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Save (the world) at Walmart

21 October, 2022

Last weekend’s FT piece, ‘How Walmart convinced critics it can sell more stuff and save the world’, showed not only how far Walmart has come, but also how far the FT has come in being able to present a more nuanced narrative to the role of business in driving societal and environmental change.  

As the article recounts, Walmart was for many years a business focused solely on price, claiming the reason it was screwing its suppliers and not paying its employees enough was because its only stakeholder was its customers. And over time, its business practices made it a poster villain for American capitalism.  

Fast forward to today we see a very different story. Then CEO Lee Scott had a Damascus moment in 2005 following Hurricane Katrina, which opened his eyes to the role of business to deliver societal and environmental change. He brought a new vision to the company, which has been turbocharged by the current CEO, Doug McMillon. From its Project Gigton to remove 1bn tonnes of GHGs from its supply chain by 2030 to its 200 training academies to teach new retail skills to its 2.3m employees. The numbers and impact are big – not least because by revenue last year, it was the largest company in the world generating $572bn, with a workforce of 2.3m people.  

This shift has also led to a different type of person being attracted to work at Walmart – scholars and leaders who envisaged working in development, aid or government have instead ended up at Walmart – convinced it offers them the best chance to create change at scale. This is a sentiment with which we’d very much concur – we’ve always seen business as one of the greatest engines of positive action there is. And as businesses are the product of the people within them, this new cohort at Walmart gives us hope for the future.  

This is important – as there is still work to do. As the FT article points out (and something we talk about a lot), progress needs to happen across the board, particularly on core issues like pay. Without paying your employees enough so they don’t have to rely upon state handouts (progress has been made, but no other US company employs more people who are on some sort of federal assistance), Walmart’s progress in other areas may never have the cut through it deserves.  

By David Lourie

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