As we all know, modes of consumption are changing: with access to megabytes of information, consumers are internalizing environmental and social issues, and expressing their desire to make "smarter" and more "responsible" purchases. What kind of business challenges does this shift mean in terms of management and communication? Walmart's inconsistent adhesion to CSR principles-its decision to adopt eco-friendly measures while selling anti-wrinkle creams to girls as young as eight years old-provides a good launching pad for the discussion.
Not dissimilar to the French supermarket chain Casino-which launched a carbon-labeling initiative on a selection of products back in 2008-Walmart has embarked on developing a solid sustainability strategy, seeking ways to reduce its environmental footprint and improve its overall social impact. Given the complexities of creating a reliable index to help customers make good choices, Walmart has leveraged the talents and insights of myriad academics and industry partners to help set it standards.
As reported by Jack Neff in Ad Age, a brand like Walmart can take advantage of its size and reputation to put pressure on suppliers to align with new standards of sustainability. This is highly laudable, so then it seems all the more strange that Walmart is failing to use its influence in a positive manner when it comes to GeoGirl, a new line of anti-aging products for girls between the ages of 8 and 12. As Dorothée Werner points out in the current edition of French Elle, "What happens in the head of a nine-year-old if we tell her that to grow up is to become old and ugly?"
Despite its genuine effort to become a greener actor, Walmart has obviously ignored the social and ethical aspects embedded within the concept of sustainability. Many people are asking how the retailer can justify the distribution of such not-needed products to a young and impressionable age group. This business decision-again inconsistent with other positive, eco-friendly strategies- is quite probably going to contribute to unnecessary and fictitious anxiety among young people. Walmart would surely serve the world better if it used its resources to support programs that build girls' self esteem, encourage them to do well in school and empower them to solve the world's problems- when they inevitably do grow up.
Perhaps the worst part of the story lies in Walmart's hypocritical communication: to camouflage the controversial nature of the products, Walmart has emphasized the eco-friendly (no parabens) composition and packaging of the products. But clearly, the green label should not be used as a front for selling unethical products.
In our post-crisis and social world, people are clamoring for business to do the right thing. Companies need to think about all stakeholders; they need to think about the planet's future and fully engage in CSR strategies that embrace all plateaux: environmental, economic, ethical and social.
Sarah Brault is studying international and comparative politics at the American University of Paris, with a particular focus on the question of power and value within 21st century world politics. Sarah can be reached at email@example.com.
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