Not quite ruining the world

September 13, 2007

I’m not a business major, but I’m fascinated by Company X.

In 2004, Company X announced its goal of becoming 100 percent fueled by renewable energy, to reduce the energy demand in its stores by at least 25 percemt, and to produce zero waste—all by 2020.

In 2006, Company X endorsed a mandatory cap-and-trade system administered by the federal government to cut carbon emissions and reduce global warming.

In 2007, Company X met with Greenpeace, the Natural Resources Defense Council and The World Wildlife Fund to talk about collaborating on sustainability. Recently Company X signed a partnership with USAID to help support small farmers in Guatemala.

By 2020, Company X will have invested more than $500 million in energy efficiency, conservation and the reduction of solid waste.

It’s hybridizing its 7,200 truck fleet. It’s replacing all its millions of lightbulbs with compact fluorescents. And it’s forcing other companies to do the same through unapologetic peer and market pressure.

Company X is a retailer that employs close to two million people. It operates more than 6000 stores on four continents and its 60,000 suppliers operate facilities in more than seventy countries. Through those supply chains, Company X produces everything from the food we eat to the clothes we wear to the medicines we take. Its enormous stores house hair salons, video arcades and local bank branches. The company’s gross sales last year totaled more than $345 billion.

Company X is a monolith of a capitalist machine, and since its founding it’s fielded accusations of unfair employment practices and of violating workers’ rights. Domestic labor groups have railed against exploitative pricing and discriminatory hiring practices. Activist groups have raged about alleged sweatshop labor, child labor and prisoner labor employed by Company X’s suppliers in the developing world. That battle is an old one, and it isn’t going anywhere.

Company X—also known as Wal-Mart, Inc.—has invested and will continue investing vast resources in energy conservation and sustainable development. Georgetown students should have taken last Wednesday’s lecture by Wal-Mart Vice President for Ethics Rajan Kamalanathan on global business and international development as an opportunity to learn more about Wal-Mart’s activities at that juncture.

Unfortunately, many students were more interested in making the same old accusations about labor standards—as if anyone on campus disputes the necessity of prosecuting exploitative practices—than in learning about Wal-Mart’s efforts in sustainable development. In their zeal to skewer Mr. Kamalanathan over union-busting in the US and forced overtime in the Dominican Republic, students missed an opportunity for a discussion about mutually beneficial partnerships between Wal-Mart and activist organizations. Many of the questions posed were well-researched, elegantly phrased and had nothing to do with sustainability or international development.

The student protest held outside Copley Hall during the speaker’s presentation was totally predicable. Last week, the Voice quoted one student protester as saying, “I can’t understand why a social institution like Georgetown would invite [Wal-Mart] to promote [itself] on our campus.” I find it equally difficult to understand why anyone interested in funding international development or changing the social practices of big business in America wouldn’t want to engage in a meaningful dialogue with the world’s biggest retailer.

Georgetown students are very good at social protest. We bristle when someone suggests that we’re pearl-wearing twenty-somethings at an expensive private university, that our passion isn’t real and our activism doesn’t count. Shouldn’t we acknowledge the same worth in Wal-Mart’s recent activism?

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