General Mills, Walmart, Target and compassion

compassion-wordThe other day, I went to a daylong meditation retreat about lovingkindness. One of the themes: how to find ways to bring an attitude of loving kindness not just to friends, but to strangers and even to the most difficult people in our lives. My rabbi, Fred Dobb, with whom I ordinarily spend my Saturdays, touches on a similar theme when he talks about widening our circles of compassion, to go beyond family and friends; the edict to  love thy neighbor extends not just to the folks next door but to the needy around the world. I don’t mean to go all Biblical on you here but it is written in Exodus 23:9: “And a stranger shalt thou not oppress; for ye know the heart of a stranger, seeing ye were strangers in the land of Egypt.”

What does this have to do with corporate responsibility, and sustainability, the topics of this blog? A lot, actually, as I realized when a pair of stories that I wrote for Guardian Sustainable Business were published in quick succession this week. Both stories are about big, publicly-traded companies that seek to enhance shareholder value with considerable vigor. But both, at heart, are also about the idea that good companies increasingly take an expansive, as opposed to a constricted view, of their place in the world, and their obligations to the world.

Yesterday, I wrote a story about General Mills’ new climate policy. Here’s how it begins:

Two months after Oxfam launched a campaign urging food and beverage companies to take stronger action to curb climate change, General Mills has promised to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in its agricultural supply chain and to advocate for government climate policy.

General Mills on Monday detailed its new policy on its website, saying: “The imperative is clear: Business, together with governments, NGOs and individuals, needs to act to reduce the human impact on climate change.”

In a news release, Oxfam praised General Mills as “the first major food and beverage company to promise to implement long-term science-based targets to cut emissions from across all of its operations and supply chains that are responsive to the goal of keeping global temperature rise below 2C.

“It’s a major leap,” said Heather Coleman, climate change manager for Oxfam America.

What’s noteworthy about the General Mills’ policy is that it dig deep into the company’s agriculture supply chain, where its environmental impact is greatest, and that it commits the company to be more politically active on climate issues. Put another way, this big food company is taking responsibility for trying to reduce the environmental impact of oats that go into Cheerios. You can read more here.

Today, the Guardian published my story about an unusual collaboration between Walmart and Target that aims to insure that beauty and personal care products are produced more sustainably. Here’s how that story begins:

In an unlikely partnership, rivals Walmart and Target have joined together, working with suppliers “to improve sustainability performance in the personal care and beauty industry”.

Their first event, the day-long Beauty and Personal Care Products Sustainability Summit, will be held on 4 September in Chicago. It’s being organized by Forum for the Future, a UK-based NGO with an outpost in New York.

Up until now, Walmart, the largest US retailer, and Target, the fourth-ranked retailer (according to the National Retail Federation), have taken divergent paths on sustainability. Why are the two companies now joining forces around the sustainability of soap, toothpaste, hair care products, shaving cream and cosmetics?

The story goes on to say:

It may be – and this definitely falls in the category of informed speculation – that Walmart and Target have come to realize that they are not as powerful as they want to be when dealing with big consumer brands and their suppliers in the chemical and fragrance industries.

The secrecy around ingredients in beauty and personal care products, along with the complexity of chemical formulations, creates information asymmetries. The brands and their suppliers know a lot more about product formulations than the buyers at Walmart and Target. They often tell critics that there’s no readily available substitute for a “chemical of concern.” And they are unwilling to share information about whether they are researching or developing safer chemicals.

An industry insider told me: “There’s so much that’s hidden in these supply chains that even Target and Walmart don’t know what goes into everything on their shelves.”

The point is, Walmart and Target are digging deeper than ever before into their supply chains, seeking to understand the chemicals that go into cosmetics or hair care products, or the impact of packaging.

You can see these shifts across the field of corporate responsibility. Look at the apparel and electronics industries which, over time, have agreed, at least in theory,accept responsibility for the working conditions and environmental practices deep in their supply chains, in places like China and Bangladesh.

Are companies becoming more compassionate? I don’t think so, at least not in the since that people can seek to become more caring. But are they recognizing that the long-term health of their business depends upon their reputations as corporate citizens, not to mention the health of the planet or the safety of the products they sell? Yes, they are. It’s a very slow and imperfect process, but it’s real.

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