Walgreens’ CSR head aims to seize the moment

(Credit: Getty Images)
(Credit: Getty Images)

Pharma companies have seen their reputations soar during the fight against COVID-19.

These are interesting times for executives charged with oversight of corporate and social responsibility. On one hand, the job description hasn’t changed: They still develop policies and programs designed to govern a company’s myriad external engagements. On the other, expectations and visibility have evolved amid the pandemic’s stormy wake.

Indeed, at a time of great economic hardship for many Americans, CSR execs in all industries have found themselves in a more pressurized situation. They’re not just expected to do well by their employees and the communities in which they operate, but to come down firmly on the sides of right, good and responsible. 

This holds double for pharma companies, which have seen their reputations soar — from a lowly position, granted, but soar nonetheless — during the fight against COVID-19. And it may hold triple for Walgreens, now in the spotlight as one of the primary engines of the mass-vaccination push.

Thus, when parent company Walgreens Boots Alliance (WBA) launched “At the Heart of Health,” its 2020 Corporate Social Responsibility report, at a gala virtual event in mid-February, the organization’s myriad audiences were likely paying close attention. One part sober chronicle of the company’s CSR efforts and one part reflection on the forces that shaped them, the event featured a host of public health heavy-hitters: Speakers included Johnson & Johnson chairman and CEO Alex Gorsky, L’Oréal chairman and CEO Jean-Paul Agon and Obama Foundation president (and WBA board member) Valerie Jarrett.

This year’s iteration of the report, not surprisingly, meticulously details Walgreens’ healthcare-centered approach to CSR. But beyond the expected emphasis on employee well-being and diversity and inclusion, the report delves deeply into the company’s policies around transparency and traceability of ingredients as well as its efforts to reduce emissions, waste and the negative impacts of plastic.

Alain Turenne

That expansive view of CSR can be traced to Alain Turenne. A Walgreens veteran and an engineer by trade, Turenne has long fostered an approach that prioritizes impact and empathy in equal measures.

“There’s not one single path into CSR,” he says. “It takes a big and broad team, with great experts in community affairs, climate, waste and recycling, data management, communications and so many other areas.”

Turenne arrived at Walgreens following a two-decade stint at Kraft Foods. Starting as an R&D engineer in the company’s Canadian arm, Turenne went on to serve as operations business director, director of procurement strategy and R&D director. He credits his Kraft tenure, and particularly his work in the realm of product development, for broadening his bigger-picture outlook.

“I’m a curious person who likes to know how things work and how to make things work,” he explains. “In my time in product development and manufacturing, I realized everything it takes to get a product to market and deliver it safely — and to consider it from the vantage point of doing the right thing.”

That twin consciousness smoothed his transition to Walgreens and the retail world. His first role at the company was in the realm of regulatory safety ethics, ensuring that no child, forced or imprisoned labor went into any of the products Walgreens sells. “That was my gateway into the broader business” of CSR, he recalls.

That sentiment is echoed by longtime colleague Lauren Stone, director, corporate social responsibility at Walgreens. “Alain was planning how Walgreens could create a CSR department before it was something the company was considering,” she says.

The turning point in Walgreens’ CSR evolution came at the end of 2014, when its merger with Alliance Boots was formally completed. This isn’t to say that the company had back-

burnered such activities; since the opening of its first U.S. store in 1901, Walgreens had taken great pride in its role as a civic pillar, especially when the communities it serviced were struck by hurricanes, fires or other health scourges. Still, as Turenne notes, “Alliance Boots had a very public approach to CSR.”

Part of Turenne’s mission, then, became increasing awareness around the CSR function. He credits the Walgreens communications team for its work around driving the narrative internally and externally, as well as the company’s top leaders for emphasizing that CSR represented more than just another box to be checked on the corporate to-do list. Asked whether a health-first organization can accomplish this without an overt C-suite mandate, Turenne responds, “Maybe, but it would happen a bit slower, I’d imagine.”

With the new CSR report unveiled for all to see, Turenne and his team plan on pushing it far and wide via year-round internal communications, the development of what he characterizes as “vignettes” and, at some point in the indeterminate future, road shows. “The idea is to connect with people in every region … It allows us to have these conversations in a more focused way, rather than as just a long collection of acts of goodness,” he says.

Left unsaid is the need for internal and external audiences to participate in such conversations amid the ongoing disaster that is COVID-19. In a macro sense, Walgreens has aced the pandemic, providing continuity of service at a time when many retailers have had to temporarily shutter their doors. The company put into place accommodations such as curbside pickup, offered financial assistance to customers in need and strove to ensure the safety and well-being of its everyday workers. 

“We’re no stranger to managing changing crises. We know how to do this,” Turenne says.

At the same time, when asked whether CSR efforts are more important amid a pandemic than during quote-unquote normal times, Turenne prefaces his response by noting that it’s a difficult question to answer.

“CSR, that great big story that we’re a force for good, it’s always there. But how we tell the story might change in different situations,” he says. “Taking care of employees through an inclusive workplace is something we do all the time. Taking care of our communities, same thing. The goal is to play a role that never goes away, whether in a time of crisis or at a time when things are not as stressful.”

Turenne’s leadership of all such efforts has proven invaluable, Stone says. “The first day I met him, he said that he has a range of expression that is more narrow than most people, and I think it is actually a huge strength,” she explains. “While he won’t be the person shouting from the rooftops while celebrating, he also has poise under pressure. It is a great skill for a leader and something that rubs off on his team.”

Given that the majority of Americans live within five miles of a Walgreens store, the company plans on remaining a community mainstay long after its COVID-19 vaccination effort concludes. As some semblance of normalcy returns in the months ahead, look for Turenne and the Walgreens CSR team to emphasize the connection between health and environmental/climate concerns.

“Right now, it may not be top of mind for people dealing with the COVID crisis and inequality, but the link between health and climate change is very, very real,” he says. “We need to keep asking, ‘What can we do to make this better?’”

This article first appeared on MM+M.

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