Walmart’s reputation for responsibility being challenged again?

The dramatic shift in perceptions of Walmart’s corporate responsibility performance in the last few years is an important case study in how a company’s reputation can be enhanced. But our latest tracking suggests that its battle may not yet have been completely won.
By 2007, the Bentonville-based retail giant had become a byword for corporate irresponsibility. Nearly a quarter of the American public named it spontaneously as an irresponsible company as criticism mounted of its use of non-unionised labour, the way it sourced its products and the perceived negative effect of its dominance on other retailers.
However, with the launch of its sustainable products index, its goal of being supplied 100% by renewable energy and its commitment to eliminate 20 billion tons of carbon from its global supply chain, it started to challenge these assumptions.
In 2010, the number of American consumers naming Walmart as a responsible company outstripped those naming it as irresponsible for the first time since 2004, and it also emerged as the most frequently named sustainability leader in GlobeScan and SustainAbility’s regular tracking of sustainability experts’ views.
But this year, Unilever has overtaken Walmart as the pre-eminent corporate sustainability leader among The Sustainability Survey panel of experts, and negative views of the company have once more overtaken positive ones among the US public, possibly in light of a prominent scandal involving the presence of cadmium in Chinese-made children’s bracelets and a race incident in a store in New Jersey. Incidents like this may be inevitable given the company’s size – but they are a reminder that maintaining a sustainable reputation is at least as challenging as building one.
Finding from the GlobeScan Radar, Wave 1, 2011
This post was written by former GlobeScan Research Director, Sam Mountford.