09/26/2012 08:57 am ET Updated Nov 26, 2012

Good Question, President Clinton. Here's Our Response

At the Clinton Global Initiative's annual meeting on Sunday, President Clinton asked me a provocative question: "If the new president of Libya asked you to open a store in Tripoli, would you consider it?"

At the heart of the President's question was his belief that business has a critical role to play in promoting sustainable development around the world. His question was not just about Libya but about how to bring business investment -- dollars -- to the places that need it most. It was about how to help more people achieve a better life.

Times have changed, haven't they? The world has higher expectations of all companies and especially ours -- and we welcome those expectations. They have made us a better company and led to better outcomes for our customers and communities. Business can lead. Business must lead. And Walmart should always be right at the front.

The CGI theme this year was "Designing for Impact." I'm an engineer by training, and I loved this approach. I really believe that, in order to lead, we have to be intentional about design on the front end so that we get better outcomes on the back end. That's true whether you're creating a new product or driving change on big issues.

Now, we don't claim to have this all figured out. But we have learned a few things along the way (sometimes the hard way). Today, I want to share a little about our approach.

It starts with knowing our role. We recognize we have a responsibility to lead that comes with our size and scale, and we see opportunity where others might see risk.

Next, we remember who we're working for -- the global emerging middle class. They are our customers, or they will be. They are fighting for their families, and we're going to fight for them.

Then, we get down to actually leading an initiative and delivering the promise of our scale. At this point, we've found we have to look at three things: metrics, systems, and culture.

On metrics
We set big goals, even if we don't always know how we'll get there. We're asking: What do we truly want? Not "What can we tinker with at the margins" or "What can we give a few dollars to?" What does the world we want look like? No one thought we'd be powered by 100 percent renewable energy, but we're now the largest solar user in America. Big, measurable goals can drive an organization. That's why our Women's Economic Empowerment announcement last year contained a very important commitment: We pledged to buy $20 billion worth of products from women-owned businesses in the U.S. and double our sourcing from women globally by 2016.

On systems
We've found you need to give hard thought to the tools your people will need. For example, our merchants needed ways to understand the impacts of the products they're buying. That's why we're helping create the Sustainability Index so they can compare one product to another.

On culture
From the very start, we've been clear that everyone, in every role and responsibility, is expected to participate and contribute. And everyone is empowered to make a difference. Every six months, we hold a Sustainability Milestone Meeting because I want to personally stand in front of our team and drive home how important this is to our company.

A final thought I want to share is that even a company as big as ours can't do this work alone. We've learned we need innovative partnerships that bring NGOs, corporations, small businesses, and governments together to make a difference for people around the world. In fact, that's why I was at CGI in the first place. We have so much we can learn from each other and so much more to do.

It's time for a new model for making change because times have changed. Even a few years ago, a retail CEO wouldn't have gotten a question about Libya. International development was mainly left to the NGOs, and most people didn't expect that level of engagement from businesses. But today, companies, NGOs and governments alike recognize the power that can come from working together.

President Clinton was right to keep raising expectations about the role of business. We wouldn't have it any other way.