It’s not to say that diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives didn’t exist in the grocery lane before 2020. But, like many industries, grocery’s progress was catalyzed by the antiracist protests of summer 2020. While activists in the street advocated for systemic change, grocery business leaders inched toward the same in their companies.
Kroger CEO Rodney McMullen penned an open letter in June 2020, linking the company’s mission to “feed the human spirit” to his desire to respond to hurt, frustration and anger his employees were feeling. McMullen also shared allyship guides crafted by Kroger’s African American Resource Group, its LGBTQ contingent, and its Asian American Pacific Islander group.
Ultimately, McMullen’s sentiment manifested as Kroger’s DEI framework, Standing Together. The tenets included creating a “more inclusive culture” and “developing diverse talent,” along with “advancing equitable communities,” listening “deeply” and reporting progress.
Similarly, Publix CEO Todd Jones addressed the anti-racism movement and the “unprecedented challenges” of 2020. Along with lauding the associates on the floor who were caring for each other, Jones said, “... I’m saddened and unsettled by any racial injustice or events that divide our country. There are many emotions we are feeling — fear, anger, anxiety and impatience.” He added, “Now, more than ever, is the time for us to listen with open hearts and to lead with empathy — toward each other, toward our customers and toward our communities. At Publix, we reject racism and discrimination of any kind.”
That same summer, Publix sent a young Black teenage employee home for wearing a Black Lives Matter mask. In a statement to NBC News, the spokesperson cited “the company's prohibition against any messaging not associated with the chain's brand.”
Whole Foods faced a lawsuit for a similar situation in July 2020. About a year later, the National Labor Relations Board claimed Kroger ran afoul of federal labor laws when it prohibited unionizing employees from wearing BLM pins.
These conflicts between grocers’ broader messaging and store-level policies indicate how difficult racial justice work can be among grocers. Since 2020, DEI work continues to grow in popularity across a range of industries. But it remains to be seen whether grocers are making good on 2020’s promises.
The journey beyond supplier diversity
FMI Foundation Executive Director David Fikes points to how supplier diversity has long been an area of focus for the grocery industry — at least 15 years, before his time at FMI, he told sister publication HR Dive.
In its social governance plan, Publix mentions buying from “both mainstream and diverse vendors.” In February 2022, Albertsons announced a diverse supplier initiative, aiming to partner with companies that are more than “50% owned and controlled/operated by a U.S. citizen and fall under the categories or ethnicities of African American, Asian American, Hispanic, Native American, Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender, Service-Disabled Veteran or Female.”
Thereafter, Meijer hosted an event transcending the traditional supplier diversity directive, calling for “diverse-owned businesses” in the HR, IT, and financial services lanes among others.
But anything beyond supplier diversity’s robust history in the grocery lane has been a recent development, Fikes explained. The focus on DEI and belonging was the result of these concepts being “an issue for the customer,” he said.
A few key grocers — Kroger, Albertsons, Giant Eagle and Publix — stand out to Fikes. “They are taking this task very seriously and they are doing good work in that,” he said. “I could look at my laundry list of all of my committee members and say, ‘I really respect what they are doing.’ And more importantly, what I respect is their willingness to share what they are learning with their competitors. They don't see this as a competition issue — this is one where we all win.”
Many HR practitioners are moving away from the “business case for DEI'' as companies shift their focus to equity and inclusion for moral reasons, not solely profit. Grocers, meanwhile, are trying to keep pace with consumer sentiment by enhancing their supplier diversity initiatives and rolling out new programs for workers, including employee resource groups, learning and development opportunities that incorporate DEI, and greater visibility into their company’s diversity goals.
Grocery’s gold standard: Walmart
Many grocers re-emphasize their commitment to Title VII compliance on their DEI pages and have employee resource groups. Some grocers go the extra mile to collate and publish external environmental and social governance reports.
As a part of its “Target Forward” initiative, Target has rolled out publicly available reports for FY 2020 and for FY 2021. Along with frank breakdowns of employees by race and gender at the intersection of seniority, Target has been providing updates on its racial justice work. It also announced actionable diverse hiring goals, such as a 20% increase of Black team members from the top-down from 2020 to 2023.
Former Walmart Global Culture, Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Officer Ben Hasan told HR Dive, “We believe that representation matters and that talent comes in all walks of life — regardless of who you love, what your gender is, what your ethnicity is, what your physical abilities are, whether you're a veteran, what your religious beliefs are. That talent exists everywhere.” (Hasan left Walmart at the end of July).
Hasan added, “To exclude any group just doesn't make sense, because intelligence exists in all those groups.”
After summer 2020’s antiracism conversations, Walmart leadership decided that it “makes no sense to hide where you are,” and that publishing an ESG report was the best practice. “Transparency builds trust, and that it is literally the greatest capital that we have with both our associates and both our customers now,” Walmart’s DEI lead said.
And while this is arguably a leading standard for grocery employers, this kind of lift may be unrealistic for smaller companies.
“It's a matter of funding, quite honestly, for the smaller stores. They just feel spread so thin,” Fikes said, recounting his observation as an FMI director. “With all these supply chain issues, they are saying, ‘We're just lucky we can get bread on the shelf. And therefore, we can't pay attention to all of these things.’”
Fikes also said “without a doubt” every one of his organization members is aware of customer concerns regarding social issues, including fair labor practices, and environmental sustainability.
While DEI may be gaining speed due to consumer interest, Hasan thinks that heavy hitters in the grocery industry can inspire each other to act.
“Business people are competitive people,” he said. “When they look around and see that someone's doing better than they are — particularly in this space — it actually makes [them] take note. I often say this work is a journey that actually has no end… I think transparency is one of the things that actually helps push the work forward.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story failed to note that Ben Hasan left Walmart at the end of July.