Sheri Flies has been a member of the Center for Business Ethics’ Advisory Board since its inception. Her work at Costco Wholesale in the areas of compliance, private label sourcing and now sustainability illustrates not only the importance of social responsibility at Costco but also how one’s personal commitment to higher standards in business can be a catalyst for change. In this interview, Julie Fergus, PMBA student and Graduate Assistant for the Center, asks about Ms. Flies’ important work.
Sheri Flies, Assistant Vice President of Global Sustainability and Compliance at Costco Wholesale
JF: How does your new position at Costco, Assistant Vice President of Global Sustainability and Compliance, allow you to address ethical issues in business?
SF: To me, sustainability and ethics are one in the same, which gives me the opportunity to address ethical business issues frequently. This can be accomplished in any field; ethics and sustainability do not need to be part of your job description for you to incorporate your beliefs into what you are doing. Unethical business practices are not sustainable in the long run and will not last—they eventually will cause problems and can destroy a business, as well as harm others and the environment in the process. Today with social media and a more informed citizenry, unethical and unsustainable business practices are not being tolerated. Sustainable solutions are ethical solutions and are one in the same. If a business acts sustainably, it will automatically be acting ethically and vice-a-versa.
JF: Could you talk a little bit about Costco's new Sustainability Commitment? What is it, how did it come about, what was your role in drafting it, and how does it shape your day to day at work?
SF: Our Sustainability Commitment, now over a year old and recently updated, is a compilation of what we are currently doing as a global company, to remain responsible, resilient and relevant over the long-term by doing the right thing. It is based upon remaining true to our core values set forth in our Code of Ethics (which includes obeying the law, taking care of our members, taking care of our employees, respecting our suppliers and rewarding our shareholders) as well as our Mission Statement (to continually provide our members with quality goods and services at the lowest possible prices).
This Commitment is a co-created document among the employees of Costco. I drafted the first version and then took it on the road, presenting it over 50 times to all regions globally, to get feedback and find ways to improve it. It was also an opportunity to share and teach the Commitment’s ideas with our employees and make it more global. While it was a grueling three months, it was very much worth it. In the end, we came up with the following sustainability principles and responsibilities in order to do the right thing while remaining a low-cost operator:
For Costco to thrive, the world needs to thrive. We are committed to doing our part to help.
We focus on issues related to our business and to where we can contribute to real, results-driven positive impact.
We do not have all of the answers, are learning as we go and seek continuous improvement.
Take care of our employees
Support the communities where our employees and members live and work.
Operate efficiently and in an environmentally responsible manner
Strategically source our merchandise in a sustainable manner
Today, it is my guidebook for continuous improvement.
JF: When you spoke at World Wildlife Fund's Fuller Symposium back in 2013, you described the importance of recognizing connections with other people, and how we need to work together in a way that's good for everyone. During this talk, you mentioned a couple examples of the ways in which Costco strives to meet that goal (such as the supply chain processes for producing and selling Pine Nuts in Russia and Cocoa in the Ivory Coast region of Africa). How is Costco specifically continuing this mission with its new Sustainability Commitment?
SF: Whether it be suppliers and their workers, employees, members, shareholders or civil society, our goal is to be respectful. We work together to come to solutions that are hopefully beneficial to the environment and to everyone, including the people and animals who produce or harvest our products. We understand we need to find win-win solutions for long term viability and this can take time and patience. Our Sustainability Commitment gives numerous examples, which include our contributions to the communities where are employees and members live and work, our sourcing practices for our private label Kirkland Signature products, our sustainable fisheries projects, our collaborative work to address trafficking, human rights abuses and worker welfare, our animal welfare programs and our environmental programs.
JF: As a successful woman in the field of ethics and corporate responsibility, what advice would you give to young women moving in to the corporate world, particularly in light of our current political climate, and the #MeToo movement?
First and foremost, know and accept yourself as you are and work to align your actions with your core values. Identifying and aligning your actions with your values is a life-long practice of daily self-reflection, contemplation and self-correction that allows you to personally evolve with the world. You improve upon yourself by challenging yourself. This growing inner strength will support you to think, speak and act with courage and compassion.
Find mentors, both men and women, to support you, as we do nothing alone and we all need advice and support. Respectfully speak up if you believe actions or policies are not right or are harmful to yourself or others. This can be difficult and takes courage so seek guidance and support if you need it. Finally, it is helpful to remember that each of us is just one person, a mere blip on the arc of time, and can only do our individual part. Do your part as best as you can, while reserving time for those you love and hold dear and to bring joy into your life. And have fun. Life is too short to not have fun too.