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Walmart announced Wednesday initiatives aimed at helping women-owned businesses and women workers, as the company continues to deal with the possibility of individual claims of sex discrimination after the Supreme Court threw out a class-action suit by women workers this summer.
The country's largest retailer said it will spend $4 billion a year over the next five years on goods and services from U.S. businesses owned by women. It now spends $2.5 billion a year.
The discounter also aims to offer training to sharpen the skills of 60,000 women working in factories that supply products to Walmart and other merchants. And it plans to teach life skills from punctuality to financial literacy to 200,000 women overseas and to 200,000 low-income women in the U.S.
In addition, the company said it would donate $100 million to causes supporting women's economic development and ask its vendors and ad agencies or public relations firms to increase gender and minority representation on their Walmart accounts.
"If you look at retail, the vast majority of our customers are women, and if you look at Walmart [workers], the majority of our associates are women," said Leslie Dach, executive vice president of corporate affairs for Walmart. "It makes sense for us to have a focus on how we help women suppliers succeed and how we engage our communities."
Dach said the initiative was not in reaction to a class-action suit against Walmart, which charged unfair treatment of women in the workplace. Though the Supreme Court recently threw out the case, some of the plaintiffs have said they will still try to sue the company through individual claims.
But some critics were quick to fault the company's plans. Janet Shenk, a former AFL-CIO official, said Walmart's move to buy more products from women was a way of not dealing with problems.
"Once again, Wal-Mart is avoiding every issue that touches on how its products are produced," said Shenk, who oversees some corporate grants at the Panta Rhea Foundation, which works to combat corporate influence. "It's not about who owns the factory. So far as I know, there's no evidence that factories and businesses owned by women treat their employees better or have better conditions than factories and businesses owned by men."
Yet CARE, a nonprofit development and relief agency, said Walmart support would help advance its work.
"The typical woman we work with is a woman working in an apparel factory in, say, Bangladesh," said Melanie Minzes, senior director for development at CARE. "She is probably illiterate, probably gets sick pretty easily because she doesn't have much health education. With Wal-Mart's commitment, we are going to be able to reach tens of thousands of women like her and improve their lives and economic positions."
The $4 billion a year that Walmart plans to spend with women-owned businesses would still be a small percentage of its overall budget. The amount works out to about 5 percent of the annual operating expenses for the retailer, which is the nation's largest private employer (including more than 16,000 workers in Utah).
"Over the course of the five years, we are going to both have to seek out the businesses that are there," Dach said. "They'll range from construction to farming to food, and one of the great things about this is we will also improve the assortment of products we sell to people, and help our products become more relevant."