Wal-Mart issued a release last week reporting on its own annual meeting, where CEO Lee Scott said that Wal-Mart has benefited in the marketplace from its recent focus on solving social problems.
Five years ago, Wal-Mart was saying, essentially: "If we take care of our customer by giving low, low prices, everything else will take care of itself. So leave us alone." Now, Wal-Mart is saying it’s going to help take care of social problems its customers face; it’s set ambitious goals to help reform U.S. healthcare and achieve environmental sustainability.
A pretty amazing shift, even considering it was inspired by an unbelievable torrent of bad publicity over the last few years, in which the press portrayed Lee Scott as a robber baron and Wal-Mart as a monopoly. Finally the biggest company in the world is acknowledging that it must consider the effect it has on the societies in which it operates.
But big companies are like big drunks: They over-correct, and they sway dangerously. Get a load of this, from the Wal-Mart press release:
also talked about the company’s efforts to help solve some of the toughest challenges facing its customers, such as rising
energy prices and high out-of-pocket health care costs. He said that American voters who will be the focus of the upcoming
elections are Wal-Mart shoppers who are concerned about these very issues.
"We see it in our stores every day—working
men and women living paycheck to paycheck and making more and more difficult decisions," Scott said. "We serve millions of
customers like this every week in the U.S. We understand them."
The company’s chief executive added: "Regardless of
who wins the election in November—and what party they are from—we stand ready to work with the new President and the
next Congress. We believe we can be an effective partner, and leaders who want to get things done will seek Wal-Mart as a
Woah, hold on there big fella. Five years ago you wanted to be left alone with your efficient supply chain. Now you’re publicly stating that the road to social reform runs through Wal-Mart?
Needed in America: Someone with a sober vision of how companies large and small should participate in public policy. How they should help, how much they should help—and when they should step off. Has anybody ever seen such a vision articulated? I’d like to see it if you have.
I will be interested to see if anyone offers any such visions. I would imagine that if they do exist: a) they would be both industry- and region-specific to the organization’s customers and business partners, and b) proprietary and not for public presentation.
From a purely personal perspective however, I do not believe it is necessarily required or appropriate for private businesses to, in your words “…participate in public policy.”
Please do not misunderstand me, I absolutely DO believe that organizations should participate in, and support the communities in which they do business, through charitable support activities and socially responsible corporate behaviour.
But “public policy” for me is largely the purview of government, and government-related bodies. The primary responsibility of a private business, in contrast, is to continue to generate revenue through whatever product or service they deliver, and contribute to the economy as a result through employment, paying taxes, etc.
Just my two-cents worth.
David Murray says
Kristen, I’m inclined to agree with the principle that corporations have no business setting public policy. Except, through their influence on government, they’ve BEEN setting public policy all this time–tax policy, regulatory policy, transportation policy, energy policy, labor policy, you name it.
So it’s interesting and somewhat novel (at least it seems so to me) to have a corporation standing up and saying it looks forward to working with the next President to help determine the course of the nation.
If such a declaration makes us queasy, we should know that we were ignorant not to have been queasy all along.
David – Agreed to both your additional points.
I have been, and remain, queasy on this… ESPECIALLY because, in this case anyway, it’s Wal-Mart (you know my feelings on them) setting themselves up – publicly and openly – as policy-makers of what’s good for the American people as a whole.
To me, this is sorta like Enron setting themselves up to be arbiters of solid financial oversight guidelines.
Public policy-making is a dicey enough business when publicly elected officials are making it. Throw in a bunch of people who are mainly beholden to SHARE-HOLDERS (yeesh! I shudder just THINKING about it!) and we got us very scary proposition.
Unfortunately, given Wal-Mart’s financial wherewithal, I won’t be surprised if they are able to do exactly what they’re saying they want to.
David Murray says
The question is, why do you and I appear to be the only people in the world discussing this development with any amount of urgency, Kristen my dear?
Jane Greer says
“The company’s chief executive added: ‘Regardless of who wins the election in November—and what party they are from—we stand ready to work with the new President and the next Congress. We believe we can be an effective partner, and leaders who want to get things done will seek Wal-Mart as a partner.’ ”
David, why did you even dignify this statement with a post? I’m not a Wal-Mart hater, but this statement is pure hype, pure wishfulness. They’ve simply caught the election-season disease of saying ridiculous things in strong language.
David Murray says
I don’t think they think it’s ridiculous, Jane. I think they’ve appointed themselves an American political leader. I’ve been watching Wal-Mart bob and weave, ebb and flow, thrust and parry for almost 10 years now and this latest Leave the Problems to Us stance is one of the most interesting—and at least as defensible as any of the others.
I’ve been queasy all along. Now I think it’s going to come out . . .