The Beast from Bentonville (and the world's largest private employer) announced that it's backing employer mandates for health care. That's not all it's been up to.
Hell froze over yesterday, a pig took its tentative first flight-and, in related news, Wal-Mart may have just secured the title of The World's Mightiest Advocate for Progressive Causes.That title claim became undeniable with Wal-Mart's announcement that it's endorsing the idea of compelling large companies to provide health coverage. Its bedfellows on that deal? The Service Employees International Union and John Podesta, who oversaw Obama's transition team and heads the Center for American Progress. You got it: Wal-Mart's allies are a think tank that has taken it to task on living wages, and a labor organization of the sort that Wal-Mart has always sought to quash; the cause is health benefits, which it has so infamously denied workers in the past.Wal-Mart's dramatic shift seems to have been brought about by a canny sense of the prevailing winds in America's political life. As The New York Timespointed out, big companies that have previously balked at providing insurance to all employees sense that some sort of change is coming. To wrangle better concessions, they figure they should link arms with the Obama administration, and come to the negotiating table as soon as possible. Wal-Mart in particular is advocating a containment in rising health care costs-which, incidentally, is a cause that President Obama has been propounding.The company has never been shy to admit that, when it adopts social causes, the reasoning is less about altruism and more about cash flow. Lee Scott, the company's outgoing CEO, admitted as much when he first began Wal-Mart's massive environmental push in 2005. At the time he said, "As I got exposed to the opportunities we had to reduce our impact, it became even more exciting than I had originally thought: It is clearly good for our business ..." Scott's successor, Mike Duke, underscored that commitment last week, at Wal-Mart's Sustainability Milestone Meeting. "This is not optional," he said. "It's not something of the past. This is all about the future."Four years on the green bandwagon is, of course a very short time. So what's been most surprising is the depth and stability of Wal-Mart's environmental commitment. Already, it has been astonishingly aggressive in using solar and wind power, carbon-neutral building, and carbon-efficiency in shipping. Its stated goal is to operate with 100 percent renewable fuels.Wal-Mart's power lies in the fact that it can influence everyone it does business with. Worldwide, the company employs 2.2 million people. It owns a mind boggling 11 percent of America's $3 trillion retail market. It accounted for nearly 10 percent of America's imports from China between 2001 and 2006. The line on the company's business practices has always been that it's ruthless: Suppliers that don't meet its purchasing guidelines get fined, and then get dropped with alarming speed. Wal-Mart does this because, thanks to the stores' low prices, profit margins are tiny, and the only way it can make money is with uncompromising efficiency. For example, Wal-Mart now rates its suppliers based on the energy efficiency of their operations, among other things. If you don't like it, you don't do business with the world's largest retailer. That's it.And that's precisely what makes Wal-Mart the most compelling model today for corporate responsibility. It is the world's biggest advertisement for the idea of a profitable, aggressively green company. But more than that, the company is proving-in the center of the country, in places far removed from the Democratic power bases on the coasts-that carbon emissions, and now health care, are not purely political causes. No politician could ever hope for that sort of power as an advocate. In the United States alone, Wal-Mart employs 1.4 million-that is, 1.4 million people working under the company's ruling assumptions. One can only guess at the broader reach of all that green P.R.Is Wal-Mart a champion of sustainability in every respect? No. Despite its other good works, no company is as responsible for American sprawl as Wal-Mart is-it has predicated its growth on building stores far from city centers.But those are contradictions we have to live with. When dealing with problems as dauntingly complex as carbon emissions or health care, there are going to be messy counterexamples to every good deed. Pure-hearted, indie start-ups simply don't have the power to effect widespread change. The best we can hope for is that the influential corporate behemoths like Wal-Mart are tending towards the light. It's thrilling when they do.CORRECTION: The subtitle of this article originally stated that Wal-Mart backs universal health care. In fact, Wal-Mart backs employer healthcare mandates. The text has been edited to reflect the correction.