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Business and Politics

Editor-in-Chief: Aggarwal, Vinod K.

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Volume 16, Issue 1 (Apr 2014)


Socializing the C-suite: why some big-box retailers are “greener” than others

Hamish van der Ven
  • Corresponding author
  • University of Toronto, Political Science, Sidney Smith Hall, Room 3018, 100 St. George Street, Toronto, Ontario, Canada
  • Email
  • Other articles by this author:
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Published Online: 2013-12-13 | DOI: https://doi.org/10.1515/bap-2013-0024


Despite a considerable push by policy-makers to incentivize green business practices, take-up of environmental initiatives amongst North American retailers has been highly uneven. While some “big-box” retailers have launched ambitious environmental initiatives, others continue to conduct business as usual. This paper asks: why do some mega-retailers commit to ambitious environmental agendas while others in the same sector do not? And how can the answer to this question improve public policy? I investigate these questions using comparative case studies of four North American big-box retailers: Wal-Mart, Target, Costco and Kroger. My findings suggest that the socialization of senior executives through multi-stakeholder sustainability networks is the critical variable accounting for progressive environmental practices in some corporations and not others. This finding suggests that existing public policies that focus on making the business case for sustainability are based on incomplete assumptions about why companies “go green.” It further suggests that socialization theory can help explain broader instances of corporate social responsibility and proposes that scholars in this field should devote more attention to the composition of socializing groups.


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About the article

Corresponding author: Hamish van der Ven, University of Toronto, Political Science, Sidney Smith Hall, Room 3018, 100 St. George Street, Toronto, Ontario, Canada, M5S 3G3, Tel.: 647-965-2860, e-mail:

Published Online: 2013-12-13

Published in Print: 2014-04-01

Amongst others: Eden (1991); Strange (1992); Cutler, Haufler, and Porter (1999); Biersteker and Hall (2002); Vogel (2006); Clapp and Fuchs (2009); Büthe (2010); Dauvergne and Lister (2010); Porter and Ronit (2010); Lister (2011); Börzel, Hönke, and Thauer (2012).

For a defining statement of the business case for sustainability, see: Willard (2002).

For brevity, the legally registered names of these companies are here shortened to: Wal-Mart, Target, Costco, and Kroger.

A justification for this definition is provided in Section 5. See Delmas and Blass (2010: p. 246); Ilinitch, Soderstrom, and Thomas (1998).

Amongst other theories, scholars have variously pointed to the interplay of civil society and transnational corporations in creating new expectations about the global public role of private enterprise (Ruggie 2004: p. 519) or a global neoliberal agenda that abets firms in gradually supplanting the governance role of the state (Cutler 2002: pp. 32–33).

This figure represents the combined total 2010 group revenue of Wal-Mart, Kroger, Costco, and Target as reported in: Deloitte (2012: p. G11).

Comparison based on national gross domestic product (GDP) in USD for the same year, as reported in: World Bank (2012).

Dauvergne and Lister (2010: p. 147).

Dauvergne and Lister (2010: p. 147). The role of corporations in areas of limited statehood is further developed in Börzel, Hönke, and Thauer (2012).

An example being Wal-Mart’s decision to stop selling milk from cows treated with growth hormones. The decision resulted in a wave of similar policies in grocers across the US. See: “Major Grocer to Label Foods With Gene-Modified Content,” New York Times, 8 March 2013.

Schreurs (2008).

Vandenbergh (2007). For other examples of the “Wal-Mart Effect” see: Fishman (2006).

Bertelsmann Stiftung and UN Global Compact (2010: p. 5).

Danish Commerce and Companies Agency (2006: Preface).

Bertelsmann Stiftung and UN Global Compact (2010: p. 34).

Danish Commerce and Companies Agency (2006: Preface).

A full review of these policies is out of the scope of this article. However, the Government of Canada’s attempt to induce CSR in the mining sector is another good example of using economic incentives to induce sound social and environmental practices. See: Government of Canada. “Building the Canadian Advantage: A Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) Strategy for the Canadian International Extractive Sector.” Available from: http://www.international.gc.ca/trade-agreements-accords-commerciaux/ds/csr-strategy-rse-stategie.aspx?view=d. Accessed 6 February 2013.

UNGC (2012: p. 7).

UNGC (2012: p. 5).

UNEP and Sustain Ability (2001); OECD (2011: p. 44); UNEP (2012).

Brown, Vetterlein, and Roemer-Mahler (2010); Margolis and Walsh (2003) contain comprehensive reviews of the field.

Other authors have attempted to create typologies of CSR theory. Brown, Vetterlein, and Roemer-Mahler also use a two-by-two matrix with internal-external on one axis and structure-actors on the other [Brown, Vetterlein, and Roemer-Mahler (2010: p. 6)].

This dichotomy is outlined in March and Olsen (2006). An analogy can be made to “strategic” vs. “moral” drivers of CSR or to “continuance commitment” vs. “normative commitment” as these categories are sometimes termed in the management studies literature. See Meyer and Allen (1997); Branco and Rodrigues (2006); Graafland and van de Ven (2006).

March and Olsen (2006: p. 248).

March and Olsen (2006: p. 249).

Brown, Vetterlein, and Roemer-Mahler (2010: p. 5). Friedman famously wrote: “there is one and only one social responsibility of business – to use its resources and engage in activities designed to increase its profits so long as it stays within the rules of the game.” Friedman (1962: p. 133).

Waltz (1959).

Porter and Kramer (2006: p. 80). Miles and Covin (2000); Ruggie (2002: p. 35).

Sims and Keon (1997). Especially in cutting-edge industries where personnel increasingly look for more than monetary awards, see: Ruggie (2002: p. 35).

Notably, stakeholder theory. See Freeman (1984).

On the threat of shareholder activism, see: The International Association for the Study of Insurance Economics (2009: p. 59). On ENGO ‘naming and shaming’ campaigns, see: Bartley (2007: p. 299); Gereffi, Garcia-Johnson, and Sasser (2001); on NGOs targeting financial institutions, see Schaper (2007); on pressure from regional political institutions, see Bernhagen, Mitchell, and Thissen-Smits (2013); on pressure from international political institutions, see: Park (2005).

Prakash (2001: p. 289). See also: Fri (1992); Reinhardt (1999); Porter and van der Linde (1995); Nehrt (1998).

Prakash (2001: p. 289).

Thauer (2013: pp. 10–11). Organizational structure has also been used to explain labor-related CSR, see Mares (2003).

Prakash (2001: p. 296).

Prakash (2001: p. 293). A similar argument is made by Barnea and Rubin (2010).

Brown, Vetterlein, and Roemer-Mahler (2010: p. 5). See also Brown and Fraser (2006).

Newell and Paterson (2010: p. 52).

Cashore, Auld, and Newsome (2004).

Barnett and Finnemore (2004); Brown, Vetterlein, and Roemer-Mahler (2010: p. 13).

Brown, Vetterlein, and Roemer-Mahler (2010: p. 15).

Arena (2007); Berger, Cunningham, and Drumwright (2007). Others suggest that changing organizational culture is a necessary precursor to implementing CSR, see Bhandari and Abe (2001).

Desai and Rittenberg (1997: p. 3); McWilliams and Siegel (2001); Hemingway and Maclagan (2004); Godos-Diez, Fernández-Gago, and Martínez-Campillo (2011).

Trevino et al. (1999); Canadian Business for Social Responsibility (CBSR) (2007: p. 34); Sangle (2010).

Egri and Herman (2000: p. 599).

Berger, Cunningham, and Drumwright (2007); Collier and Esteban (2007); Trevino, Hartman and, Brown (2000).

Vogel (2006: p. 45).

For example, Shell’s decision to sink the Brent Spar, an obsolete oil rig in the North Sea, led to Greenpeace protests in 1995 and eventually prompted major reconsideration of Shell’s environmental practices. See Porter and Kramer (2006: p. 80).

For example, Wal-Mart has pursued environmental initiatives aggressively, but has made relatively little progress on labor-relations and gender equity, despite arguably facing more pressure from NGO campaigns.

Bernstein (2013: p. 140).

See, for example, van der Ven’s critique of Thauer: van der Ven (2013).

Prakash (2001: p. 293).

Egri and Herman (2000: p. 599).

Matten and Moon (2004) is an exception. The authors speak to the role of executive education in shaping managerial values.

Brown, Vetterlein, and Roemer-Mahler (2010: p. 20).

A “value” is here defined rather broadly as being a “principle or norm that guides behavior,” see Hemingway and Maclagan (2004: p. 36). Eco-centric values are therefore those that deeply value and identify with nature, see Egri and Herman (2000: p. 572).

Checkel (2005: p. 804). See also Alderson (2001).

Prominent examples included: Adler and Barnett (1998) on security communities, Finnemore (1996) on the European Union, Irvine (2011) on domestic policy paradigms, and Slaughter (2004) on global government networks. For overviews see: Risse, Ropp, and Sikkink (1999) and the special issue of International Organization of which Checkel (2005) is the introductory article.

Checkel (2005: p. 804).

Checkel (2005: p. 804).

Checkel (2005: p. 812). See also Risse (2000); Kantz (2007: p. 7).

Slaughter (2004: p. 198).

Freeman (1984).

A notable exception is Kantz (2007) on how socialization helps explain diamond industry engagement in the Kimberley Process.

A summary of such works is available in Prakash (2001: p. 291).

Checkel (2005: p. 804).

Although, it is worth noting that socialization is a two-way process. In some cases, the interests of non-corporate entities may realign to allow for the ongoing importance of corporate interests. See Kantz (2007: p. 9).

Although, Checkel does specify a number of broader conditions under which identity and interest change are most like to occur (1) “The target of the socialization attempt is in a novel and uncertain environment and thus cognitively motivated to analyze new information. (2) The target has few prior, ingrained beliefs that are inconsistent with the socializing agency’s message. (3) The socializing agency/individual is an authoritative member of the ingroup to which the target belongs or wants to belong. (4) The socializing agency/individual does not lecture or demand but, instead, acts out principles of serious deliberative argument. (5) The agency/target interaction occurs in less politicized and more insulated, in-camera settings.” Checkel (2005: p. 813).

DiMaggio and Powell (1983); Haunschild and Miner (1997).

DiMaggio and Powell (1983); Haunschild and Miner (1997).

Perez-Bartres, Miller, and Pisani (2011: p. 850).

See: Boddy and Paton (1998: p. 118); Trevino et al. (1999); Prakash (2001: p. 287); Sangle (2010).

Prakash (2001: p. 287).

For example, groups like the National Association for Environmental Management or the Reusable Packaging Association.

For example, while several firms in this study have engaged with the Initiative for Responsible Mining Assurance or the National Governor’s Association on environmental initiatives, these groups are not considered MSSNs because they maintain broader agendas.

The same stipulation holds for many eco-labeling organizations, since membership does not reflect a dialogue between industry and external stakeholders.

This is the research design suggested in Brown, Vetterlein and Roemer-Mahler because the small-n sample “can yield more refined understandings of the weight of various contextual and agency factors, and how they intersect in practice” (Brown, Vetterlein, and Roemer-Mahler 2010: p. 24).

Lijphart (1971).

See Ilinitch, Soderstrom, and Thomas (1998); Delmas and Blass (2010: p. 246).

Ilinitch, Soderstrom, and Thomas (1998: p. 388).

Ilinitch, Soderstrom, and Thomas (1998: p. 389).

See Ilinitch, Soderstrom, and Thomas (1998); Delmas and Blass (2010).

Newsweek (2012c). For a detailed description of the methodology used to calculate the NGBR, see: Newsweek (2012a). For further comments on credibility, see: “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Newsweek’s Green Rankings,” Greenbiz.com, 17 October 2011.

Newsweek (2012a).

The NGBR’s disclosure (transparency) score was only introduced in 2011, having replaced a reputation survey score, which was based on an opinion survey of CSR experts, academics and other environmental experts. Thus the NGBR is not a good measure of transparency for this time period. While the CDP Disclosure Rating reflects the degree to which companies are transparent on their climate change performance, CDP reports often reflect broader environmental goals than climate change. Hence, the CDP Disclosure Rating is a reasonable proxy for a firm’s transparency about its environmental initiatives more generally. See Newsweek (2012a).

Prakash (2001: p. 288).

Prakash (2001: p. 288).

While Target outperformed the other retailers in its Environmental Impact Score in 2011, its ranking fell due to a poor Environmental Management score that year. This may be due to the relatively late release of its 2011 sustainability report.

The significant fluctuation in rankings year-over-year reflects the evolution of the NGBR methodology. Slight changes in methodology between years can lead to big swings in a company’s ranking relative to others. For our purposes, it suffices that the position of the four retailers relative to each other remains largely unchanged across time.

See Wal-Mart (2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012).

Potoski and Prakash (2005).

CDP (2012e: p. 6.1b).

Target (2011: p. 11).

Target (2011: p. 13).

Target (2011: p. 14).

Prominent initiatives include constructing energy efficient warehouses, reducing plastic PVC packaging, and recycling waste materials. See: Costco (2012a: pp. 13–14).

“Costco Steps Up Sustainable Seafood Policy,” Triplepundit.com, 3 March 2011.

“Costco makes a move toward ocean protection,” Greenpeace.org, 28 February 2011. Greenpeace singled out Costco for a campaign, setting-up a website called oh-no-costco.com to publicize its grievances.

The exact number of this rate of investment is unspecified. CDP (2012c: p. 3.3c).

Kroger (2012: p. 30).

“Wal-Mart kept NGO partnerships on the DL,” Reuters, 13 March 2008.

A more detailed version of Wal-Mart’s sustainability journey is presented in Humes (2011).

“The Green Machine,” Fortune Magazine, 31 July 2006. Available from: http://money.cnn.com/magazines/fortune/fortune_archive/2006/08/07/8382593/index.htm. Accessed 10 March 2011.

“The Green Machine,” Fortune Magazine, 31 July 2006.

The events in this paragraph are described in: “Wal-Mart Chairman: How We Came to Embrace Sustainability,” Fortune, 17 April 2012. Available from: http://tech.fortune.cnn.com/2012/04/17/rob-walton-peter-seligmann-transcript/. Accessed 21 August 2013. They are a transcript of an interview of Rob Walton and Peter Seligmann describing their initial contact and how it shaped Wal-Mart’s sustainability practices.

“The Green Machine,” Fortune Magazine, 31 July 2006.

“Wal-Mart’s Scott: “We Were Getting Nowhere,”” BusinessWeek, 21 September 2005. Available from: http://www.businessweek.com/bwdaily/dnflash/sep2005/nf20050922_2095_db008.htm. Accessed 16 March 2011.

“Wal-Mart’s Scott: “We Were Getting Nowhere,”” BusinessWeek, 21 September 2005.

“The Green Machine,” Fortune Magazine, 31 July 2006.

“The Green Machine,” Fortune Magazine, 31 July 2006.

CDP 2012e, 2.3a.

“Wal-Mart kept NGO partnerships on the DL,” Reuters, 13 March 2008.

“Wal-Mart kept NGO partnerships on the DL,” Reuters, 13 March 2008.

The fact that SVNs focused “primarily on environmental impact” might also explain why Wal-Mart has been so active in this domain, and less active in other aspects of CSR. See Wal-Mart (2008): p. 11.

Wal-Mart (2012: p. 2).

“Wal-Mart Chairman: How We Came to Embrace Sustainability,” Fortune, 17 April 2012.

“WRI Board of Directors.” World Resources Institute. Available from http://www.wri.org/about/board. Accessed 22 February 2013.

Target (2011: p. 3).

Target (2011: pp. 43–44).

CDP (2012d: p. 2.3a).

“WRI Corporate Consultative Group.” World Resources Institute. Avialable from: http://www.wri.org/corporate-consultative-group. Accessed 22 February 2013.

Target (2012: p. 9).

Interview transcript from: “How Target aims to hit the mark on sustainability,” Greenbiz.com, 14 April 2013.

CDP (2012d: p. 1.1a and 2.1a).

Costco (2009: p. 10).

Costco (2009: p. 2).

“WWF Collaborates with Costco Wholesale to Assess Wild-Caught Fisheries and to Further Develop a Sustainable Sourcing Strategy,” World Wildlife Fund. 16 March 2011. See also: Costco (2012b: p. 2).

“Costco makes a move toward ocean protection,” Greenpeace.org, 28 February 2011. More recently, Costco has become a member of the Global Partnership for Oceans, but this may also be an attempt to save face after the Greenpeace campaign.

Costco (2009, 2012a).

Costco (2009; p. 12).

Notable exceptions include partnerships with WWF on reforming seafood procurement and The Sustainability Consortium on life cycle analysis. See: Kroger (2011: p. 21).

CDP (2012c: p. 1.2a).

CDP (2012c: p. 2.2a).

CDP (2012c: p. 2.3a).

A similar appeal is made in Brown, Vetterlein, and Roemer-Mahler (2010: p. 25).

Bernstein (2013: p. 141).

Vogel (2006: p. 4).

Bernstein (2013: p. 142).

Checkel (2005: p. 804).

Accenture and UNGC (2010: p. 42).

Citation Information: Business and Politics, ISSN (Online) 1469-3569, ISSN (Print) 1369-5258, DOI: https://doi.org/10.1515/bap-2013-0024.

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