The two most influential companies in America, I'd argue, are GE and Wal-Mart. GE has clout because of the respect accorded its managers, even after a tough run under Jeff Immelt. Wal-Mart matters because of its scale, meaning that most everyone in the consumer products business wants to do business with Wal-Mart. Both have wrestled seriously the idea of sustainability in the last few years. I never tire of writing about either company.
You'll get lots of arguments about Wal-Mart, but I think the company has changed dramatically for the better under Lee Scott, who announced last month that he is stepping down as CEO. The company engaged with its critics, took a systematic look at its environmental impact and began an ambitious and far-reaching effort to become more sustainable. Its impact is felt in unexpected places. Did you know, for example, that Wal-Mart has taken on the repressive government of Uzbekhistan over the issue of child labor? I've taken an anecdotal look at a few of Wal-Mart's initiatives in today's Sustainability column.
Here's how the column begins:
Children who are forced to pick cotton in Uzbekistan, farmers scratching out a living in Guatemala and salmon fishermen in Bristol Bay, Alaska, would not seem to have much in common. But all are feeling the global impact of Wal-Mart.
As the world's largest retailer, with $379 billion in revenues last year, Wal-Mart has long been a powerful force in the global economy -- a bully, its critics would say. For years, they assailed Wal-Mart for squeezing suppliers over costs, driving mom-and-pop stores out of business or crushing efforts to organize its workers.
These days, though, the company is winning praise for using its leverage -- that's a polite term for bullying -- to protect the environment and help the poor.
The more people I meet who work Wal-Mart, and the more I talk with the company's critics and partners, whether from environmental NGOS or socially-responsible investment funds–and their role as agents of change is vital–the more I am convinced that Wal-Mart is thinking expansively and creatively about its responsibility.
You can read the rest of the column here.