Time Magazine, January 6, 2014
Alaska state officials are hosting Walmart executives in the state capital this week in an effort to resolve a months-old dispute over Alaskan salmon fisheries’ sustainability credentials.
The seeds of the quarrel were planted in 2012 when several Alaskan fisheries decided to end their relationship with the Marine Stewardship Council–the preeminent global certifier of sustainable fishing–to seek out other means assuring customers of their sustainable practices. But last June, Walmart told Alaskan fisheries that it would not be buying salmon sourced from fisheries not certified by the Marine Stewardship Council.
Now Walmart is caught between two forces–Alaska fisheries and “buy American” enthusiasts who think the company’s first responsibility should be to American industry, and environmentalists who think Walmart should make as strong a commitment to environmentally sustainable industry possible.
But from a broader perspective, this latest kerfuffle is an object lesson in why the concept of corporate responsibility is flawed to begin with. Walmart–like most successful corporations–is pretty good at offering products their customers want at low prices. When it tries to promote broader public goods, like a clean environment, or lower unemployment for veterans, it’s nowhere near as successful. Here’s a few of Walmart’s more notable corporate-responsibility snafus:
The Buy-American Debacle: Walmart’s first major corporate responsibility push was an effort in the 1980s to promote American-made products. But the campaign ran aground after a Dateline-NBC investigation revealed that the company was actually selling products manufactured in Bangladesh as “Made American.”
The Going Green Campaign: In 2005, Walmart embarked on a sustainability campaign aimed at making the retail giants operations much more environmentally friendly. Though Walmart and the media have done much to raise visibility of these efforts, the actual results have been lacking. According to a recent report from the Institute for Local Self Reliance, Walmart’s sustainability campaign is much more focused on making its operations appear green to customers than it is about doing things that would actually help the environment, like reducing emissions.
Walmart makes the world a better place to live by selling a wide variety of products at super cheap prices. But even as big and powerful as Walmart is, there are problems, like the sustainability of the fishing industry, which it will never solve.