Costco, the Genuine Retail CSR Leader?

costco, big box retailers, corporate social responsibility, CSR, Leon Kaye, teamsters, wall street, corporate governance, Leon Kaye, San Joaquin Valley
Costco, the CSR leader amongst retailers

Could Costco possibly be the most genuine leader when it comes to corporate social responsibility (CSR) and governance? Retailers across the country constantly crow about the achievements they have made on a bevy of issues from more sustainable fish (Safeway) to solar installations (Walmart). Other retailers are yanking the chains on pork producers to cease the cruel use of gestation crates and of course just about everyone is on the organic and local produce bandwagon. These shifts in business practices are great news for fish, pigs and of course, the environment and our health.

But what about people who work in these stores, who stack, haul and crate the fish, pork and produce, whether they are free range, cruelty-free, duty free, or not?

While most big box retailers insist on paying low wages with the claim that thin margins require reduced labor costs, Costco for years has been breaking the mold. Wall Street squawks that the membership warehouse giant should push for higher profit margins and reduced labor costs, meanwhile the company, led by its iconoclastic founder and former CEO, Jim Sinegal, constantly flicks his chin at The Street and its yammering analysts. The results: happy employees, enviable stock performance and a brilliant shopping model that, let’s face it, bludgeons consumers into shopping happily for more.

So what makes Costco so successful? Arguably the biggest difference is how the retailer treats its workers. Walk into any Costco and look at the name tags. Chances are you will read the phrases “since 2002,” “since 1999” and “since 1995.” Costco workers get paid very well compared to their counterparts at chains including Walmart. In fact, employees working on the floor can make a salary that reaches the mid-$40,000 range; not bad for someone who starts working for the company out of high school. And while the vast majority of Costco’s employees are not unionized (most of those are legacy employees from Price Club that the Teamsters represent), over 80 percent have competitively priced health insurance plans. The outcome includes more productive workers, lower turnover and for what it’s worth, relatively high job satisfaction.

Meanwhile Sinegal, who stepped down as the company’s CEO on December 31, earned a spartan salary compared to the vast majority of his counterparts. For years his salary, not including bonuses and stock options, hovered at $350,000. Critics lashed out when the company announced that current CEO Craig Jelinek would pull a salary of $650,000, but that is still a tepid amount compared to average CEO salaries, which are still on an upward trend despite the recent surge in “say-on-pay” shareholder votes. Meanwhile the stock has performed well, sliding only when the rest of the economy took a dive during the post 9/11 aftershock and the 2008 fiscal crisis. If you bought Costco stock a decade ago, your investment has roughly tripled in value.

So, along with happier workers come fair prices and a commitment to local companies. Take those famous Calvin Klein jeans that have been a mainstay at Costco over the years. Depending on the price, they could be marked at $29.99, but if the company can snag millions more, they could be $22.99. Wall Street would insist that regardless of the wholesale price, Costco should maximize its profit. But the company’s philosophy has long been that it will pass on savings to its customers. Most products in its warehouses are well-known national brands, but Costco does purchase local products. Karoun Armenian string cheese in Los Feliz, Goldilocks bread in Vallejo, hemp seeds in Santa Cruz and fruit from small San Joaquin Valley farms in Fresno are just a few examples that can be found in Costco’s warehouses.

Not everything at Costco is perfect: some products are well, dubious; Joan Rivers chained herself to a shopping cart after the chain stopped selling her book; and some suppliers have landed Costco into hot water. But in the end, the company treats its employees and shareholders more than decently. And sales continue to trend upwards. If you believe all workers should have the chance to earn a decent wage and be rewarded for hard work, shopping at Costco is an easy choice to make.

Leon Kaye, based in Fresno, California, is a sustainability consultant and the editor of He also contributes to Guardian Sustainable Business and covers sustainable architecture and design for Inhabitat. You can follow him on Twitter.

Photo courtesy Wikipedia.

Based in Fresno, California, Leon Kaye has written for TriplePundit since 2010. He has lived across the U.S., as well as in South Korea, Abu Dhabi and Uruguay. Some of Leon's work can also be found in The Guardian, Sustainable Brands and CleanTechnica. You can follow him on Twitter (@LeonKaye) and Instagram (GreenGoPost).

27 responses

  1. I use to work for costco and it was a living hell for most the people
    there. The manager would discriminant against people regularly ignore
    health and safety regulations ignore repairs and threaten employees jobs
    if she though was a risk they would try speak up. When there was a
    inspection coming up (she would always have a advance warning) she would
    have the whole store coming in doing double shifts to get the store
    presentable and then when the inspection happened (they were called
    walks) would have the store double staffed or have people running from
    department to department ahead of the walk to make it look like the
    store was fully staffed. As far as repairs would ignore them to point
    of even being safety concerns. At one point the large freezer had a leak
    and instead of fixing it just let it go for like 6 months till there
    was a foot or 2 of ice built up on 2/3rds of the inside floor and had
    bring in jack hammers to break it up only to then put the merchandise
    frozen on it back on the shelves. Another was the industrial compactors
    they had the safety shutoff literally cut off because it was making the
    compactor not work so they could still use it. Then of course had the
    forklifts with exposed wiring on them that would catch fire because she
    wouldn’t pay to have them fixed. The place had a huge turn over
    specially in middle management who couldn’t stand her and wouldn’t be
    allowed to do their job. The only ones who did tend to stay were the
    ones who acted like her insulting employees and customers while doing
    next to no work. Of course one the best ones of all was when she fired a
    women going out on medical leave for if i remember right cancer
    treatment because the women made the mistake of mentioning that if she
    did recover enough to start working again she might get a job at a
    different company. The one thing Costco has really been great at has
    been keeping up a false face and keeping quiet people who might expose
    that face. Oh and btw from what I understand that manager is now one the
    upper level people at their main office something like the head of
    their public relations division. This was the Delaware store btw

  2. As @31b4b74241dd400c6176d2a2d1793d9e:disqus has noted, not everything is rosy. I know a few folks who work at the local Costco and they are pretty happy but they work in the corporate office not the floor. Costco might lead in retail but I think it’s safe to say, retail isn’t always a pleasant career choice.

    1. @wcg Yes, but for some of us, jobs like that are the only option. I have a four-year degree, and that is the case for me. Job’s aren’t designed to be pleasant. Very few people have the privilege of truly “enjoying” their work. If that’s the case for you, more power to you I suppose!

  3. I worked at a Costco in Portland Oregon, and loved it! In my experience, their reputation holds true. I got a higher than fair wage, good training, regular breaks, decent workloads, and great coworkers and supervisors. Inspections from upper management, even the CEO, were regular occurrences and were really low key. I would recommend Costco to anyone as a great place to work and shop.

  4. I worked in a costco in phoenix AZ and it was a great place to work very nice people and good bosses and the break room was nuts a 70′ big screen and leather sofas

  5. I currently work at a Costco in Georgia and unlike @31b4b74241dd400c6176d2a2d1793d9e:disqus there’s some bad apples in management and employees but there are so many safe guards against the kinds of things @31b4b74241dd400c6176d2a2d1793d9e:disqus was talking about that I can guarantee there was plenty of embellishment there. Unions are not even mentioned as a part of orientation and they would certainly not threaten to fire new hires over talking about unions. No new hire I’ve ever known would start talking about unions anyway the company takes care of their employees too well for that. Paid vacation, healthcare, 401k and starting at $11 for retail? Yeah I’m yet to see anyone complain about that. With Costco’s open door policy the kind of violations talked about also wouldn’t occur. I’ve seen managers get demoted and put under supervision in another store for much less. Just recently at my store several floor level employees made a complaint about an upper level manager’s attitude and within a few weeks there was a visit from one of the top level managers from another store in the area and that manager suddenly became very nice.
    I guess some people have had problems with the company but in my experience its only been people with entitlement issues and those with a flair for drama. For me Costco has taken care of me fantastically well and been flexible for me to continue attending college. If you’re going to work in a major retail chain Costco is the best. Period.
    Not a PR rep just a well taken care of employee.

  6. It seems like their social initiatives are pretty good, but this website is based upon the triple bottom line is it not? What about the environmental problems associated with the fact that CostCo at its core promotes overconsumption of material products?

      1. I read the article just fine, and I agree that they appear to do a good job with their employees. My concern is regarding a triple bottom line issue, specifically with relation to their environmental position. When I met with their Director of Corporate Sustainability in Issiquah back in April, it just didn’t seem like they had much of a strategy for their environmental impacts.

  7. I love Costco. I am so glad I have one just three miles away!!!! Isn’t great that they pay and treat their employees well ? You can feel the positive energy when you walk in the door.

  8. have worked for Costco for 18 years and have been in retail for 30 years. I definitely owe my lifestyle to them. There is not a person I can not get along with in our warehouse and I have not worked under a better management team. I see myself working there until retirement, whenever that is, we have employees in their seventies. I feel very grateful that I have the piece of mind knowing they respect and want to keep long term employees. I go out of my way to make sure the customer is taken care of in a personal manor. I this because I am proud of my job and my company. I am a real pain in the ass and they still accept and respect me.

  9. CostCo stocks massive quantities of Georgia-Pacific paper products. Consider what happens when you shop at CostCo.

    Your $ -> CostCo -> Georgia-Pacific -> Koch Industries -> Koch Brothers -> AmericansForProsperity(forPlutocrats)/FreedomWorks(forPlutocrats)/CATO -> $$$ for Tea Party Candidates and Climate Change Denying Congressional Lobbyists -> Legislation for Corporate Tax Breaks and Deregulation for Petroleum, Chemical Products, Logging and Paper Industries -> $$$$$ Koch Brothers

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