WAL-MART STORES HAS BEEN TRUMPETING ITS SUSTAINABLE business practices since June 2004, when Rob Walton, an avid scuba diver and chairman of the company his father founded, organized a meeting between then-CEO H. Lee Scott and two environmentalists. Wal-Mart was facing a deluge of negative press and litigation over everything from alleged violations of the Clean Water Act and immigration law to sex discrimination, with the latter having produced the largest class-action suit in U.S. history.
Scott came to the meeting simply wanting to get the critics off his back, as author Edward Humes recounted in his 2011 book, Force of Nature. But the meeting with Jib Ellison, a white-water river expert and founder of San Franciscobased consulting firm Blu Skye, and Peter Seligmann, founder, chairman and CEO of Arlington, Virginiabased nonprofit organization Conservation International, changed Scotts thinking about the future course of one of the biggest companies in the world in terms of revenue.
Within the walls of Wal-Marts one-story, starkly furnished headquarters in Bentonville, Arkansas, Ellison convinced the Joplin, Missouriborn chief executive that going green would buttress his companys profits and image. Lee, the thing you have to remember is that all this stuff that people dont want you to put into the environment is waste. And youre paying for it, said Ellison, as recounted in Humess book. If you really want to know something cool about this whole environmental and social side of the equation, here it is: Its a massive business opportunity.
Ellison used laundry detergent to illustrate how waste hurts the bottom line. Back then, laundry detergent was often sold in 120-ounce containers that were about the size of a gallon of milk. But there was a concentrated form sold in a container about the size of a ketchup bottle. At the time, consumers bought a total of 1 billion bottles of detergent in the U.S. each year. If they were all ketchup-size bottles, transportation costs as well as waste would be reduced.
Scott hired Ellison soon after and pushed through those changes. To this day, Wal-Mart executives, store managers and sustainability experts are quick to cite this anecdote to describe a turning point in the companys history.
Wal-Mart CFO Charles Holley neatly sums up how sustainability fits into the discount retailers financial operations. Everyday low price starts with being everyday low cost, he tells Institutional Investor . Sustainability is a great way to save costs. The most important priority for the company now, he explains, is to maintain its productivity loop, in which Wal-Mart leverages its scale to reduce operating costs, leading to lower prices for its customers, which in turn feed growth, starting the virtuous cycle anew. The company earned $16 billion on $447 billion in revenue in 2011, compared with $9 billion in profits on $256 billion in revenue in 2004, the year of Scotts change of heart.
Andrea Thomas, senior vice president of sustainability at Wal-Mart, concurs: The productivity loop is about getting the absolute best cost for our customers, and sustainability supports that.
Maybe so. But Wal-Marts business model faces challenges in addition to rising energy costs. Like any companys, Wal-Marts continued growth hinges on its ability to tap new opportunities, but more so than perhaps any other companys, its prospects depend increasingly on social issues as well as environmental ones. For socially responsible investors, who now represent almost one eighth of U.S. assets, the giant, everyday-low-price retailer is one of the largest targets now that tobacco companies have gotten their comeuppance and the Gulf of Mexico oil spill and the petroleum industrys role in it have faded from memory. And the recent stories of long-running bribery of local official in Mexico have not helped the retail giant. Moreover, the issues that concern so-called environmental, social responsibility and corporate governance (ESG) investors serve to block the companys much-needed access to urban and foreign markets, many of whose political leaders and citizens are also troubled by the companys practices.
Simply put, Wal-Mart is a leading flak catcher from stakeholders who question, among other things, its treatment of its employees, both in the U.S. and abroad, even as a weak global economy threatens top-line growth for years to come. From that perspective, Scotts sudden embrace eight years ago of a more sustainable business model was far from complete.
More broadly, Wal-Mart is a leading indicator of what it will take for companies and investors to come to terms with the growing perception, and perhaps the reality, that the worlds resources are dwindling. As goes Wal-Mart, so goes capitalism, because if a company as focused as Wal-Mart is on minimizing cost can truly go green, so can anyone. But thats a big if.
Dont tell this to Wal-Mart. The company says it takes a 360-degree view of sustainability that includes suppliers, the environment and communities. Its greatest achievement to date, by most accounts, is its supplier sustainability assessment. Introduced in 2008, this innovation has been a green game changer, to hear the company and suppliers tell it. The 33-page form covers energy and climate efficiency, material efficiency, natural-resource usage and people and communities. All of Wal-Marts 100,000 suppliers in 60 countries are required to fill it out and take it to heart. On the back of that, in 2009 Wal-Mart announced plans to create a global sustainability index that will provide a consistent measure of every one of its products sustainability. Once formalized, the index also is supposed to alter industry and consumer behavior.
Furthermore, the company has improved the efficiency of its U.S. truck fleet by 65 percent from 2005 rates. In its stores it has replaced ceramic metal halide spotlights with LED lighting, saving about 50 percent in energy costs per bulb installed. In addition, Wal-Mart was able to redirect more than 80 percent of its waste from landfills in California, and it is using the same system across the country. The retailer also has an array of innovative pilot programs, like its beef traceability systems and antideforestation efforts in Brazil, and solar panel projects in places like California and Puerto Rico.
Scott wrote in the companys 200708 global responsibility report: We have found that there is no conflict between our business model of everyday low costs and everyday low prices and being a more sustainable business. To make sustainability sustainable at Wal-Mart, weve made it live inside our business. Many of our environmental sustainability efforts, for example, mean cost savings for us, our suppliers and our customers, so that in both good times and bad times, they will remain part of who we are.
Yet the companys conversion to sustainability for the most part begins and ends with energy savings. According to Toronto-based Corporate Knights latest sustainability ranking of Standard & Poors 500 companies, released on March 8, Wal-Mart scores only a five out of ten in the rankings productivity measures on energy, carbon, water and waste; taxes paid; CEO-to-average-worker pay; pension fund status; employee turnover; leadership diversity; pay linked to environmental achievements; and safety. The company did not make Corporate Knights list of the worlds most sustainable companies.
If Wal-Mart were to be truly sustainable, it might have to upend its business model, notwithstanding Scotts assertions. True sustainability requires Wal-Mart to make significant investments to reach 100 percent renewable-energy dependency. It also demands similar expenditures on behalf of associates (what it calls store workers), suppliers and customers so that they live subsidy-free lives not for their sakes but for the companys own. All of this means higher costs, at least at the outset.
Meanwhile, Wal-Marts revenue growth is showing signs of slowing. Until the quarter that ended on October 31, foot traffic and same-store sales had been declining for two years. The percentage of net new-store openings to total stores was 1.5 percent in 2011, compared with 15 percent in 2004. Groceries now account for more than 50 percent of overall sales, while apparel has dropped from 10 percent in 2007 to 7 percent at present. Because the cost of food is more difficult to control than that of clothing, the trend in Wal-Marts sales mix could make it harder for the company to maintain its everyday-low-price model without seeing margins shrink.
It doesnt help that the company is up against two long-term structural shifts in the retail industry. The first is technologys ability to provide price transparency via mobile phones. Considering half of America is going to a Wal-Mart store, technology is going to play a role in pricing going forward, says Credit Suisse retail analyst Michael Exstein in New York. Wal-Marts customer may be a lower-end customer, but they have the same access to the price look-up technology as anyone else does, and they are using it. He adds that it is an open question whether Wal-Mart can grow without hurting its margins. E-commerce as a percentage of total sales in the U.S. jumped from 3.5 percent in fourth-quarter 2007 to 4.8 percent in the last quarter of 2011, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. The trend will only continue upward as technologys ability to provide price transparency improves. The company is trying to counter the threat that e-commerce poses by exploiting it for its own purposes, but the success of this effort remains uncertain.
Second, rising energy costs are a threat to the revenue side as well as to the cost side of Wal-Marts equation. Gasoline prices show no sign of easing, and the companys stores are currently located outside city centers. Furthermore, competitors that offer better discounts are popping up in high-density areas.
At the same time, Wal-Marts tactic of tapping the lowest-cost supplier typically in countries like China that have lower ESG standards and shipping the goods to the U.S. faces diminishing returns. The value of the Chinese yuan has been rising against the dollar and is likely to continue for the foreseeable future. And given Chinas growing attempts to reduce pollution levels and worker unrest, the costs of manufacturing will rise there.
Some analysts remain unconcerned, at least in the short term. When asked whether he takes into account Wal-Marts sustainability efforts, the typically verbose John Lawrence a Memphis, Tennesseebased managing director at regional investment banking firm Morgan Keegan who started covering Wal-Mart in 1988, when its founder, Sam Walton, was alive says, Yeahhh in a long, drawn-out way that sounds more like a sigh than conviction. We look at that, he says. They have done really well with all those initiatives. (A handful of Wall Street analysts say flat out that they do not take Wal-Marts sustainability programs into account in their analyses.)
Lawrence is also unfazed by online competition. Certainly, online is an opportunity for them going forward, he says. The average consensus among analysts is for the stock to outperform. And its clear that most investors hold the same view, in the short run, at least; they are driving the stock price higher. Wal-Marts stock jumped from $52.96 on January 5 to $61.10 on March 28.
Yet even the companys short-term outlook isnt particularly rosy. Wal-Marts core customers in the U.S. the working class were hit hardest by the recent recession and show little sign of recovering. One in three unemployed Americans has not worked in a year. And it will be difficult for the working class to leverage its assets through housing or credit cards.
WAL-MART HAS TRIED AND MOSTLY FAILED TO SHOEHORN its stores into new but unwelcoming markets. For more than five years, it has struggled to gain a foothold in the big U.S. cities, where it could tap middle-class and perhaps even upper-class customers the last places where it doesnt have a large presence. Project Impact, Wal-Marts unsuccessful attempt to go more upscale by offering less but trendier merchandise and compete head-on with rival Target Corp., cost the company roughly $1.85 billion in revenue, according to Phil Terry, CEO of retail consulting firm Creative Good. Wal-Mart has tried to enter several big cities, including Boston, Chicago and New York, but it has largely been boxed out. Major metropolitan cities are home to only about 1 percent of its 4,479 retail stores in the U.S., chiefly because of concerns about competition and the companys labor practices.
Then there are Wal-Marts less than successful international expansion attempts. Its foray in the 1990s into Germany, which gives employees the legal right to a role in corporate decisions through workers councils, is a prime example. After clashing with local retail union Ver.di, the company gave up on the country in 1996.
To be sure, Wal-Mart has had some success in North American urban markets. It recently won approval to open stores in Chicago, Toronto and Washington. At the end of last year, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg lent his support to the companys efforts to enter the Big Apple. At about the same time, California Governor Jerry Brown vetoed a bill supported by county governments, local businesses and unions that would have made it harder for Wal-Mart and other mass merchandisers to open new stores in that states cities.
These successes could continue, as governments hit hard by the recession look to increase employment and tax revenue. Wal-Mart has created a small-store format of about 10,000 square feet a fraction of its Supercenters average 180,000 and pop-up stores that fit cramped urban locations. The company has also made a major acquisition in South Africa that holds promise for overseas expansion.
Wal-Mart has been acquiring e-commerce businesses, like Mountain View, Californiabased social media technology company Kosmix, to drive web traffic and convert it to sales. Its going to become much more important to what we do, says CFO Holley. Youll see more marrying of technology, Internet and the mobile phones and the stores.
But its no secret that Wal-Mart is aggressively antiunion, which doesnt sit well with some urban and foreign politicians and has led to a number of divestitures by socially responsible investors. The latest to unload its stake over the issue is Dutch pension fund ABP, one of Europes largest pension funds, with more than $300 billion in assets. ABP cited International Labor Organization (ILO) standards as its criteria for selling its 93 million ($126.5 million) in Wal-Mart stock last December. The ILO standards require companies to give workers the right to organize and to allow them to engage in collective bargaining.
We have excluded Wal-Mart because of their labor relations policy that does not meet international standards, explains Henk Brouwer, chairman of ABPs board of trustees. On the basis of ILO core labor standards, employees should be free to decide whether they want to join a union or not, and companies should not obstruct that.
ABPs divestiture is particularly notable because it came after years of extensive engagement with the company. The pension funds first letter to Wal-Mart was in 2008 and called for the company to abide by the ten principles of the United Nations Global Compact, which cover human rights, environmental, anticorruption and labor issues.
Over the years ABP has noted Wal-Marts improvements, including greater transparency, further development of its sustainability practices, the settlement of many labor-related court cases and more-comprehensive surveys of its store employees.
But it divested after Wal-Mart posted an advertisement at the end of last year for a new director in its human resources division who would continue to support a union-free workplace. That was a turning point for us, emphasizes Brouwer. It confirmed the impression we already had about Wal-Marts position toward unions. Wal-Mart has yet to sign the U.N. Global Compact.
Wal-Mart spokesman Greg Rossiter contends that the company does what is appropriate wherever it operates by adhering to local laws and customs. He points out that only 5 percent of U.S. retail workers are unionized, so the company is in the mainstream of labor relations.
ABPs divestiture follows that of its fellow Dutch pension fund PNO Media in October 2010 and Norways sovereign wealth fund in 2006; both cited the labor issue. And ABP is just one of a growing number of money managers that base their strategies on ESG factors and think Wal-Mart has not done enough there. Even some top U.S. fund managers that are sticking with the company are seeking to sway its senior executives. New Yorkbased TIAA-CREF, for one, has in the past disclosed that it was in discussions with Wal-Mart; it will not confirm or deny if its currently engaged with the company. The California Public Employees Retirement System, another Wal-Mart investor, also declined to comment on its engagements.
Meanwhile, the latest survey by the Washington-based Forum for Sustainable and Responsible Investment shows that ESG investments in the U.S. reached $3 trillion in 2009, or 12 percent of total invested assets, a 13 percent increase since 2007. Total fund assets governed by policies with explicit ESG rules were $2.51 trillion. More than 1,000 investment managers have signed on to the U.N.s Principles of Responsible Investment (PRI) and its Global Compact, which represent a combined $30 trillion in assets under management. If this trend continues, Wal-Marts cost of capital will rise, as will its hurdles for producing shareholder value.
The fact remains that 75 percent of Wal-Mart store employees earn less than $12 an hour, and nearly a third use welfare to support themselves or their families, according to a June 2011 survey of 501 Wal-Mart workers by Washington-based Lake Research Partners. Wal-Mart employs about 1.4 million store workers in the U.S., making it the nations largest employer.
Some activists think they are enhancing long-term returns. We certainly believe that shareholder activism can reinforce to boards and executives the critical importance of sustainable practices to the realization of long-term shareholder value, says Richard Clayton, director of research at CtW Investment Group, a Washington-based activist organization whose members participate in pension plans with more than $200 billion in combined assets. Unfortunately, Clayton adds, it does not appear that Wal-Marts rhetoric on sustainability issues, both environmental and workforce-related, has been matched by its actual practice.
EVEN SUCCESSFUL EXPANSION wont necessarily sustain Wal-Marts profitability. Say the company makes a grander entrance into cities with its smaller store format: Competition will skyrocket, and customer service will matter much more than it has to date, requiring employees to be better trained and better compensated. The next area of focus for Wal-Mart is going to be their own domestic associates, says Elizabeth Elliott McGeveran, a Boston-based senior vice president who works on the governance and sustainable investment team covering U.S. and Canadian companies at $160 billion F&C Investments. They are a really important part of the retail experience.
Yet with more full-time workers, warehouse chain Costco earns a 27 percent higher operating profit per square foot than Wal-Marts competing Sams Club, according to John Marshall, New Yorkbased senior capital markets economist at the capital stewardship program of labor union United Food and Commercial Workers. For salespeople to be fully productive, ESG investors contend, they must have a higher degree of knowledge than their competition, which will mean higher wages for some. Also, the investors say, store employees should work as teams, but that requires a relatively small pay gap between manager and sales staff. Although Wal-Mart doesnt disclose its workers salaries, its pay structure is thought to be much more highly stratified than that of its competition.
Says F&C Investments McGeveran, Wal-Mart needs to keep the pressure on costs, but it needs to do it in a way that isnt at the expense of the workers experience.
Sex discrimination is another point of contention between management and employees. In a multibillion-dollar lawsuit that dragged on for ten years and was finally dismissed last June by the U.S. Supreme Court, the company was accused of nationwide wage discrimination against women. The plaintiffs, representing 1.6 million current and former female employees, claimed that discrimination had led to significantly less pay for them than for their male counterparts.
The court ruled that the plaintiffs did not have enough evidence to file the case as a class action. In a dissenting opinion Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg argued that without formal rules, Wal-Mart managers may be prey to biases of which they are unaware. The complaints are unlikely to go away but instead are expected to be split up into smaller cases. One was filed on January 27 by more than 500 female associates, mainly in five Southern states.
The class-action suit is not the first time the retailing giant, which employs about 2.2 million associates in 27 countries, has come under scrutiny for its labor practices. In 2005 the Public Broadcasting Service reported the high number of Wal-Mart employees children who qualify for government lunches because their parents live below the working-poverty line. There has been a separate discrimination complaint from minorities who work at the company. In the U.S., Wal-Mart store employees include more than 255,000 African-Americans and 169,000 Hispanics.
Wal-Mart suffers from reasonably frequent allegations of unequal employment practices of discrimination against mainly women and ethnic minorities, says Tim Macready, Sydney-based chief investment officer of $600 million investment manager Christian Super. For two years Wal-Mart has been on Christian Supers watch; it remains on the list for two reasons, both related to labor issues: the sex-discrimination lawsuits and the companys oversight of supplier labor standards.
Health care benefits, or the lack thereof, continue to be a concern. Over the years the retailer has yo-yoed on its health care policy. Last October, with costs rising, the company cut benefits for future employees, rendering all new part-time hires who work less than 24 hours a week ineligible for health insurance. It also disallowed new store employees who work between 24 and 33 hours a week from insuring their spouses. In addition, premiums for the most popular health care plan rose by 36 percent this year. The current health care system is unsustainable for everyone, and, like other businesses, weve had to make choices we wish we didnt have to make, says spokesman Rossiter.
Says F&Cs McGeveran, Wal-Mart carries quite a heavy burden and a poor reputation related to its workers, and I think thats a problem.
Wal-Mart is belatedly tackling some of these issues. It has enacted measures to reduce employee turnover and has increased the number of its employee surveys with that in mind. The company has given more than 1 million free health screenings since the beginning of 2011 and is considering expanding the services offered by its 155 independently owned walk-in clinics, which may be its way of lowering health care costs for its employees. Such an expansion could also bring in more customers.
The retailer is also trying to make food more healthy and healthy food more affordable. In January 2011 it started to reduce sodium in the groceries it sells by 5 percent and ban all trans fats in thousands of prepackaged foods. It also has pledged to reduce price premiums on certain healthy products, saving customers an estimated $1 billion a year. We think a mother shouldnt have to pay more for organic and sustainable products for her family, says CFO Holley. We work with farmers locally and regionally for sustainable farming. And by the way, if its grown locally, its a lot quicker and easier and cheaper to get the produce into our stores.
At the same time, the company has taken further steps to address concerns over womens issues. In September, Wal-Mart embarked on a $20 billion, five-year campaign to increase its purchasing from the women-owned businesses in its supply chain. Its Global Womens Economic Empowerment Initiative will educate female farmers and 60,000 factory workers globally on decision-making skills and 200,000 low-income women in the U.S. on career skills. And these are far from its only initiatives in this area.
Our commitment to developing and advancing women everywhere is an absolutely vital part of our global business strategy, says Holley.
These efforts have impressed analysts like Credit Suisses Exstein. There have been so many initiatives in the past two years, he says. They are acting like a 21st-century company, when I would argue that for most of the 20th century they acted like a 19th-century company in terms of what socially was expected of them, and they are trying to lead on some of these topics.
AT FIRST GLANCE, WAL-MART'S recent operating performance calls to mind the glory days. In the third quarter of fiscal-year 2012, which ended on October 31, it recorded its first increase in same-store revenue year-over-year after declines going back nine consecutive quarters. Same-store revenue was also up for the most recent quarter, ended January 31. The improvement in same-store sales reflects several moves.
Beginning in late 2010, Wal-Mart reintroduced 10,000 products to its stores 10 percent of the inventory at its Supercenters including plus-size clothing, accessories and traditional items like fishing and hunting gear. It also reintroduced what it calls actionality, whereby the company features products like prepackaged foods ranging from dried dates to doughnuts, or a complete meal set, in the center of the aisles, to highlight a sale or an idea. There, for example, a customer might find in one display all the items needed to bake a cake: flour, sugar, baking soda, frosting, aluminum pans and birthday candles or holiday decorations.
Wal-Mart also brought back layaway payments during the past holiday season. Between October 17 and December 16, customers had the option of putting 10 percent down on a total purchase price of more than $50, for a $5 nonrefundable fee. Although CFO Holley would not give the numbers, store managers II spoke with said this turned out to be a highly popular option for the retailers customers and associates alike, especially for expensive items like LGs 32-inch LCD television and the Apple iPad.
But all this goes only so far to help Wal-Mart in the long run. Much depends on the fate of its acquisition of Massmart, a publicly traded supermarket chain based in Sandton, South Africa. Wal-Mart bought a 51 percent stake for $2.4 billion in June 2011, and the deal was finalized last month.
For Wal-Mart this acquisition points the way forward abroad, not only in South Africa but in Africa as a whole, and not only in product sales but in supplies. It will take decades for Africa to develop economically to the point where China is now, and that could help sustain Wal-Marts low-cost sourcing model. Says Jeff Davis, senior vice president and treasurer of Wal-Mart: The culture of Massmart is very similar to the culture of Wal-Mart.
Wal-Mart won South African government approval partly because it is continuing Massmarts environmental efforts and because it established a 100 million rand ($13 million) fund to benefit the local supplier network. South Africa has implemented more-comprehensive legal standards around ESG issues than some developed markets have. For instance, its pension funds are required by law to consider any factor which may materially affect the sustainable long-term performance of a funds assets, including factors of an environmental, social and governance character. Even so, a large South African union for service sector workers, the South African Commercial, Catering and Allied Workers Union, has taken legal action to oppose the deal and request that the government set higher standards for procurement from local suppliers. Despite a South African appeals courts approval of the merger last month, the union says it will pursue other legal avenues if its current action fails.
Warns Mike Abrahams, a spokesman for Saccawu, We expect Wal-Mart intends [to work] toward the erosion of agreements, worker rights, employment contracts, benefits, wages and related issues.
Current labor agreements must remain in place for three years, according to terms set for the acquisition by South African regulators.
Meanwhile, Wal-Mart laid out between $13 billion and $14 billion worldwide on acquisitions and capital expenditures during the fiscal year ended January 31 before spending anything on ESG issues. With sales growth expected to continue at its recent pace of 5 to 7 percent in the year ahead, further sustainability efforts could soon hurt the bottom line.
At the same time, the number of ESG investors is only likely to grow. Behemoths BlackRock, with $3.5 trillion in assets under management, and Fidelity Investments, with $1.5 trillion, are two large U.S. money managers that are said to be considering integrating ESG factors into their normal investment processes for certain fund groups.
In January, $1.3 trillion bond giant Pacific Investment Management Co. signed on to the U.N.s PRI and Global Compact. Outside the U.S., Stockholm-based ESG consulting firm GES Investment Services has 70 clients representing 750 billion in assets and recommends that clients either engage with Wal-Mart or exclude it, because of labor issues.
Not all ESG investors are concerned about issues like health care. Rich Donovan, CEO of Wingsail Capital Management, a New Yorkbased hedge fund that invests in companies that look out for people with disabilities, has his doubts. One of the critical success factors of a company is human resources, and you want to keep them productive; you want to keep them healthy, says Donovan. If health care was hurting Wal-Marts ability to hire people, he says, its something you should absolutely look at. But, he adds, I doubt health care benefits would have an impact on shareholder value.
Other ESG investors see the health care and other social issues in much broader terms. David Schick, an analyst for securities firm Stifel, Nicolaus & Co. in Baltimore, for one, says his research team has become more attuned to social questions and how consumers view labor issues. When youre Wal-Marts size, public perception clearly matters, says Schick. Whether you are looking at environmental concerns, labor concerns, or, gosh, the color of your logo, they matter.
Wal-Mart is finally aware of the problem. Whether it can solve it is an open question.