Wednesday, June 7, 2017
In 2016, a number of news outlets focused on Wal-Mart’s reputation crisis and outdated management style. Many, including union leaders, doubted the sincerity behind the company’s motivation in raising wages last year. I’ve blogged about Wal-Mart before, but today, there appears to be a different story to tell. Wal-Mart, the bogeyman of many NGOs and workers’ rights groups, actually believes that “serving the customers and society is the same thing… [and] putting the customer first means delivering for them in ways that protect and preserve the communities they live in and the world they will pass on to future generations.” This comes from the company’s 148-page 2016 Global Responsibility Report. Target’s report is a paltry 43 pages in comparison.
What accounts for the difference? Both use the Global Reporting Initiative framework, which aims to standardize sustainability reporting using materiality factors and items in the 10-K. Key GRI disclosures include: a CEO statement; key impacts, risks, and opportunities; markets; collective bargaining agreements; supply chain description; organizational changes; internal and external CSR standards (such as conflict mineral policy, LEED etc); membership associations; governance structure; high-level accountability for sustainability; consultation between stakeholders and the board; board composition; board knowledge of sustainability; board pay; helplines or hotlines for reporting unethical or unlawful behavior; climate change risks; energy consumption; GhG emissions; employee benefits; health and safety; performance appraisal process; human rights assessments; wage and hour audits; supplier diversity; community engagement; PAC contributions by party; and more.
Whew! Companies can of course glean a lot of this information from their proxy, 10-K and other disclosures, but it still takes the average company months to complete. It may not even be worth it. Although 82% of consumers say they want to buy from a socially-responsible company, only 17% have actually read a CSR report, according to one study. To be honest, I’m surprised the number of CSR report readers is that high. My informal survey during Monday's class revealed that one student out of the 12 had read a CSR report, and this is in a group that chose to take a two-hour course in compliance and CSR that meets at 7:30 pm in the summer.
Here’s what I learned about Wal-Mart by reading the first four pages its report (it cleverly has big colorful picture blocks of statistics). I knew from press reports that Wal-Mart is currently facing numerous employment law class actions and may soon pay $300 million to the DOJ settle its bribery scandal. But the CSR report made Wal-Mart look like the model corporate citizen. The company earned 482 billion in revenue, employs 2.3 million employees, operates in 28 countries, and had 260 million weekly customer visits in 2016. It has invested 2.7 billion over 2 years in wages and benefits for its employees. It will train 1 million female farmers and factory workers around the world. It has eliminated 35.6 million metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions from its supply chain. Target, which has settled for 18.5 million with several states over data breaches, took a different approach for its report. Its first few pages has pictures and charts too but focuses on what it has achieved/exceeded and what it hasn’t based on its own 20 goals. The Target 2015 report is a decidedly more humble looking document than the Wal-Mart product (the next Target report is due this year).
I tend to believe that these CSR reports are designed for the consumption of regulators and lawmakers- hence the longer and more robust Wal-Mart report. Although Target claims in its report that CSR can enhance its reputation, the average Wal-Mart and Target consumer will not stop to read the report and many who boycott these stores will not likely change their minds be reading these reports. Instead, they may view them as an expensive marketing tool. Although Target doesn't face the same level of legal problems or reputational issues as Wal-Mart, it has still lost market share to Wal-Mart and Amazon, proving my theory that no matter what consumers say about shopping ethically, they really focus on convenience, quality, and price.
I look forward to hearing what my students think at tonight’s class. I fear I may already traumatize them with the videos they will see about Nike, fair trade, and whether boycotting sweatshops make sense.