The Thin Line Between CSR and PR

Today Wal-Mart announced its new “global sustainable agricultural” plan, which includes doubling its sales of locally grown produce and providing training in sustainable farming techniques to 1 million agricultural workers. The ambitious CSR plan lays out objectives that the retail super-giant hopes to meet by 2015, with the stated goal of reducing its environmental impact and helping to  strengthen local economies.

The chain store, which is the USA’s biggest employer and the world’s largest public corporation, often comes under fire from watchdog groups and consumer activists over a perceived ill treatment of employees and tendency to push out local retail stores.

Yet while Wal-Mart’s sales have declined over the last five quarters, this latest push toward sustainable business practices might be something more than “just a PR stunt” to boost sales. Perhaps Wal-Mart is realizing what many other companies are realizing: that corporate responsibility and corporate citizenship are not just cosmetic sugarcoating, but good business practices. Other recent moves by Wal-Mart in the CSR department include cutting down on package sizes, promoting energy efficient light bulbs, and reducing its fossil fuel dependence.

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Companies with the best-perceived CSR platforms also happen to be some of the most profitable. A recent consumer poll conducted by the Boston College Center for Corporate Citizenship and the Reputation Institute had Johnson & Johnson, Disney, Google and Microsoft all in the top ten based on public perception of their social impact.

Wal-Mart’s sales are down because, well, the economy stinks. So what’s the country’s most powerful employer to do? Well, as Spiderman’s mantra goes, “With great power comes great responsibility.” By empowering local farmers, Wal-Mart has the opportunity to not only improve its produce section significantly but also boost the economy and create new jobs.

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In the long run, this is good for Wal-Mart, because sales ultimately depend on the economic health of the communities the store does business in. ‘Wallyworld‘ is slowly realizing that it is going to have to do a better job taking care of the little American towns where it ‘slashes prices.’

Even the Ayn Rand-spouting nihilists on Mad Men are ‘retroactively’ coming around to CSR, or at least pro bono work. As the public grows more skeptical , companies are carrying a bigger burden of proof that they care about the society as a whole. Wal-Mart is predicting a strong fourth quarter, despite recent lapses. Christmas might help sales this year, but in order to survive the next decade, the store might need to ramp up its CSR efforts even more. Maybe the store can help bring back ‘Made in the USA.’

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