My editorial work keeps me hopping, so I’m a bit late getting started on reporting about my trip last week to Bentonville, Arkansas, for Wal-Mart’s annual Media Day and Shareholders’ Meeting. As always, it was a whirlwind of activity combining trips to company stores in the area, press meetings with company executives, and a little entertainment thrown in. I skipped the Carrie Underwood/Keith Urban concert Thursday night, but did see Joss Stone, Jennifer Hudson and David Cook perform early Friday morning… with Queen Latifah handling the MC duties.
Yes, Wal-Mart does a fantastic job entertaining the troops, but my real interest was in further news on company sustainability initiatives. Over the next week or so, I’ll be reporting on those. Today, I just wanted to provide some initial thoughts, and perhaps get the conversation going.
In case you haven’t noticed, the economy’s in a bit of slump… and that means more people are turning to discount retailers for their basic needs and luxuries. Sales figures are up for the company, and all of the executives that spoke at various portions of the media conference noted the company’s founding value of saving people money. At some points, I began to wonder just a bit if the much-heralded sustainability initiatives of the past few years were taking a back seat to it’s ability to provide goods (and services) at low prices.
Is “Save Money. Live Better” just a marketing slogan, or is it, as company executives claimed, a restatement of the company’s mission? That’s a question I want to explore as I look back on last week’s event. Over the past few years, I’ve become more and more impressed by Wal-Mart’s transformation. As I note in the headline, though, an influx of customers because of tighter pocketbooks really does mean it’s crunch time for the company. It might be easy to forsake some of the promises made about doing business more sustainably. Yet, the message was definitely there: executives from around the world almost always included sustainability initiatives in their presentations (and our press packages came in Wal-Mart reusable shopping bags…with a bottle of concentrated laundry detergent!).
Were these just words? I’ll let you judge for yourself as a I present some of the stories I heard. Obviously, at the Shareholders Meeting, executives had a friendly audience. Still, when I talked to an associate walking into the meeting, and asked her if she’d undertaken a “personal sustainability project,” she not only told me about her efforts to switch to CFLS and recycle, but also her pride in the company’s movement in this direction. It’s the ripple effect that still gets me: Wal-Mart can make greener consumer choices the norm by setting standards for suppliers; it can also educate consumers and shareholders at a massive level. It’s easy to focus on what the company’s done wrong… I still think we’ve got reasons to be hopeful that they’re moving in some really positive directions.