No More Evil Empire? How Walmart’s Been Quietly Crafting a More Socially Responsible Image

For over a decade, Walmart has used the tagline “Live better.” And over the past few years the big-box giant appears to be taking marked steps to help more of its consumers and employees do just that. 

Walmart’s corporate social responsibility initiatives have “accelerated” since CEO Doug McMillon took the reins in 2014, explained Tim Campbell, director at Kantar. 

“Walmart was viewed as the evil empire and that’s how they were perceived in the media, and they wanted to reverse that,” said Campbell. “They’ve launched a number of initiatives with increasing frequency.”

A few examples of these changes include revised its firearms policies, a move that followed several mass shootings in the the country, including one in a Walmart in El Paso, Texas. The chain — which has been no stranger to accusations around “corporate greed” — has also rolled out initiatives to benefits its employees, including introducing a higher minimum wage and perks aimed at boosting recruitment and retention for its workforce as national unemployment hovers around a 50-year low.

In recent years, Walmart has been “fairly consistent in upping [its] philanthropic efforts,” said Jono Bacon, consultant and author of “People Powered: How communities can supercharge your business, brand, and teams.”

“I believe all of this matches a current trend in overall corporate responsibility,” Bacon told FN. “I suspect one driving element of this is not just the welcome increase in focus on social responsibility more broadly in the industry, but also younger generations are requiring that their employees play a more active role in social responsibility.”

Below, FN rounds up five steps Walmart has recently taken to boost its corporate social responsibility.

Gun Control

After the August 2019 shooting at a Walmart in El Paso, Texas that left 22 dead and 24 injured, the retailer not only formalized a policy asking consumers not to bring guns into its stores but also limited its sales of firearms and ammunition. Additionally, McMillon has called on legislators to pass laws requiring stricter background checks for gun purchasers.

“We encourage our nation’s leaders to move forward and strengthen background checks and to remove weapons from those who have been determined to pose an imminent danger,” McMillon said in a September 2019 statement. “As we’ve seen before, these horrific events occur and then the spotlight fades. We should not allow that to happen. Congress and the administration should act.”

Walmart earned an A grade in December from Business Must Act, a nonprofit coalition that in late 2019 scored top retailers on their gun control and reform efforts.

Walmart honored the victims of the El Paso shooting with its 2020 Super Bowl commercial on Sunday, Feb. 2, releasing a Spanish language commercial featuring a shot of the city’s skyline.

Improved Employee Benefits

Last month, Walmart began offering low-cost gym memberships to its 1.5 million full-time and part-time associates and their families. With the Walton Life Fitness Pass, which costs as little as $9 per paycheck, members can visit as many as 9,000 facilities across the 50 states.

“We’re committed to providing Walmart associates and their families access to high-quality medical coverage along with tools and resources to manage their health and well-being,” said Walmart SVP, U.S. benefits, Adam Stavisky. “[This] is just another example of how we’re working to help our associates and their families live better.”

This latest initiative dovetails with previous efforts by Walmart, which improved its minimum wage to $11 per hour in 2018 and has been testing higher wages at 500 locations, with $12 hourly for team associates and $18 per hour for team leaders. Additionally in the same year, the chain started to help workers pay for affordable college degrees in business or supply-chain management programs.

“There’s a lot of pressure to make these service jobs, these retail jobs more appealing,” Campbell noted, explaining that such initiatives could lead to happier employees, thus improving recruitment and retention efforts.

Going Green

In 2017, Walmart announced Project Gigaton, an ongoing effort with the aim of avoiding one billion metric tons (a gigaton) of greenhouse gases across its global value chain by 2030. Hundreds of the firm’s suppliers have committed to reducing their carbon output as part of the initiative.

In April 2019, Walmart teamed up with international bank HSBC to launch a new project wherein its suppliers can receive improved financing rates if they show progress under either Project Gigatron or on Walmart’s sustainability index. While Campbell says these sustainability initiatives are “something people probably wouldn’t have thought Walmart would do 10 years ago,” he also noted that Walmart is “not fully bearing the brunt of the cost.”

“They can leverage their scale somewhat to spread the cost across their suppliers,” he explained.

Wellness Efforts

Since 2014, Walmart has been offering customers free health screenings during its Walmart Wellness Days, held once each quarter. In addition to the cost-free screenings, consumers can chat with health care professionals, view wellness demos and receive giveaways. Walmart also offers low-cost flu shots and immunizations as part of the initiative. The most recent Walmart Wellness Day was held on Jan. 11.

Additionally, to combat the coronavirus, which originated in the central China city of Wuhan, in January Walmart donated 1 million Chinese yuan (around $143,400) to provide medical supplies and increased support in the most impacted region of China, Hubei. The company said it’s also enhancing health and hygiene practices across its operations in China.

Philanthropic Efforts

Walmart has donated over $1 billion dollars, in cash and in-kind donations, annually in conjunction with its Walmart Foundation.

Most recently, late January, the company announced a $5 million donation to the Smithsonian Institute’s National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) in Washington, D.C. The grant will go toward the museum’s visitor services programs and corporate leadership council, as well as collections and acquisitions, scholarship and research, education and public programs, exhibitions and emerging technologies.

In total, Walmart has now donated $10 million to NMAAHC; this includes an initial $5 million grant in 2010 to assist with the building and design of the museum. The retailer says the funding demonstrates its “continued commitment to advance causes that promote diversity and inclusion.”

Bacon said the donation “could be cynically evaluated as an effort merely designed for headlines,” but argues it “actually maps to a general effort in the company to be more socially responsible.”

“Could they do more? Sure, but most companies could,” he concluded.

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