Wall Street may not be thrilled with Lowe’s current performance this year, but business sustainability advocates should be heartened by the DIY home improvement retailer. To many families and do-it-yourself geeks, the store is “the other Home Depot” and has played its own role in America’s economic recovery as folks set out to spiff up their homes on their own instead of diving into an uncertain real estate market.
From affordable housing to disaster relief to experimentation with solar energy, Lowe’s has continued to work on quality of life issues that have been part of the company’s philosophy for over sixty years. Its 2010 corporate social responsibility (CSR) report zeros in on three high-level focal points: workplace, community, and the environment.
Donations in employee time and money are behind one aspect of Lowe’s CSR work that defines its sustainability agenda. The company supported over 3100 education and community projects during 2010 and gave out over US$30 million in grants to foundations in the United States, Canada, and Mexico. Currently committed to giving US$20 million to Habitat for Humanity, last year Lowe’s donated US$1.5 million to both home construction and remodeling projects in cities including Birmingham, AL, Minnesota’s Twin Cities, and the Washington-Baltimore metropolitan area. Lowe’s “how-to” clinics at stores also trained women in construction techniques, which helped some to work on projects during Habitat for Humanity’s “National Women Build Week” that occurs annually in May.
Lowe’s also takes steps to ensure its employees’ health–necessary as working on the floor of one of its warehouse stores can be strenuous. The vast majority of Lowe’s 234,000 employees are eligible to participate in the company’s health care plan, a challenge considering the plan’s rising cost. One step the company has taken to combat increasing health care costs is its partnership with the Cleveland Clinic. Full-time employees and dependents who need acute cardiac care can have not only premiums for this leading cardiac care center covered, but travel and related expenses as well. For employees who face a different kind of disaster–as in the natural- and weather-related kind–Lowe’s has an eleven-year-old disaster relief fund that in 2010 shelled out US$2 million to almost 2000 employees in need.
Construction has a huge impact on the environment, and Lowe’s has replied in kind. Similar to the effort Walmart made with painting its stores’ roofs white, Lowe’s started installing white membrane cool roofs on new prototype stores in 2002. Newer stores feature LEED-certified energy conservation features such as improved lighting and cooling systems. Since trucking and hauling are a huge part of Lowe’s carbon footprint, the company has worked on several clean-truck incentive programs on both American coasts. Two new stores in San Francisco, CA and Quincy, MA have also tinkered with solar energy, which generated 3.5 million kilowatt hours in 2010–a small but not insignificant step. To that end Lowe’s also signed on with Sungevity and will distribute its solar panels through its stores.
Here is a challenge for Lowe’s and its competitors: with green building materials still expensive compared to conventional options, more could be done on this front. Lowe’s offers more energy efficient products, but the reality is that most consumers will still by the cheaper but more resource-intensive option. An increased partnership with suppliers to increase the scale while lowering the cost of energy-efficient plans would tie in well with Lowe’s education programs at its stores–and help to instill sustainability thinking not only in the executive offices and shop floors, but amongst its customers, too.
You can explore Lowe’s CSR report, full of videos and short case studies, here.