Lessons from Walmart on corporate social responsibility

Walmart has taken some huge steps over the last few years to position itself as a socially responsible corporation, and recent stories suggest how difficult it can be to choose a virtuous path.

We know that Walmart was part of an effort to address the horrible tragedies in the garment factories of Bangladesh. The company hired a firm to audit the conditions at its supplier factories, and it recently posted on its website the reports on 75 different factories.  That’s a remarkable act of transparency that puts some weight behind the company’s commitment to changing conditions in the garment factories. Women’s Wear Daily described the action as the first among retailers in the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety.

Countering that positive note, however were the claims from a European consortium of clothing companies that the Alliance was not doing enough because it was simply offering loans to make factory improvements while European firms were making outright grants. The Europeans called it essentially a case of the Walmart and other American companies riding on their coat-tails. Here’s The New York Times coverage.

The situation suggests why it’s so difficult for many corporate leaders to launch and maintain socially responsible initiatives. You try to do the right thing to get a controversy behind you, and it only raises expectations. The discussion doesn’t end, it merely changes focus. The lesson here is that the reasons for corporate social responsibility have to go deeper than scoring PR points. The scrutiny doesn’t stop when you announce a plan to “do right,” it only intensifies.

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