Walmart is building its narrative about its role in labor, racial justice and environmental issues, following a year in which the success of big-box retail during the COVID-19 pandemic, in contrast to the conditions and wages of retail workers, has sparked renewed discussion.
In its latest environmental, social and governance report, a summary of which the retailer outlined Thursday, were metrics that painted a specific vision of the retailer’s operations. Walmart’s average hourly wage in the U.S. is now $19.50, the retailer has promoted more than 300,000 employees, shelled out some $2.8 billion in bonuses over the course of 2020, and the retailer is aiming to bring its emissions to zero by 2040, the report stated. Walmart also generated a record $560 billion in revenues last year, it acknowledged.
The company’s executives have recently had to field questions about wages for its lowest paid associates, who still make $11 an hour, as well about its own workers’ ability to have a greater say in safety protocols during the pandemic.
The retailer’s ability to deploy its vast employee base — some 1.5 million workers in the U.S. — toward executing its increasing emphasis on e-commerce and fulfillment operations has fueled questions about its store and warehouse workers’ role and agency in the company. Similar questions have arisen around Walmart’s biggest competitor, Amazon.
“Our associates innovated to safely serve customers and aid relief efforts — many of which continue today,” Walmart chief executive officer Doug McMillon said in the company’s 2021 ESG report summary. “As a result, we fulfilled more online pickup and delivery orders than ever.”
In recent public appearances, Walmart executives have appeared to walk the line between celebrating the retailer’s record success during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic while signaling a message of consciousness.
At its annual shareholders’ meeting last month, Walmart’s board recommended voting against two measures that were targeted at addressing wages and workplace safety.
One, by Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration in Wisconsin, had called for the board to oversee a report addressing how its lowest wages align with its stated goals of advancing racial justice, given that many of its low-wage staff are people of color. Another, by longtime Walmart employee Cynthia Murray, a member of the worker group United for Respect, had called for the company to create a Pandemic Workforce Advisory Council, with workers at the helm of advocating for safety policies.
Walmart has responded to critiques of its wages by framing its approach toward staff as one of granting “opportunity.”
The company has said that in fiscal year 2021 so far, some 165,000 Walmart U.S. workers received raises in a model “tiered with new positions that provide a ladder of opportunity and allow more room for pay growth,” according to the retailer’s ESG summary.
“Through our ESG strategies, we aim to do more than operate responsibly and mitigate business risk; we want to create value for business by better serving our customers and stakeholders and helping to transform related societal systems (e.g. food systems, workforce development systems) for more equitable and sustainable outcomes,” Walmart’s chief sustainability officer Kathleen McLaughlin said in a letter Thursday.
“Events of the past year — the COVID-19 pandemic, the murder of George Floyd, rising income inequality and intensifying climate and ecosystem decline — underscore the relevance of our shared value philosophy,” she wrote.