It is proxy season, which means all kinds of shareholder resolutions and protests are targeting some of America’s largest companies for a host of reasons. One company in the crosshairs is Walmart, the focus of organizations including the Texas Campaign for the Environment and Take It Back Walmart. Both organizations have published a letter to Walmart urging the discount retail giant to do more about e-waste.
Particularly interesting is that the “Open Letter” had the signature of over 100 faith leaders from all 50 U.S. states. While commending Walmart for its sustainability efforts that the company has ramped up since 2005, the reverends, priests, rabbis, imams and activists from churches and activist organizations demand that Walmart do even more. The faith community taking on companies is nothing new. What is impressive is the positive message the letter imparts, acknowledging the company has achieved much on this front, and now insisting that Walmart embrace more recycling and closed-loop programs.
The letter points out that Walmart sells more than $50 billion in electronics annually, and is therefore in a strong position to take a stand on the improved disposal and recycling of e-waste. The faith leaders also nudge the company to participate more in programs that encourage the greener design of electronics while preventing any schemes that send e-waste abroad to developing countries. Pointing out that Staples, Best Buy and Office Depot all accept unwanted electronics, the religious leaders say in the letter that it is time for Walmart to do the same.
So far Walmart has not said much on the issue. The company’s VP for sustainability, Andrea Thomas, has told the group behind the letter that Walmart has “an internal cross functional team that is actively engaged on the issue,” an exercise in public relations linguistic gymnastics that in English means, “we are working on it.”
The lessons for companies such as Walmart is that while publicly traded corporates have a bevy of responsibilities to their shareholders under U.S. law, including maximizing the company’s value, excuses on any issues of corporate social responsibility or governance are wearing thinner with consumers and other stakeholder groups. Furthermore a robust market for e-waste exists and plenty of companies are eager to pounce on the economic opportunities. It should not take too much creativity out of Bentonville to launch an ambitious electronic waste program that will embarrass other retailers and manufacturers to fall into line and do the same and position Walmart yet again as a leader. This Open Letter is an opportunity, not a hassle, and opens the door to proving that one of the world’s largest companies can boost profits as well as values.
Photo courtesy Walmart Press Room.