January 24, 2008 —
Wal-Mart opened its annual meetings to reporters for the first time yesterday, announcing a variety of measures aimed at repairing its image among American consumers. At the center of the reforms are Wal-Mart's health care plan — which is now used by more than half of its retail employees — and a suddenly vigorous devotion to environmental responsibility. CEO H. Lee Scott promised that Wal-Mart will continue to expand its sales of environmentally responsible products and work with its suppliers to strengthen their environmental standards:
We live in a time when people are losing confidence in the ability of government to solve problems. (Wal-Mart) does not wait for someone else to solve problems.
There's a degree of truth to that. If Wal-Mart is serious about its plans to become one of the leading socially responsible corporations, it could have a tremendous impact across the business world. Just as the company uses its size to leverage almost impossibly low wholesale prices from its suppliers, it could leverage unprecedented environmental and labor standards from them as well. And in the copycat world of global business, it's likely that Wal-Mart's competitors and admirers alike would be moved to make their own improvements.
But in reality Wal-Mart is still a long, long way from being an ethical company. It seems like yesterday that H. Lee Scott and his fellow executives were just as passionate about insisting that there wasn't a problem, as they are today in decrying the dangers of global warming. And Wal-Mart continues to drag its feet on the labor front, causing David Nassar of the Service Employees International Union to take all of this with a grain of salt:
Certainly Wal-Mart has made some progress in a few areas, but the progress thus far is not what we can and should expect from the largest company in the world. In typical Wal-Mart fashion, [Scott] takes credit for 'leading' and then doesn't do it.