Wal-Mart aims to do more work with women-owned businesses

CHICAGO ― Wal-Mart Stores Inc will double the money it spends with women-owned businesses, train women around the world and push major suppliers to use more women and minorities on work they do for the retailer as it keeps trying to shed a poor corporate image.

The moves, being unveiled by Chief Executive Mike Duke and others on Wednesday, come after the U.S. Supreme Court threw out women’s massive class-action sex-discrimination lawsuit against the world’s largest retailer in June.

That ruling was a major victory for Wal-Mart. Now, the company aims to make a major mark on women’s economic empowerment by setting five goals it hopes to meet by 2016. Wal-Mart employs 2.1 million people around the world, more than half of whom are women.

One goal with the potential for major economic impact is to increase sourcing from women-owned businesses including construction firms, farms and manufacturers.

In the United States, Wal-Mart spent about $2.5 billion with women’s businesses last year. It now plans to spend $5 billion annually through 2016 in the United States, and double sourcing from international suppliers run by women.

Wal-Mart often comes under fire with various groups claiming, among other issues, that its stores put smaller shops out of business and that it does not pay its workers enough.

The company has been working to promote a more caring image through various initiatives, such as working with U.S. first lady Michelle Obama to expand access to healthy food and pushing companies to sell more environmentally friendly products.

The U.S. State Department, among others, is backing its new women’s initiatives.

“I don’t know of any other company that’s making that kind of commitment and my hope is that it encourages others to step up,” said Nell Merlino, founder and president of Count Me In for Women’s Economic Independence, a nonprofit that helps women grow their small businesses that has collaborated with Wal-Mart since 2008.

Wal-Mart also plans to help train and educate 400,000 women, including 200,000 U.S. women from low-income homes, in job and financial-related skills. The company is funding its plans with $100 million in grants from the Walmart Foundation and its international businesses.

Some of the efforts are building on work that Wal-Mart has already done. In 2005, it pushed law firms to increase the gender and ethnic diversity among the staff that did business for the retailer. Now it is asking other firms, such as advertising agencies and suppliers who sell more than $1 billion of products to the chain each year, to do the same.

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