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.

Big business loves marriage equality

A tweet from Gap Inc after the Supreme Court overturned DOMA

A tweet from Gap Inc after the Supreme Court overturned DOMA

At Target’s annual shareholder meeting in 2011, Gregg Steinhafel, the company’s chief executive, was asked whether Target would take a stand on a constitutional amendment being proposed in Minnesota to ban gay marriage.

His reply:

“Our position at this particular time is that we are going to be neutral on that particular issue, as we would be on other social issues that have polarizing points of view.”

You can almost feel him squirming, can’t you?

Steinhafel ducked the issue of gay-marriage even thought Target has a reputation as a gay-friendly employer. The company gets a top score of 100 percent and the distinction of “Best Places to Work for LGBT Equality” in the Human Rights Campaign’s Corporate Equality Index. This was a time when most companies ran away from the gay-marriage debate, figuring that no matter what they said, they’d annoy someone.

That has changed, dramatically, in just a couple of years, as I wrote a story posted yesterday at Guardian Sustainable Business:

Last year, when the supreme court pondered the fate of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), which barred same-sex couples from receiving federal marriage benefits, a friend-of-the-court brief urging the repeal of Doma was signed by nearly 300 employers, including such big brands as Apple, CBS, Citigroup, eBay, Facebook, Google, Marriott, Mars, Nike, Starbucks and Walt Disney. Goldman Sachs flew an equality flag outside its downtown New York headquarters when the court overturned DOMA.

Now, as the battleground shifts backs to the states, businesses have allied themselves with supporters of gay marriage in Oregon and Indiana. In Oregon, a liberal-leaning state, you might expect a youth-oriented company like Nike to back marriage equality, and it has – with a $280,000 donation to the cause. The Portland Trail Blazers, meantime, became the first NBA team to back gay marriage.

More surprising is the role of two big companies in Indiana, a Republican stronghold. Cummins, the world’s largest manufacturer of diesel engines, and Eli Lilly, the big US maker of insulin products, each gave $100,000 to Freedom Indiana, a coalition of businesses, community groups and faith leaders trying to keep a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage off the ballot this fall.

What’s more, as I go on to write, the executives at Cummins and Eli Lilly were very direct in their support of marriage equality. They said it was good for business and good for Indiana, and that the state does not need a divisive and emotional debate over gay marriage. You can read the rest of the story here.

I’ve followed the debate over LGBT equality in the corporate world since 2006 when I wrote a long story for Fortune headlined Queer Inc. In light of the fact that we are either stuck or moving backwards on some other important issues — climate change and economic mobility, to name just two — it’s heartening to see the progress being made by people who are working for gay, lesbian, bisexual and trans* equal rights.

By the way, Minnesotans eventually enacted legislation supporting marriage equality. It was signed into law by Gov. Mark Dayton, the great-grandson of George Dayton, the founder of Dayton’s – the department store that later became Target.

Walmart and Target, chemical cops

toxic-beauty1

Health care activists say some cosmetics made by Revlon contain cancer-causing chemicals

Cops of the global village.

That was the headline on a FORTUNE story about globalization that I wrote in 2005. I didn’t care for the headline, but it reflected one of the arguments in the story–that as US companies build global supply chains, they are exporting western health, safety and environmental standards to the global south. Governments in places like Bangladesh, India and China were doing a poor job of protecting the health, safety and human rights of  workers in garment, toy and electronics factories, so US and European brands stepped in. Companies were, in fact, acting like cops–writing laws (they called them codes of conduct) and inspecting factories to make sure they were obeyed. This system, well-intentioned as it was, has not worked very well, as we learned this year with the garment-factory disasters in Bangladesh.

Now something similar is happening right here in the US of A. Walmart and Target, the nation’s biggest and third-biggest retailer (Kroger is No. 2) have adopted policies to regulate so-called “chemicals of concern,” a term used to describe chemicals that are legal despite questions about their impact on human health. This week, Guardian Sustainable Business is running four stories that look at how and why retailers turn into regulators–an introduction by me, stories about Walmart and Target by freelance writer Bill Lascher and a contribution from John Replogle, the CEO of Seventh Generation, which calls “itself the nation’s leading brand of household and personal care products that help protect human health and the environment.”

This is, to put it mildly, a big subject, and so I won’t attempt to summarize our coverage. To give you a sense of the complexity, here is how my story begins:

Last fall, Revlon took fire from activists who alleged that the company’s cosmetics contain toxic chemicals. “Women shouldn’t have to worry about cancer when they apply their makeup,” said Shaunna Thomas of UltraViolet, a women’s group that joined forces with the Breast Cancer Fund and the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics to go after Revlon. “It’s deceptive to wrap yourself in pink and have these chemicals in your products.”

Revlon’s general counsel, Lauren Goldberg, shot back an indignant cease-and-desist letter, calling the charges “false and defamatory” and demanding a retraction. “Revlon has long been … at the forefront of the fight against cancer,” she wrote.

So which is it? Should women throw away their Revlon eyeliner, mascara and lip gloss? Or should they feel good about supporting a company that cares?

In a perfect world, the government would rely on sound science to regulate chemicals in personal and home care products, and consumers could safely assume that there’s no need to worry about the things they buy. No one would ever have to know about chemicals with odd-sounding names like phthalates1,4-dioxane, or triclosan – one of the chemicals that, just this week, the FDA stated it would require soap manufacturers to prove safe.

But in the real world, science can be messy and inconclusive; government regulators can be overwhelmed, indifferent or restricted by industry concerns; nonprofit groups can resort to scare tactics to attract attention or money; and manufacturers can be ignorant, careless or worse about the chemicals they put into their products. As a result of all of this, many everyday items – eyeliner and nail polish, baby bottles, household cleaners, children’s toys, even pizza boxes and antibacterial soaps – have been found, at one time or another, to contain chemicals that could make you sick.

What’s more, even as risks emerge, governments can be excruciatingly slow to respond: several European countries banned lead from interior paints in 1909 because they recognized that lead exposure can cause serious health problems in children, but the US didn’t outlaw lead house paint until the 1970s. Rich Food, Poor Food, a book written by Jayson and Mira Calton earlier this year, lists a number of foods that are banned outside of the US, but permitted within it.

All this helps explain why Walmart and Target are taking matters into their own hands.

Subsequently, Bill Lascher took a closer look–and a critical one–at the policies at both Walmart and Target. His Walmart story is headlined Walmart aims to reduce 10 toxic chemicals–but won’t divulge which and his Target story is headlined Target aims for healthier products under a veil of secrecy. As you see, one reason not to rely on retailers to become de facto regulators is that they have no obligation to explain what they are doing, or why.

I know we’ll try to keep an eye on this story as it unfolds at Guardian Sustainable Business, and we are planning a session on “chemicals of concern” at Fortune Brainstorm Green in May. If you work for a company that’s engaged in the issue, feel free to be in touch.

In a week or two, I’ll have more to say about the Fortune event. In just the past few days, we’ve booked some great speakers, and I’m excited about the program we are developing.

Maybe the best retail ad ever

Patagonia's home page this weekend

In the midst of the madness of black Friday, and this weekend of American consumerism run amok, come a few wise words from the outdoor retailer Patagonia.

In a full-page ad in the New York Times, the privately held company asks shoppers to think more carefully about what they purchase, and the real cost of all the things we buy.

The headline: Don’t Buy This Jacket

“We ask you to buy less and to reflect before you spend a dime on this jacket or anything else,” the company says.

The rest of the ad is worth reading, and thinking about, so I’ll copy the text here:

It’s Black Friday, the day in the year retail turns from red to black and starts to make real money. But Black Friday, and the culture of consumption it reflects, puts the economy of natural systems that support all life firmly in the red. We’re now using the resources of one-and-a-half planets on our one and only planet.

Because Patagonia wants to be in business for a good long time – and leave a world inhabitable for our kids – we want to do the opposite of every other business today. We ask you to buy less and to reflect before you spend a dime on this jacket or anything else. [click to continue…]

Thanksgiving shopping madness

Do we really need to start the holiday shopping season on Thanksgiving night?

Here’s a comment that showed up yesterday on an April 2011 blog post [Best Buy CEO Brian Dunn: Sustainability is all about people] that I wrote praising Best Buy CEO Brian Dunn:

Brian Dunn, what a thoughtful and caring person he likes to portray himself. As a current employee, I have to join my fellow employees in cutting our Thanksgiving time short because we are opening at mid night. Brian Dunn isn’t going to be working in a store for 14 hours straight. Correction, I get a measly 30 minute break somewhere in that 14 hours. On a regular work day, I work for 7 hours straight without a required lunch because my shift has to be longer than 7 hours to take a lunch. They don’t even let me break away unless it’s completely empty in my department (which is rarely the case). Best Buy also keeps diminishing the value of the employee discount, which is one of the best parts of working for them. Eventually, there may not be a discount. If Best Buy keeps making knee-jerk reactions like opening at Midnight on Thanksgiving day, there may not be a Best Buy down the road. Customers and Employees want to spend time with their families on Thanksgiving day!

Meanwhile, the San Francisco Chronicle reports:

Valerie Brunmeier of San Jose plans a festive feast for her family on Thanksgiving, but two of her sons will have to hustle off to their retail jobs at local malls later that night.

“How do you relax when you know you’re heading out the door at 10 p.m. or so to go to work, and work all night long?” she said.

…Target, Best Buy, Kohl’s, Gap, Walmart, Toys R Us and Macy’s are among the major retailers that plan to fling open their doors early this season. Some stores plan to open at 8 or 9 p.m. Thursday, while others will open a few hours later at the stroke of midnight, trying to jump-start sales amid an uncertain economic climate.

It’s an arms race, of sorts, and the losers are the thousands of workers who have to cut their holiday short.

The backlash against Thanksgiving night openings began with petitions aimed at Target on Facebook and change.org. [click to continue…]

Shop with your (gay-friendly) values

67838081_e8084e86acWith the (yuk) holiday shopping season upon us, this weekend seems like a good time to devote a series of blogposts to the idea of shopping with your values. But before I get to today’s topic–the Buying for Equality guide published by the Human Rights Campaign–let me first humbly suggest that one way to express your values this season, if you care about leaving a more sustainable planet to our children, is not to shop at all, or to shop less.

Over-consumption is a problem. If all of the 6.8 billion people on the planet lived like Americans we’d be in trouble. Today, Black Friday, the busiest day of the year is also known as Buy Nothing Day. This year the organizers are saying:

We want you to not only stop buying for 24 hours, but to shut off your lights, televisions and other nonessential appliances. We want you to park your car, turn off your phones and log off of your computer for the day.

This is a nonstarter for me. I’m not parking my car, turning off my phone or shutting down my laptop (obviously). No way, no how. Indeed, I worry that a call to action like that turns off more people than it inspires. I much prefer the holiday messaging from the Center for a New American Dream, which exhorts people to simplify the holidays, by planning a holiday with more fun and less stuff. But most of us still want at least some stuff. Today, and over the next couple of days, I’ll try to suggest some ways we can acquire stuff that aligns with our values. [click to continue…]