Walmart, CSR reporting, and moral grey zones

There’s a lot of happy talk in CSR reporting, but that may be missing the point.

Chris MacDonald 0

It’s very hard to report on the good things you’ve done, when not everyone is sure 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….

(On a side note, it’s a very readable 35-page documentmore 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 document 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 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 the company’s ‘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 for 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.

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