COULD WALMART, that category-killing, land-grabbing, union-busting retail behemoth, be growing a social conscience? The corporate colossus declared last week that it will stop selling all e-cigarettes in its US stores, amid concerns of a new generation becoming addicted to nicotine products and an uncertain regulatory environment. This comes on the heels of Walmart’s decision earlier this month to stop selling ammunition that can be used in assault-style weapons, and to discourage its customers from openly carrying guns inside its stores, even in the 40 states where doing that is legal. Walmart is also engaged in an effort to reduce carbon emissions all along it supply chain by one gigaton (one billion tons) by 2030; it joined the “We Are Still In” commitment after the United States pulled out of the Paris climate accords; and last year it diverted 78 percent of its global waste from landfills and incinerators.
Mostly these moves are reactive, coming after shocking events galvanized Walmart employees and customers alike. The ammunition ban followed the mass murder of 22 people inside a Walmart in El Paso. The suspension of e-cigarette sales came after an eighth person died from lung ailments linked to vaping. As for environmental stewardship, former Walmart CEO Lee Scott attributed his wokeness to the birth of his grandchild. “What if we used our size and resources to make this country and this earth an even better place,” he asked employees.
This is not to say Walmart is becoming the next Ben and Jerry’s. The moves are modest given the enormity of the challenges. The company still sells regular cigarettes, for example; it still allows customers in “conceal carry” states to enter stores with their hidden guns; many of its 1.5 million US workers still earn too little to get by without resorting to food stamps or Medicaid. The steps are also strategic, since they help insulate the firm from a public increasingly impatient with corporate excess. So we can only hip-hip for Walmart so much.
Still, Walmart’s sheer size — 275 million weekly customers in 27 countries, $514 billion in revenue, 100,000 suppliers — is massive enough to significantly move the needle. Walmart is not just the only brick-and-mortar seller in many of its markets; it’s also often the only buyer. That gives the company enormous clout over its suppliers’ behavior. The same buying power that forced the Ohio Art Company — maker of the beloved toy Etch a Sketch — to move its manufacturing to China in order to match Walmart’s low price demands can be deployed to pressure clothing suppliers to use recycled polyester fibers in their shirts or renewable energy in their factories. Is it naive to hope all that concentrated corporate power can be unleashed for good?
A culture war on Walmart has raged for 20 years, with riled-up communities defeating the siting of new superstores, filing civil rights complaints, and calling for another boycott seemingly every month. Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont is still agitated, filing an act last year to (catch the acronym) “Stop Welfare for Any Large Monopoly Amassing Revenue from Taxpayers.” But the venom directed at Walmart has abated, in part because there’s a new beast in town: Amazon, which earlier this year overtook Walmart as the world’s largest retailer. At a time when everything short of our DNA is being seized by Amazon in exchange for free shipping, fretting about big box stores underselling mom and pop businesses or luring shoppers to highway malls seems downright quaint.
We are said to be entering a golden age of corporate responsibility, with 200 members of the Business Roundtable (including Walmart), pledging last month to consider the needs not just of shareholders but also workers, customers, and the planet. At a time when Washington seems incapable of the smallest social advance, it’s reasonable to cheer efforts by the business sector to build a better world. But customers are not voters, and no amount of good intentions can override a company’s bottom line. Corporate gestures toward good citizenship should be a supplement to, not a substitute for, broad public investments made by governments that are answerable to us all.
Renée Loth's column appears regularly in the Globe.