoth corporation that millions of people love to hate. The company has over 11,000 stores in every state and 27 different countries and employs more people than seven times the entire population of Iceland; its ubiquity and immensity seemingly know no bounds. The company’s size, questionable treatment of employees, and dubious environmental record all contribute to the Wal-Mart ‘haterade’ much of the public has been drinking for years now. Despite all its faults, however, Wal-Mart isn’t going anywhere. According to Daily Finance, one in every four dollars Americans spend on groceries is spent at Wal-Mart, and the Walton family, which owns the company, reportedly possesses more wealth than the bottom 40% of the American population.

The hatred and disapproval so many people feel toward Wal-Mart is justified in many ways. The company (like many other monolithic corporations) is known in particular for being less than benevolent toward its workers. In 2008, for instance, the company agreed to pay as much as $640 million in order to settle more than 60 different lawsuits related to pay violations. Accusations range from allegations of gender and racial discrimination, unfairly low wages, inadequate health care, wrongful termination, poor working conditions, and an unwillingness to hire workers full-time, further exacerbating poverty. Wal-Mart has in the past also been accused of wage theft, union busting, and an over-reliance on foreign-made products. In 2014, the Guardian newspaper even found that the company is a client of Charoen Pokphand Foods, whose supply chain traces back to slave ships operating in Asian waters.

Strangely, though, Wal-Mart has recently taken steps to assuage its critics and assure the general public that is turning over a new leaf. One of the most profound changes is Wal-Mart’s response to a piece of Arkansas legislation that would have condoned discrimination against LGBT individuals. In a statement on the company’s Twitter account, Doug McMillon, Wal-Mart’s chief executive, wrote that the bill’s passage “threatens to undermine the spirit of inclusion present through the state of Arkansas and does not reflect the values we proudly uphold.”

Stranger still, Wal-Mart’s statement is credited as having been an influential factor in Arkansas governor Asa Hutchinson’s decision to ask the state’s lawmakers to amend the legislation, according to the New York Times.

Justin G. Nelson, co-founder of the National Gay & Lesbian Chamber of Commerce, says he was surprised when he heard about the company’s decision to publicly denounce the bill. “They’ve done a complete 180,” said Nelson, in a Times interview. “You have a company that was frankly abysmal on LGBT issues if you go back five years, but now has become an employer that has a nondiscrimination policy that includes sexual orientation and gender identity, that is headquartered in an extremely conservative state,” he added.

Nelson continued, “the fact that they came out and said that this bill cannot discriminate against LGBT people, that’s very powerful to say. I don’t know that there is a stronger corporate voice that could have said that than Wal-Mart. It’s been an evolution. It almost mirrors how America has evolved on those issues.”

Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Some readers might be wondering, what exactly is Wal-Mart’s MO? After all, since when is Wal-Mart, of all companies, an active champion for minorities? Bob Witeck, a consultant who helps companies develop gay-friendly business strategies says that Wal-Mart’s “change of heart” is more likely a move to stay relevant. “They’re really thinking about how they can expand their market share,” Witeck told the New York Times in an interview. “They see diversity inclusion as a business case,” he added.

If Witeck is right, then perhaps Wal-Mart is a kind of reflection of the national sentiment on issues like diversity and fair pay, as Nelson suggests. As these issues have come to the forefront and become more important to Americans across the country, Wal-Mart has responded by telling America what it thinks she wants to hear. In other words, the company is doing what any good business does when the public’s mood changes: it’s adapting.

“As the company moved out of Arkansas, and they wanted to move into New York, coastal California, Chicago, Washington D.C., they’ve realized they’ve got to be savvier,” said Nelson Lichtenstein, a labor historian and director of the Center for the Study of Work, Labor and Democracy at the University of California, Santa Barbara. “Wal-Mart officials see coming out against the bill as a big feather in their cap the next time they go to New York,” he added.

Other advocacy

But the LGBT community isn’t the only demographic Wal-Mart is courting. And, believe it or not, the company’s efforts to be seen as more socially conscious have a longer history than you might think. The company’s first major efforts in the arena of social justice began in the mid-2000s. In 2006, the company became one of the first major corporations to back the renewal of the Voting Rights Act, a landmark piece of legislation first signed into law in 1965, which prevents racial discrimination in voting.

Later, in 2013, the company introduced a new commitment to hiring veterans, the “Veterans Welcome Home Commitment,” which offers a job to any honorably discharged veteran within his or her first 12 months off active duty. According to a Wal-Mart press release from 2013, the company projected it would hire 100,000 veterans within the next five years.

More recently, the company has faced criticism for abruptly shutting down 5 different stores, putting more than 2,000 out of work. And while the company did close the stores on short notice, it also provided both full and part-time workers with two months of paid leave, during which time the former employees were also given the option of applying to transfer to another Wal-Mart location, a move which, sadly, seems uncharacteristically generous. Further, according to CNN Money, full-time workers who “aren’t able to get another job by June 19 may be eligible for severance.”

But employee relations isn’t the only arena where the company has made strides. In 2005 the company began issuing an annual “Global Responsibility Report,” and announced a commitment to slash its emissions by 2010, becoming “one of the most aggressive major corporations out there when it comes to greening both itself and its entire (massive) supply chain,” according to Gawker.

A 2014 Wall Street Journal interview with Wal-Mart chairman Michael Duke reveals that while the company still has a long way to go (the company’s greenhouse gas emissions have actually increased since 2005), it has made some pretty impressive improvements, too. “Since we established the benchmark back about six years ago, in the U.S. Wal-Mart and Sam’s Clubs, 80% of what used to go to the landfill no longer goes to the landfill. It goes to recyclable efforts and to produce good material from what some might call trash,” said Duke, speaking about the company’s zero waste initiative.

Duke later added that while many criticize Wal-Mart’s greening efforts as nothing more than a publicity stunt, for him, and for the company, it’s all about the customers and the employees. “People want to work for a responsible company today. It’s about running a better company. And along the way, we’ve saved millions of dollars.”

It’s true that many of Wal-Mart’s “do-gooder” shenanigans feel very much like tactful PR stunts than true corporate responsibility initiatives. The company’s so-called efforts at social responsibility can often be hard to swallow. Yet whatever Wal-Mart’s motivation, it seems that one thing is clear: Wal-Mart knows the public doesn’t approve of business as usual. That, if nothing else, is a very good thing.
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