Heroes & zeros: vol. 12

Walmart exterior
Photograph of a Wal-Mart store exterior in Laredo, Texas. Source: Photograph taken by Jared C. Benedict on 22 February 2004.

Hero: Walmart

Executives at the Walmart Global Sustainability Milestone Meeting in September rolled out two ambitious initiatives meant to reduce chemical and pesticide use throughout its supply chain. The Bentonville, Arkansas-based retailer will be working with suppliers to institute the Consumables Chemicals initiative, a policy to eliminate 10 priority chemicals from household cleaning, personal care, beauty and cosmetic supplies in products sold at both Sam’s Club and Walmart. Developed in collaboration with the Environmental Defense Fund, it will also focus on expanding public disclosure of ingredients. Some companies have issued restricted substances lists, says Sarah Vogel, director of EDF’s environmental health program, but “no other company is requiring the all-important, but often forgotten, second step to truly transformational phase-outs: putting a system in place that avoids regrettable chemical substitutions.”

With groceries accounting for 51 per cent of Walmart’s U.S. sales last year and expanded home delivery service on the horizon, pesticide use now accounts for roughly half of the retailer’s carbon footprint. The company also announced new agreements with 15 key suppliers to lower pesticide use, with the goal of cutting fertilizer use by up to 14 million acres of American farmland by 2020. “Using less energy, greener chemicals, fewer fertilizers and more recycled materials is the right thing to do for the planet and it’s right for our customers and our business,” said Walmart president and chief executive Mike Duke in a statement.

The world’s largest retailer has grown increasingly aggressive in pursuing sustainability initiatives, even as its fierce opposition to organized labour and higher wages remains a contentious issue. Hundreds of U.S. employees took part in demonstrations across 15 cities in September. The company has been accused of deliberately avoiding Affordable Care Act health insurance requirements by hiring more temporary workers. This has been paired with attempts to reduce the number of employees per store to save costs, which has affected sales. In a victory for labour advocates, Walmart backtracked on the temporary worker policy in late September by moving 35,000 workers to full-time status in an attempt to improve employee performance and retention.

Zero: JP Morgan

A wholly owned subsidiary of JPMorgan Chase is currently under criminal investigation for obstruction of justice in regards to a regulatory probe into electricity market manipulation. The largest bank by asset size in the United States settled Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) allegations that it exploited electricity power market loopholes with a $410 million payment on July 30, but may have attempted to head off the investigation by withholding key documents from the FERC. The commission alleged that JPMorgan exploited loopholes in the electricity trading markets to drive up prices in the Midwest and California between 2010 and 2012. It suspended JPMorgan from participating in the electric power market in November 2012 while conducting its investigation on the grounds that the company “made factual misrepresentations and omitted material information over the course of several months.” JPMorgan did not admit any wrongdoing in the July settlement, and is “pleased to have this matter behind us,” according to JPMorgan spokesman Brian Marchiony. It has stated repeatedly that all required documents were turned over to the FERC in a timely manner. No charges have yet been filed.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Manhattan U.S. Attorney’s Office began to investigate JPMorgan’s actions in the aftermath of the July settlement, after several federal lawmakers began questioning the terms of the agreement. Massachusetts senators Elizabeth Warren and Edward Markey wrote FERC demanding to know why no employees who “impeded the commission’s investigations” were being held accountable. The Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations has launched its own probe into the terms behind the FERC settlement, focused in part on allegations of a cover-up.

Faced with over a dozen investigations by separate federal agencies, states and foreign governments on everything from foreign bribery allegations to questionable debt collection practices, JPMorgan posted a rare loss in the third quarter, with fines wiping out quarterly profits. It has paid $3.68 billion in total throughout 2013. The Wall Street Journal reported on Sept. 25 that JPMorgan may be facing the largest bank fine in history ($11 billion) over the fraudulent sales of mortgage-backed securities.

Click here to view our complete Heroes and Zeros series.

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