Stakeholders Archives

May 1, 2012

Walmart's Shades of Gray

Many people love to attack Walmart — as the world's largest company it's an easy target. And although the retail giant's green efforts have done a lot to showcase the company's commitment to sustainability, sometimes Walmart gives its critics some legitimate ammo, like the recent revelations and allegations of corruption in its Mexican operations.

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As the New York Times recently reported, in the early 2000s, when Walmart de Mexico was building stores at a furious pace (making the country the company's second largest market), it was making illegal payments to get building permits and speed store expansion. The growth miracle was, it turns out, not so miraculous.

Of course this is not a good thing in and of itself. But where the story gets really troubling, if the accusations are true, is in how the company handled the matter. After its internal, FBI-trained watchdog group investigated the allegations — and made waves — the case was given back to the chief lawyer for the Mexican operations. This was, as the Times put it, "a remarkable choice since the same general counsel was alleged to have authorized bribes." It sure looks like something not flattering, and possibly illegal, was swept under the rug.

So what do the recent allegations mean for Walmart's sustainability efforts? On the one hand, nothing. In fact, the same week this story surfaced, the company released its 2012 Global Responsibility Report, an interesting juxtaposition to say the least. I've long been a fan and chronicler of the company's green efforts (full disclosure: I've spoken at multiple Walmart events, including a sustainability summit held by Walmart Mexico in 2010), and this report did not disappoint on that front.

Walmart listed some impressive accomplishments, from diverting 80% of waste from landfills, to doubling the amount of local food sold, to generating over 1 billion kilowatt-hours of renewable energy onsite (the second most of any corporation in the U.S.). These achievements, along with a 5-year record of pushing the sustainability agenda harder than almost any company, are real and demonstrate leadership in responsible business.

So here's the rub with sustainability, corporate social responsibility, ethics, and anything else that's generally (if sometimes awkwardly) thrown together into the vast bucket of "good stuff": The measurable and legitimately good things a company does will not make up for what it does wrong. But nor will the bad cancel out the good — the good things are no less legitimate just because the company does some things its leaders should be ashamed of. The good practices are worth emulating regardless of the larger context.

The significant challenge of how to view, judge, and learn from the actions of a complex, messy thing called a "company" is nothing new. If an oil and gas company wages a multi-decade campaign to muddy climate science, but also funds next generation low-carbon fuels research and operates incredibly efficiently, is that original campaign any less immoral? Should other companies avoid the cost-saving, innovative, best practices of the bad actor? Of course not. When it comes to what we can learn or gain from a company's profitable and sustainable initiatives, the bad things don't really come to bear.

But when thinking about a company as a whole and that vague thing called a "brand," it's a different story — everything is related. Key stakeholders, such as customers, consumers, employees, and even the investors and markets, judge the value and values of a company and then decide if they want to interact with it. That judgment so far is pretty clear in this case. Even though one can never have too much faith in short-term market reactions, this one was serious: Walmart's stock dropped 5% when the story broke and, as of this writing, is down 8%, or $16 billion in market cap (while the Dow was flat).

I'm frankly surprised investors care — there's historically, and unfortunately, little downside for companies that engage in this kind of corruption in developing countries. But the immediate market reaction here is fascinating. It says to me that there's some recognition of real risk to the company in these practices: that the hit to the brand matters, or that people may not want to work for or buy from a company they can't trust.

There's some understanding that a company's value in the market is connected to its values (of which sustainability efforts can be a good indication). Just as it's not sustainable to over-consume natural resources, it's not sustainable to alienate key stakeholders through ethical lapses.

The totality of a company's actions does matter. We should demand consistent, ethical behavior and a real commitment to doing what's good for people, planet, and profit, which includes not compromising on ethics. We can expect more from companies we buy from and work with and for, especially the very large ones that show such promise and leadership.

(This post first appeared at Harvard Business Online.)

(Sign up for Andrew Winston's blog, via RSS feed, or by email. Follow Andrew on Twitter@GreenAdvantage)

September 9, 2012

Politicians Who Deny Climate Change Cannot Be "Pro-Business"

It finally seems to be dawning on many Americans that there's something to this climate change thing. The historic drought has been hard to ignore. While belief in a long-term trend because it's hot out right now is a bit ridiculous, it's a start.

You can see a shift in how the media covers weather. The statement "because of climate change..." is often stated clearly without caveats such as, "what some scientists think may be a warming planet." You see it in the UN calling for action to help the hungry cope with rising food prices "in an age of increasing population, demand and climate change."

And you see it in the growing number of mega-corporations — including America's Alcoa, Coca-Cola, Cisco, HP, J&J, Nike, and P&G — signing on to the "2 Degree Challenge Communiqué," a call for the world's governments to take strong action to slow greenhouse gas emissions.

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Climate change is basically accepted as fact the world over. But you wouldn't know it watching our political conventions (or at least one of them). So while the world seems to be waking up to a fundamental, existential threat to our species (and not to "the planet," which will be fine with or without us), the US policy debate remains mostly deaf, dumb, and blind.

Climate change has become a political "third rail," harder to talk about than changing Social Security or Medicare. We didn't hear any mention of it at the GOP convention, except as a punchline, and we didn't hear much at the DNC convention...except for one quick, but important, remark from President Obama. Former President Clinton mentioned energy efficiency and Vice President Biden said the words "clean energy" once. But then President Obama, after duly noting the chance to create more natural gas jobs, spoke about building wind turbines and reducing dependence on foreign oil. Finally, he stepped firmly on the third rail: "Climate change is not a hoax. More droughts and floods and wildfires are not a joke; they are a threat to our children's future."

This is great, but let's not get too excited. One line does not a policy make.

Still, Obama's admission that climate change is real (a low bar for showing leadership these days) is light years from Governor Romney's dismissive attitude. His convention speech mocked President Obama for his earlier promise to "begin to slow the rise of the oceans." Romney offered instead to "help you and your family" — as if the health and state of our entire planet has nothing to do with the health of our families.

Here's what makes the general silence on climate and the mocking from the self-identified pro-business party so absurd: tackling climate change is the smartest thing we can do for both our public health and our private sector. Reducing carbon emissions from our power plants, cars, and factories cleans the air and saves a lot of money. At the macro level, the burning of coal alone costs the U.S. about $350 billion per year in health (asthma, heart attacks, and so on) and pollution costs. At the micro level, from companies down to households, the opportunities to get lean and save money are vast.

But more strategically, tackling carbon is an immense economic opportunity. Here's billionaire and entrepreneur Richard Branson on the upside potential:

"I've described increasing levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere as one of the greatest threats to the ongoing prosperity and sustainability of life on the planet. The good news is that creating businesses that will power our growth, and reduce our carbon output while protecting resources, is also the greatest wealth-generating opportunity of our generation. [There is no] choice between growth and reducing our carbon output."

This quest will drive innovation and create millions of jobs for some lucky companies and countries. Is this multi-trillion-dollar opportunity something we really want to miss out on? The other major economies are not sitting this one out. Germany is quickly moving its electric grid to renewables. China is committing hundreds of billions of dollars to energy efficiency and much more to the clean economy in general.

But let's say you don't buy the argument that fighting climate change keeps us competitive globally, saves trillions of dollars, and generates new wealth. Then how about the overwhelming national security rationale? Using less oil, for example, reduces funding to petro-dictators around the world. The former head of the CIA, James Woolsey, puts is very bluntly: "Your gas money funds terrorism."

On this score the difference between the parties is stark. The DNC's platform includes the words "climate change" at least 18 times and lists it as an "Emerging Threat" along with cybersecurity, biological weapons, and transnational crime. While "emerging" may not be the word I'd choose, it's leaps and bounds beyond the GOP' s party platform, which mentions climate change just once...and again, only to mock it. Their platform complains that the Obama administration has elevated "climate change" (with the sarcastic quotation marks) to the level of a severe threat to our security.

But let's be clear: it's not the Democrats or even President Obama specifically that declared climate change a national security threat. That would be the Pentagon in its Quadrennial Defense Reviewtwo years ago.

A strong plan to tackle climate change through government policy, business innovation, and citizen action is not just something that's not optional; it's preferable. Moving away from carbon to a cleaner economy makes us healthier, more profitable, and more secure.

My work is not political — I try to help companies create business value from sustainability and green thinking, so I normally avoid these kinds of discussions. But the discrepancy in party positions on this most critical issue has become too extreme to ignore.

There's blame on both sides, but let's not pretend the two parties neglect climate change equally. Yes, it's a shame that most Democrats will not stand up and proudly stand behind many of the positions in their own platform. But the GOP's denial of climate science, and all the risks and opportunities it presents, is surreal.

Their views and policies on climate won't help our businesses deal with, and profit from, the largest market shift we've ever seen. And they won't help prepare our country for the hard realities of life in the 21st century.

(This post first appeared at Harvard Business Online and on Bloomberg - see the active commentary on either.)

(Sign up for Andrew Winston's blog, via RSS feed, or by email. Follow Andrew on Twitter@GreenAdvantage)