Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Re-thinking Wal-Mart

We all have retail biases – stores we prefer, brands that we’d never buy, and products that seem to define our very core. When I analyze retail trends, I don’t try to hide my preferences (Apple anyone?) but I do promise to suspend my likes and dislikes until after I’ve done my homework. Sometimes a bias runs so deep, it’s almost impossible to overcome and it’s best to keep quiet. So far in this medium, I’ve carefully avoided Wal-Mart, except in the most trivial or passing reference, safe from judgment.

Wal-Mart bothers me for a number of reasons. First, I might be a bit of a retail snob now and then. I have plenty of yuppy and professional friends who don’t think twice about getting basic items from Wal-Mart.     I, on the other hand, am turned off by the big yellow smiley face and the "prices slashed," overstuffed aisles of things I don’t really need but am enticed to buy.  This is personal snobbery and I’m not proud of it, so I try to keep it to myself… but boy was I grateful when a new Target opened nearby.

Then, there’s the social consciousness side, where I’ve watched small local stores close, workers lose jobs and then (if they’re lucky) get lower paying ones at Wal-Mart. There are case studies that show how the company manipulates production and can push even a profitable producer over the edge in its demand for items regardless of seasonal or economic rhythms. There are class action suits and anti-union sentiments. There’s the disregard for transparency in the supply chain, meaning that we get cheap goods without knowing the conditions under which they’re produced. And finally, there’s the moral imposition, stocking guns and ammunition, but not certain kinds of "objectionable" music or birth control. All of these issues are particularly important to me as a social scientist who teaches about labor, business, global trade, and human rights. If I couldn’t afford the alternatives or I lived in a more retail-isolated environment, I’d reluctantly go there. But since these matters are at the heart of what I teach about community, I have an obligation to hold up my end of the moral bargain and avoid the place. (And yes, I know other big box retailers like Target are not immune to some of these charges. But it’s the volume of problems and the scale of Wal-Mart’s reach that draws my attention.)

What’s important here is that my biases do in fact, connect to a larger public sentiment. While there are still plenty of people shopping at Wal-Mart, there are significant polls that show even the mid-to-lower income people who frequent the store are disheartened by stories of employee mistreatment and community disruption. Up until recently, the company seemed, at best, indifferent to these complaints.

But then Wal-Mart went and got all environmental on us. First there was the announcement that they would begin offering organic foods and produce in their supermarkets.  Now Wal-Mart has drawn the eye of green groups everywhere by replacing all the lightbulbs in stores, working on overall store energy efficiency, and selling more “green” products. The CEO has explicitly defined Wal-Mart’s role as a "good steward for the environment." Their new long term goals include 100% renewable energy, zero waste, and 20% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions.

The changes are not all about ecological goodness: there’s been a marked increase in the company’s overall charitable donations.   They’ve made some small progress on opening up about their supply chain information.   Partly as a result of the class action suit, they are also committed to hiring more women and people of color at the management level.      Is this enough to change my mind?   Or is it simply, finally, good public relations?   Women’s Wear Daily does an excellent job reviewing some of the pros and cons of Wal-Mart’s new moral face. But, rightly so, the critics are not totally convinced yet:
"Wal-Mart has made some progress, but the progress is not what we should expect from the largest company in the world," said David Nassar, executive director of Wal-Mart Watch. "It gave $298 million to charity. Americans aren't looking for a handout. We work hard and expect to be treated fairly by our employer. Wal-Mart needs to reform. It needs to reduce the amount of energy it's using for every dollar it earns. Producing so much in China increases Wal-Mart's carbon footprint. Wal-Mart heard the criticism and is trying to do something to address it. All the changes it's made so far have passed costs onto someone else, whether it's a health care plan that's increasing costs for workers or environmental initiatives that pass costs on to suppliers."
Whether it’s PR or deep shifts in practice, I’m not sure it matters as long as the changes happen.   So, while I’m still going to drive by the Wal-Mart on my way to the farmer’s market or the local shops in the quaint town where I’m living, I am going to start to pay close attention to what’s going on in the big box.   As the marketing executives in Sam Walton’s company probably know, their latest actions may not make me (and many others) into a new customer, but it might stop me from thinking – and talking – negatively about the low price giant.   And that’s worth just as much.


Anonymous said...

A recent MSNBC commentator called Wal-Mart's greening "vintage Wal-mart", they "listened, and learned, [and] they’ve established some aggressive goals". That's pretty much it in a nutshell, isn't it? It's hard to swallow these decisions that are conveyed as enlightened corporate social responsiblity that just 'happens' to come with the 'good business' benefit of improved consumer perception (and therefore increased consumption0 of Wal-Mart products. Isn't it really the other way around? Their new policies are "all good stuff, but it is also good business.” Wal-Mart's decisions to green their practices - from 'encouraging' producers to reduce packaging to changing the lightbulbs [oh yeah, and in what landfill are those being disposed of? That is, unless I accidentally break it first, in which case I'll be sealing the remnants in a canning jar, double bagging it, and contacting local authorities on where to send the remamins; of course, that's after we've evacuated the entire house for 15 minutes and shut off all ventilators - or, wait, was that an episode of Firefly...?] We all know it's just another way to retain or capture new market share that, gee, just happens to be socially responsible. Wal-mart is in the business of giving people what they WANT. Which is why you can still buy your ammo one aisle over from the compact flourescent lightbulbs - if a large enough segment of the population with an accompanying large enough amount of disposable income decides that automatic weapons are important, they'll find a way to justify selling AKs next to the shotguns. It IS vingtage Wal-Mart - all about the bottom line - Chief Executive Scott said it himself "get ready for a real long struggle in your life if you can’t understand that, you can do well by going good." They've got a long way to go before I'm willing to cut them even the tiniest amount of good will that you're willing to extend. Yes, I'm as thrilled as you of the potential of some of their new practices, but perhaps I'm also a little wary of consumer Stockholm Syndrome...

Lulu said...

It *is* all about the bottom line--it's a business. It's a profitable and large business. That's how they got to be that way. As Annie suggests, I try to make gentle comments dissuading friends and acquaintances from stopping at WM. But when a very socially-responsible 90-year-old friend on social security smiles at me and says, "they have what I can't find elsewhere for a price that allows me to buy household stuff I need to buy, and that leaves me with extra money to give to X [her cause of choice]," I have no answer. We may hate them, but they are modeling how businesses can affect environmental issues, health care provisions and others on a massive level. When people on limited income tell you that they want to use WM, how arrogant to presume you know better, no?

Annie said...

I think the critical factor, for me, with Wal-Mart, will be whether they are willing to address the energy use/ carbon footprint issue when "greening" goods begin to include the cost of labor -- in countries like China, which Wal-Mart's cheap goods depend on, it will be very difficult to make the argument that the company is green.