Social Responsibility at Target—A Retailer’s Value Proposition

A special social responsibility panel discussion is scheduled at the World Conference on Quality and Improvement on May 19 in Minneapolis.  One of the session panelists is Nate Garvis, senior public affairs officer for Target.    With nearly 1700 stores in 48 states, Target is a household word in the United States.  Along with that retail familiarity come exposure and responsibility.

“The bigger the institution, the bigger the responsibility,” states Garvis.  “Society has, I think, a legitimate need to require better behavior out of those entities that have bigger impact—because the consequences are greater,” he adds.

The consequences of Target’s approach to social responsibility are wide-ranging and are embedded in the culture reaching back to the company’s founding in 1902. 

Target is widely known for giving 5% of its pretax profits back to its community, a policy in place since 1946.  Currently, that commitment amounts to more than $3 million per week channeled to organizations that support education, the arts, and social services.  Community giving extends beyond the financial to include volunteerism.  In 2008, more than 180,000 Target people donated over 360,000 hours volunteering in their communities.

The company supports the social, environmental, and economic health of the communities of its customers, team members, and shareholders. 

  • Its social initiatives cover the gamut of community giving, creating a satisfying work environment, and ensuring that vendors comply with ethical and product safety standards. 
  • Environmental responsibility initiatives include: lessening its environmental impact, reducing its carbon footprint, maximizing life-cycle of materials, and managing facilities and natural resources. 
  • Commitment to strong corporate governance, guidelines for appropriate business conduct, and building shareholder value form the basis of Target’s economic responsibility initiatives. 

What motivates a large corporation to engage in behaviors and activities that fall under this broad umbrella of social responsibility?  

Garvis talks about social responsibility—and indeed, about everything the company does—in terms of a value proposition.  He wants people to think of Target as a valuable entity in their world.  “Too often people define corporate social responsibility as ‘What are you doing for the environment and what are you doing to alleviate global poverty?’  Those are important things.  But if that’s the only way you’re looking at your role in society, you’re sure leaving a lot of value on the table.” 

Target’s social responsibility culture builds value within its employee base and within its communities. 

“By working for an organization that is overtly focused on what we call social responsibility, we’re going to have an employment offering that is more relevant and more responsive to a more excellent employee base,” states Garvis.  In his own job, he acknowledges that working for a company with a strong SR culture means “people like me who work on the public policy side never have to ask permission to focus on the common good.”

Garvis also emphasizes Target’s belief that excellent merchants can’t thrive in anything other than an excellent community.  “I can show you empirically that your neighborhood is safer with a Target in it than not,” he says. “Why should we focus on that?  It’s in our self-interest.”

Being socially responsible enables Target to differentiate itself from others.  As Garvis explains: “If we can design an organization to be focused on these more qualitative values in society, we’ve decommoditized ourselves as an employment opportunity—or a shopping destination.”

To learn more about Target and social responsibility, check out the company’s corporate responsibility report.  You can hear Nate Garvis expand on these themes—and many others—as part of a special social responsibility panel session at the World Conference on Quality and Improvement on May 19 in Minneapolis.  Joining Garvis on the panel will be representatives of Ecolab and 3M.     

As part of its growing effort to assume a leadership role locally and internationally in the social responsibility (SR) movement, ASQ will host “Sustaining the Future: A Social Responsibility Event” on Earth Day, April 22, 2009, in Milwaukee.  The event is designed to unveil the initiative that will illustrate how aligning quality and social responsibility can help to achieve triple bottom line results.  The event also aims to highlight and energize leading-edge SR practices by local and national organizations. 


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