Monday, August 20, 2007

Social Injustice and Walmart

I really dislike social injustice. Sure, everybody says they do, but if this is the case why do people send me "amazed" email when I dare to say something against a large corporation? Do their strong arm tactics threaten even little guys like me? When I wrote the piece on bottled water a few years back I did get a response from an employee at Pepsi simply saying "the author obviously doesn't know anything about bottled water." I believe their first tactic is to just shrug people off as alarmist or uninformed. But small storms do escalate, and now it seems the lid has blown off the fact that bottled water has lower standards than tap and these folks are selling us tap water for three bucks a gallon.

Anyway, after my Walmart rant the other day I received this question from a friend:

In all seriousness, isn't Walmart one of the greenest of the big companies?

You're thinking of Costco.

Walmart is owned by a family who doesn't give a shit about the environment, our world, or the people in it. They give huge amounts of money to Bush and spend less money on altruism that any large corporation in the world. When they've been questioned about this their answer is basically to fuck off. They are continually being sued by their employees, have government charges against them for polluting, abusing workers, and pretty much any other nefarious thing a corporation can get away with. Any type of small business would have been shut down but they just buy their way out of everything.

In one instance they made an nearly an entire town sick by polluting its waterway. They hire illegal immigrants and lock them in the store overnight--the funny thing is that this one made the headlines mainly due to illegal immigrants, not the fact that they were locked inside a building with no supervision. They employ an "anti-union" program that will attack the lives of individuals that attempt to work on employee unity—on a personal level! They think nothing about ruining the life of someone who just wants to improve their workplace.

The main thing wrong with Walmart is that their business plan centers around ruining town centers in favor of Walmart centers, which are placed outside of the town center. For them to be successful, sprawl must be firmly in place, public transportation cannot work, and the traditional town center must die.

This doesn't always work. Occasionally, towns don't patronize a Walmart but under their plan they need assurances when they move into a community from the elected officials with regards to building codes, street development, public trans etc--none of which are good for the town in its pre-Walmart state. Part of their deal--besides paying off the officials themselves--is the revenue the town will get from part of the profits, after the initial set up period. When a Walmart isn't making enough cash they move prior to this time and set up another giant box in an adjacent town, which tends to (because no matter what people still shop there) put the original town under enormous financial strain.

They are one of the leaders of globalization and farm out work to the most competitive country. You can argue that this is the future, and perhaps rightly so, but under the current structure--aided by our friends of leisure at the WTO--it's more or less capitalisms version of legal slavery.

The Daily Show ran a piece about the illegal immigrant issue and were interviewing customers. One woman said something along the lines of "I just don't believe Walmart would hire illegal workers.(sic)" Jon Stewart's reply, "Lady, you just bought a sweater for 39 cents."

On the plus side, they did devise a POP programs that instantly alters the inventory and informs the factories in China (Laos, Cambodia, or wherever) when an item is purchased. This helps those adolescent kids in the developing world be more efficient during their 12-hour factory shifts assembling all of that organic plastic

4 comments:

steve edwards said...

Here's a link to the original article on bottled water.

http://www.beachbody.com/jump.jsp?itemID=532&itemType=NEWSLETTER_ISSUES

John Ehrenfeld said...

Bravo, great post. The San Francisco Bay Area Guardian also reminds us . . .

"With more than $312.4 billion in annual sales, Wal-Mart is the largest retailer in the world, selling its array of products at cheap prices by undercutting competitors, employing sweatshops, wielding its market power to cripple both competitors and suppliers, and flouting national and international health, safety, labor, and environmental standards."

And now for the "Can You Believe It" section . . .

Having been exposed as the greedy corporate abuser of working people and the environment that they are . . . Wal-Mart is now turning to "BUYING OFF" progressive activists (Yes SOME of us obviously do have their morality for sale).

Meet ex-Sierra Club President ADAM WERBACH, (Act Now Productions, the progressive DVD club Ironweed and the Apollo Clean Energy Alliance Board.)

He now works for Wal-Mart as their environmental propogands minister.

"It's sad. It's really sad," said Robert Greenwald, director of Wal-Mart, "The High Cost of Low Price", a documentary critical of the corporation's business practices. When asked if someone like Werbach could really change the way Wal-Mart does business, Greenwald said . . .

"No. They've bought a bunch of people instead of taking care of their employees. And they bought environmental people because they knew that was the weak link."

I guess we are not collectively mad enough yet to really do something about all of it.

Brad Rassler said...

Though I've visited your blog to get your hit on endurance sports, nutrition, and the like, this stuff is just as fun.

Despite giving voice to my own anger at the way category killers can close the doors of locally-owned businesses, I have to say that I hold out hope for the Mall-Warts of the world.

Though I took the Wal-Mart pledge, and avoid the place like the plague, I'm still curious (and attempt to be open-minded) about its espoused commitment to sustainable business practice and CSR.

Aside from the destructive reinforcing loop they've set in motion throughout their domain (low-wage workers purchasing low-priced goods manufactured overseas, thus putting themselves out of work), the company seems to be earnest in its efforts to reduce its carbon footprint (carbon bike frames notwithstanding), along with encouraging – and demanding – a modicum of sustainable business practice from its suppliers.

Wal-Mart's interesting (and, at the same time, loathsome) to me precisely because of the stranglehold it exerts on its suppliers. No single retailing entity can match its buying power. Yep, there’s a dark side to Wal-Mart’s not-so-invisible hand, which you’ve already pointed out…but where there’s dark, there’s also light: Wal-Mart gets what it wants – and if it wants garden hoes with certified wood shafts, then big daddy gets. If it wants to sell polo shirts made from organic cotton, well – if you don’t want to be our supplier, then pound sand.

For all the lip-service about participatory work systems and learning organizations, most corporations are steered from the top down. The CEO really is the supreme leader. Top leadership has to set the company on the sustainability path, and then reinforce it with words and deeds. Kinda like the Chinese government – which years ago I predicted could turn around their pollution problem pretty quickly by executing the CEOs of the 10 top polluting companies each year.

Anyway, when Wal-Mart demands even a smidge more accountability from its staggering supply chain, the cumulative downstream effect can be significant.

Up until a few years ago, it took courageous and visionary leadership to launch transformative organizational change. The strategic competitive advantages of sustainable business development weren’t lost on leaders like Ray Anderson of Interface (publicly held) and Yvon Chouinard of Patagonia (privately held), but these guys were already convinced - from the inside out - that green was good.

These days, CEO’s don’t need unusual vision and courage to jump on the corporate social responsibility (CSR) bandwagon, because greening is coming from the outside-in.

David Brower put it quite well when he wrote, “there’s no business to be done on a dead planet.” The multinationals are starting to pay heed to the stark truth of those words.

"Sustainability" will be Time Magazine's Person of the Year. Hah!

The VC community is doling out money to new sustainable energy entrants hand over fist. Doesn’t really matter, though. Now that the sustainability game is officially underway, the firms that command the most investment and intellectual capital can and will start changing the way the game is played.

The game? Cutting costs through greater operating efficiencies using the lens of the carbon footprint and resource conservation, and winning/preserving revenues through green products and honest efforts to address the demands of increasingly discriminating consumers – that would be us – ‘cuz we’ll start voting with our wallets.

If we’ve got any money left to spend, that is. Or should I say, if we’re still around to spend it.

Having said all that, everything falls apart. Despite its efforts, Wal-Mart will, too.

P.S. Is the John Ehrenfeld who responded to your post the M.I.T. lecturer and industrial ecologist?

jenn said...

hi, i came across your blog today. very good stuff! thanks for posting. i put together a video about social injustices, if you're interested. check it out. thanks!
http://www.youtube.com/v/_skzW823XIM&hl=en