Walmart, CSR Reporting, and Moral Grey Zones

It’s very hard to report on the good things you’ve done, when not everyone is sure that those things are actually good. Cutting CO2 emissions is pretty unambiguously good, as is working to reduce fire hazards in your suppliers’ factories. But in the realm of corporate responsibility reporting, there’s still lots of room for controversy.

Case in point: I recently had the chance to indulge in a careful reading of Walmart Canada’s 2011 Corporate Social Responsibility Report. Here’s a bit from the document’s intro, by CEO David Cheesewright:

We see this report as a powerful tool for corporate good. Our size gives us considerable influence and with it comes considerable responsibility – a role we embrace in order to help Canadians save money and live better.

Our goal is to present an open look into the impact of our operations in Canada over the past year. This latest report frames our diverse activities into four broad categories of CSR: Environment, People, Ethical Sourcing and Community.

In each area, we highlight our efforts and actions, both large and small – and summarize our current programs and challenges while outlining plans to keep improving in the future….

It’s a very readable 35-page document (more reader-friendly than some others I’ve read, which I think is really crucial if you want people actually to read the thing.)

One of the things that struck me about the Report is that there’s a genuine difficulty in reporting on this sort of stuff in a world replete with grey areas. There’s lots of lovely win-win stuff in the Report. But some of the stuff reported proudly is actually ethically controversial. A trio of examples will illustrate my point.

  • Under the heading of “Community,” Walmart Canada proudly reports that “Walmart Canada thinks locally,” and that the retail giant does a lot to boost the prospects of Canadian businesses, to whom it funnelled just over $15 billion in 2010. This goes some distance toward countering a common criticism. But as I’ve pointed out here before, a focus on “supporting Canadian business” is often a mistake, both economically and ethically.
  • Likewise, the Report indicates that their ‘Standards for Suppliers’ absolutely forbid the use of child labour. But there’s a good argument to be made that in at least some desperate parts of the world, child labour is a sad necessity. An absolute prohibition can make some kids’ lives worse.
  • The Report also brags about its new line of organic baby food, despite the fact that there’s little clear evidence that organic foods are ethically better than other foods. The question is controversial, to say the least.

In all three cases, the company is portraying as ‘socially responsible’ something that, well, might or might not be, depending who you ask. But of course, child labour, healthy foods, and impact on local communities are precisely the sorts of things that critics (and maybe consumers more generally) want to hear about from Walmart. So it’s hard to fault them on doing, and reporting on, those things.

The point here really is not about Walmart Canada, but about the challenges of CSR reporting more generally. If CSR reports stuck to the unambiguously-great stuff, the reports would be vanishingly short and only minimally useful. And that would be a shame. The point of such reporting, I think is not to show that you’re doing everything right. It’s to show us what you’re doing.

2 comments so far

  1. Just a heads up on the organic food comment. Grist recently wrote about one article in Nature that took on the challenge of how to feed the world without ruining it.

    Excerpt from Grist (http://www.grist.org/food/2011-10-31-seven-billion-mouths-to-feed) : “As the study notes, “only 10 percent of the world’s croplands account for 32 percent of the global nitrogen surplus and 40 percent of the phosphorus surplus.” According to Foley and his team:

    … conventional approaches to intensive agriculture, especially the unbridled use of irrigation and fertilizers, have been major causes of environmental degradation. Closing yield gaps without environmental degradation will require new approaches, including reforming conventional agriculture and adopting lessons from organic systems and precision agriculture.

    That’s right, they used the “O” word. In fact, these scientists concluded that if we’re to grow more with fewer resources and a smaller environmental and carbon footprint, we’ll have to look not to high-tech solutions like genetic engineering but rather to:

    agroecological innovations in crop and soil management [which] … show great promise for improving the resource efficiency of agriculture, maintaining the benefits of intensive agriculture while greatly reducing harm to the environment.”

    Thus, I would say that organic is definitely a good thing. It helps to increase your resilience against the peak phospurus that will eventually come.

    But generally, yes, there are always grey zones. That’s why we need to have an ongoing conversation in what direction we should be heading.

    • Chris MacDonald on

      Jonathan:

      Thanks for the link. But this is just one more volley in the back-and-forth debate over organics. And note that the word “organic” only appears once in the article, in a sentence that says only that some “lessons” ought to be adopted from organic ag. This is far from knock-down support. No one group or report can ever do that.

      Chris.


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