NEW YORK — Businesses exist to serve society, Walmart chief sustainability officer Kathleen McLaughlin said during a presentation at the National Retail Federation’s recent “Big Show” conference and exhibition here.
McLaughlin, who is also president of the Walmart Foundation, described how the understanding of what that idea means has evolved over the years during a session called “A View from Walmart: How Retailers are Creating Economic Opportunity.”
For retailers, the most obvious meaning of “serving society” involves serving their customers, by providing them the opportunity to buy the products they want and need. And for public companies like Walmart, delivering value to shareholders has been accepted as another core purpose.
“But in the last 10 to 20 years there has been an expansion and a deepening of what it means to serve society,” McLaughlin said.
In the 1990s people started to talk about stakeholder value, and the idea was that retailers and other businesses needed to deliver value to all their stakeholders, including customers and shareholders, but also their employees, suppliers and communities. More recently the idea has expanded further, to include creating environmental, economic and social value — not just through philanthropic initiatives, but through the business itself.
For Walmart, McLaughlin said, a real turning point came in 2005 when Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans and the Gulf Coast. The company found itself in the unique position of being both a victim of that disaster, with stores, customers and employees in harm’s way, and also a first responder, able to use to supply chain and logistical capabilities to provide communities in need with food, water and other assistance.
In the wake of that disaster, Walmart’s leadership realized that the company had assets and strengths that could really help out, McLaughlin said. “And what if we were that kind of company everyday?
In her presentation, McLaughlin described Walmart’s efforts to create economic opportunity.