Corporations frequently lack the transparency necessary to reveal their sheer size, power, influence and effect on individuals, institutions, and organizations. The food and beverage industry, for example, are powerful players throughout the entire food and agricultural system. They use their power to influence policy, food prices, food produced and ultimately the food and beverages available to us, whether it’s at home, in schools, at work, or elsewhere.
Public health advocates, policy makers and others interested in influencing these choices would benefit from understanding corporate decisions and practices underlying our food system. Although it is a complex and oftentimes daunting process, resources are available to help unwrap corporate practices and related outcomes.
The guidelines and resources outlined below are useful for any number of industries and issues.
Corporate Research requires digging. To begin, start with any of these helpful sites.
- The Corporate Research Project of Good Jobs First has put together a step-by-step guide on how to do online corporate research.
- CorpWatch has a step-by-step guide to corporate research available.
- Crocodyl (see resource description below) also has a step-by-step guide to corporate research, available as a pdf.
It’s easiest to illustrate how to do corporate research with an example. Let’s say we’re interested in one company’s commitment to 1) locally grown food and 2) employee health care. And let’s take Wal-Mart as an example.
A useful starting place are these selected (and free) company reports (described in more detail on the websites above).
1. Company website includes, at least:
- General description of activities
- Press Releases
2. Annual Report includes, at least:
- Financial data
3. 10-K (filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission) includes, at least:
- Detailed description of the company’s operations
- Summary of the firm’s competitive and regulatory climate
- Description of the company’s facilities
- Data on the company’s workforce, which often includes information on the extent to which the workers are unionized and which unions represent them
- Overview of the main legal proceedings in which the company is involved
- Account of environmental issues relating to the company’s operations
- List of the company’s subsidiaries
Wal-Mart and Local Foods
“As the largest grocery retailer in the United States, we see a responsibility and an opportunity to promote more sustainable practices in the food and agriculture industries. One of the most important steps we can take is reducing food miles by selling locally grown produce in our stores.
In the United States, it is estimated that produce travels an average distance of 1,500 miles from farms to the homes of customers. This not only results in higher fuel costs, but can hurt rural communities where agriculture is the backbone of the economy.
To help reduce the number of miles food travels and help support rural communities, Wal-Mart has introduced a “Food Miles Calculator,” which allows our buyers to enter information on each supplier and product, determine product pick-up locations and select which of our 38 food distribution centers the product will reach. With this information, the calculator computes the total food miles, which the buyer can use when making buying decisions.
To further reduce food miles, we’re buying more produce locally, especially items like potatoes, tomatoes and peaches. We are also working with state departments of agriculture and suppliers to develop growing areas for products like corn in Mississippi and cilantro in Southern Florida which had not grown there before. Not only will these efforts save food miles, but they will provide our customers with fresher products.”
- Sustainable Agriculture Fact Sheet includes additional statements about local food.
- Press Releases
- A 2007 press release reveals that “Wal-Mart to Fund Environmental Research at the University of Arkansas Applied Sustainability Center.”
2. 10-K/Annual Report (contains much of the same information)
- Lacks information regarding both local foods and sustainable agriculture
- Financial data reveals the revenue from specific types of stores as well as the relative size of grocery sales and health and wellness sales, as compared to other merchandise categories:
- Sales from Discount Stores (average 108,000 square feet) in the U.S.: 971 million
- Sales from Supercenters (average 187,000 square feet) in the U.S.: 2,447 million
- Sales from Neighborhood Markets (average 42,000 square feet) in the U.S.: 132 million
- Grocery: 39% 2007; 41% 2008
- Health and Wellness: 9% 2007; 9% 2008
- Other categories include: health and beauty aids, apparel, shoes and jewelry, home, entertainment, electronics and toys, and seasonal and hardlines.
It’s also important to check out corporate watchdog sites. Oftentimes these sites can compare corporate rhetoric to corporate reality.
- The Crocodyl site (as described below) includes this information about Wal-Mart’s international labor conditions:
- Labor: Wal-Mart has been criticized for sourcing from international suppliers who violate workers’ rights. The International Labor Rights Forum has claimed that Wal-Mart sources from suppliers who used forced labor, violate minimum wage and overtime laws, deny maternity leave, deny health care and bathroom breaks and deny workers’ rights to form independent unions. As a result, the company was sued in 2005 by the International Rights Advocates on behalf of workers from China, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Swaziland, and Nicaragua. Wal-Mart’s purchasing and auditing policies have been blamed for their continued sourcing from factories which violate workers’ rights.
- Although this information isn’t directly related to local foods, a researcher could use this information to discuss the consequences of purchasing goods internationally.
- Other Wal-Mart specific watch dog sites are included on the Crocodyl site.
- 23 Organizations Issue Joint Report Critiquing Wal-Mart’s Sustainability Initiatives.
Wal-Mart and Employee Health Care
Health professionals and labor organizers may be especially interested in Wal-Mart’s commitment to employee health care. If we take the same resources as above, we find the following information from the company website, the Annual/10-K reports and corporate watchdog sites.
1. Company Website
The Health and Wellness section provides statements related to employee health care.
As an employer, providing our associates and their families with health care coverage is a priority for Wal-Mart. We are continually working to expand affordable access to care for our Wal-Mart and Sam’s Club associates and their families.
The Associate Health sub-section of the Health and Wellness section states the following:
Peace of mind
We work hard every day to make sure that all of our associates – and their children – have access to affordable, high-quality health care coverage.
Different plans for different needs
We also work hard to make sure our health care benefits can meet many different needs and lifestyles. Our associates range from full-time employees supporting a family, to seniors who returned to the workforce for supplemental income, to students looking for first-time job experience. And, their health care needs are as diverse as they are.
More than just health care coverage
A big part of affordable health care is affordable medicine. We offer more than 2,000 generic prescription drugs for $4 to associates who participate in our plans. To help our associates make healthy choices, we provide a variety of health and wellness information at walmartbenefits.com. We have 24-hour hotlines that provide counseling and nutritional information. All of our associates receive discounts on fresh fruits and vegetables, plus in-store health screenings and wellness events.
Our company received in May 2008 the Best Employers for Healthy Lifestyles Gold Award from the National Business Group on Health (NBGH) for the work that our associates and our company have put in place to promote a work environment that encourages associates to live healthy lifestyles. We were one of 52 employers in the country to be honored for our commitment to health, productivity and the well-being of our associates and their families.
- Press Releases
- A May 2008 recent press release “National Business Group on Health Honors Best Employers for Healthy Lifestyles – 52 Employers Recognized for Promoting Healthy Workplaces” discusses Wal-Mart’s commitment to a healthy workplace.
- A January 2008 press release, “Open Enrollment Data Shows That 92.7 Percent Of Wal-Mart Associates Now Have Health Coverage.”
2. Annual Report/10-K
One of the sections within the 10-K report identifies risk factors related to corporate growth. One risk factor is identified below.
Failure to attract and retain qualified associates and other labor issues could adversely affect our financial performance.
Our ability to continue to expand our operations in the United States and abroad depends on our ability to attract and retain a large and growing number of qualified associates. Our ability to meet our labor needs, including our ability to find qualified personnel to fill positions that become vacant at our existing stores, clubs and distribution centers, while controlling our associate wage and related labor costs, is generally subject to numerous external factors, including the availability of a sufficient number of qualified persons in the work force of the markets in which we are located, unemployment levels within those markets, prevailing wage rates, changing demographics, health and other insurance costs and changes in employment legislation. If we are unable to locate, to attract or to retain qualified personnel or if our costs of labor or related costs increase significantly, our financial performance could be affected adversely.
3. Corporate Watchdog Sites
Wal-Mart Watch tracks Wal-Mart practices around many issues, including health care. Here is a statement from the organization’s website: Despite numerous tweaks to their health plan, Wal-Mart simply cannot offer an affordable plan to cover its workers. Lagging behind industry averages, Wal-Mart’s employees are subjected to unnecessary charges and fees; wait longer for coverage eligibility, and are forced to seek out public health programs to fulfill their health care needs. The Susan Chambers’ memo, released in October 2005 by Wal-Mart Watch, reveals how Wal-Mart executives value saving a buck over the health of their workers. With less than 50% of associates choosing to participate in their plans, the Wal-Mart health plan is simply not working.
Additionally, the website states:
Over half of Wal-Mart workers fall through the company safety net
- Fewer than Half of Employees Covered. According to Wal-Mart’s own website, “In January 2006, the number of associates covered by Wal-Mart health care insurance increased to 46%.” [Walmartfacts.com]
- Coverage Lags Far Behind National Average. Nationally, 63 percent of workers in large firms (200 employees or more) receive their health benefits from their employer. More than 80 percent of Costco workers are covered by their company plan. [Employer Health Benefits 2006 Annual Survey, The Kaiser Family Foundation and Health Research and Educational Trust; New York Times, 10/24/05]
- Neither Affordable Nor Accessible. Wal-Mart provides health care options to their employees and families that have a deductible of $1,000 for individuals and $3,000 for families. Wal-Mart employees must endure long waits to qualify for benefits: six months for full-time employees and one year for part-time employees. [Wal-Mart 2006 Associate Benefits Book; Wal-Mart Press Release, 4/17/06]
- Waiting Too Long to Qualify. The Wal-Mart average for full-time workers to qualify for benefits is six months, compared to the retail average of 2.7 months and the average waiting period for large firms (200 or more workers) of 2 months. [Wal-Mart 2006 Associate Benefits Book; The (Montreal) Gazette, 4/18/06; Employer Health Benefits 2006 Annual Survey, The Kaiser Family Foundation and Health Research and Educational Trust]
Too Many Hurdles
Obstacles to coverage abound — and workers sometimes give up trying:
- Hidden Charges. The Wal-Mart 2006 Associate Benefits Book details the specific policies of the Associate Medical Plan (AMP) and reveals that the plan is filled with additional charges. Standard services – including office visit co-pays, emergency room visits and ambulance services, per-event deductibles, and pharmacy co-pays — are not applied toward the standard deductible. For example, in addition to the standard deductible, a $300 pharmacy deductible must be reached, a $1,000 in-patient facility deductible per visit must be paid, and a $500 out-patient surgical facility deductible per visit must be paid. [Wal-Mart 2006 Associate Benefits Book, pp. 32 and 38]
- High Out-of-Pocket Premiums. According to the Center for a Changing Workforce, in 2003, Wal-Mart employees paid 41% of insurance premium costs. At the time of the report, Costco employees paid about 10% of premium costs. Nationally, workers today pay an average of 16% of premiums for single coverage and 27% of premiums for family coverage. [Employer Health Benefits 2006 Annual Survey, The Kaiser Family Foundation and Health Research and Educational Trust; Wal-Mart and Healthcare: Condition Critical, Center for a Changing Workforce, 10/26/05]
- Less Money for Benefits than Other Firms. In September 2003, Wall Street Journal reported, “Last year, average spending on health benefits for each of the company’s roughly 500,000 covered employees was $3,500, almost 40% less than the average for all U.S. corporations and 30% less than the rest of the wholesale/retail industry, according to estimates by Mercer Human Resource Consulting, a unit of Marsh & McLennan Cos.” [Wall Street Journal, 9/30/03]
- Confusing to Even the CEO. In a speech before the National Governors Association, Wal-Mart CEO Lee Scott “conceded that one of Wal-Mart’s new efforts, the introduction of health savings accounts, had gotten off to a slow start because setting up the accounts was ‘too complicated.’ He said he found the process confusing and had not yet set up his own account.” [New York Times, 2/27/06]
A New York Times article from June 4 2008, Wal-Mart’s Detractors Come in From the Cold, discusses Wal-Mart, health care and Wal-Mart’s watchdog groups.
Resource Description: Crocodyl
Crocodyl is an incredibly useful site with rich and continuously updated data. A more specific resource description of Crocodyl is included below.
Crocodyl is a collaboration sponsored by CorpWatch, the Center for Corporate Policy and the Corporate Research Project. Our aim is to stimulate collaborative research among NGOs, journalists, activists, whistleblowers and academics from both the global South and North in order to develop publicly-available profiles of the world’s most powerful corporations. The result is an evolving compendium of critical research, posted to the public domain as an aid to anyone working to hold corporations increasingly accountable. — www.crocodyl.org
This site is helpful for anyone engaged in corporate research. It is useful for those learning how to do research, for those interested in tracking companies, and for those wanting to publicly post information about companies.
The information on Crocodyl is similar to any Wiki page – anyone can post and/or change information on the site and it is accessible free of charge. Given that most corporate research is done by market researchers and is frequently expensive to obtain, this publicly available resource is a great alternative.
Navigating the site
“How to Use this Site”
Publishing a company profile: Company Profile Research Guide to steer researchers through the process of documenting company profiles. Contains many online resources.
Creating a company profile on Crocodyl: Online tutorial to teach users how to create a company profile.
Tracking changes on a page: “Subscribe” to a page and track any changes made to a company profile(s).
Postings to the site are initially limited to a core group of contributors and fact checkers. In the future outside users will be allowed to post information and the core group will serve as editors, fact checkers and contributors. For more information, see the site’s Editorial Policy.
A useful list of resources to guide corporate research. Includes links to Basic Company Information, NGO Research Sources, Government Sources and Electronic Research Methods.
Photographs, scanned news stories and other multimedia files posted here.
A list (and links) to contributing organizations.
A link to an email list homepage. Email list allows anyone to join an open forum to learn more about the site, to discuss a new idea, or pose a question or comment.
Contains different ways to anonymously submit a file, leak a document, and more.
A list of company profiles featured on the Crocodyl site.
Company lists categorized by industry. To date, industries include:
- Financial Services, Insurance & Banking
- Food & Agriculture
- Media & Entertainment
- Natural Resources
- Retail & Mega-stores
- Technology & Telecommunications
- Tobacco & Alcohol
- Tourism & Real Estate
- War & Disaster Profiteering
Company lists categorized by issue. To date, issues include:
- Consumerism & Commercialism
- Free Trade
- Human Rights
- Management & Executives
- Money & Politics
- Tax issues
- World Financial Institutions
Company profiles vary by company and are based on the information that is both available and subsequently posted by contributors. Profiles tend to include, among others:
- Company snapshot
- Accountability overview
- Tax issues
- Labor issues
- Environment and product safety
- Human rights
- Political influence
The tabs at the top of the site include: 1) directory of all company profiles, 2) links to existing corporate research, 3) ongoing chat sessions and 4) a widget that can be linked to a website or blog.
View other resources reviewed and recommended by Corporations and Health Watch.