Wal-Mart’s Local Harvest

SAN FRANCISCO (MarketWatch) — Wal-Mart Stores Inc. unveiled a national TV advertising campaign on Sunday aimed at burnishing the image of the world’s largest retailer.

The 30-second and 60-second spots, which initially broadcast in Omaha, Neb. and Tucson Ariz., in the summer, feature Wal-Mart employees describing cost savings for shoppers, charitable donations and the company’s recent efforts to provide health insurance for eligible employees, according to a press release from the retailer.

Market Watch, January 7, 2007

At Wal-Mart, we know that being an efficient, profitable business and being a good steward of the environment are goals that can be accomplished together. And our environmental goals are simple and straightforward: to be supplied 100 percent by renewable energy; to create zero waste; and to sell products that sustain our resources and our environment. We believe that corporations can develop and implement practices that are good for the environment and good for business. We’re making amazing strides in this endeavor and we’re doing more every day.

from the Sustainability page, on Wal-Mart Facts

A study by the consulting firm Global Insight, which concludes that Wal-Mart’s expansion has saved U.S. consumers $263 billion, is deeply flawed. The statistical analysis generating this widely quoted figure fails the most rudimentary sensitivity checks used in good economic analysis, rendering its conclusions unreliable.

A robust set of research findings shows that Wal-Mart’s entry into local labor markets reduces the pay of workers in competing stores. This effect is largest in the South, where Wal-Mart expansion has been greatest.

Wal-Mart could raise wages and benefits significantly without raising prices, yet still earn a healthy profit. For example, while still maintaining a profit margin almost 50% greater than Costco, a key competitor, Wal-Mart could have raised the wages and benefits of each of its non-supervisory employees in 2005 by more than $2,000 without raising prices a penny

from the Economic Policy Institutes’ Report, “The Wal-Mart debate:A false choice between prices and wages.”

I live in one of those small central Illinois towns where it can be difficult to avoid shopping at Wal-Mart. Actually, there are two Wal-Marts nearby, one here in Charleston, and another about fifteen minutes away in Mattoon. We do have another grocery store, a local chain that was recently swallowed up by County Market, but they can’t beat the prices created by the economies of scale. Wal-Mart has, according to it’s website, “more than 6,600 stores in 13 countries and serve more than 176 million customers around the globe each week.”

If you are relatively affluent (or bored or both) and willing to spend the money, you can always drive an hour north to shop in Champaign, which as a university town has the usual quota of so-called health food groceries and the like. And, even though it makes no sense at all to burn up all that global-warming carbon just to avoid Wal-Mart, that is a fairly common thing among the local liberal cognoscenti, such as it is. (We have our own, much smaller university.) My guess is that Wal-Mart caught on among a lot of academic liberals because it meshes so well with their sense of superiority.

I simply refuse to take a two hour round trip every week for potatoes, even if they are organic. Wal-Mart also carries things that you can’t get locally at all: electronics, t-shirts, and the like. Avoiding Wal-Mart for these things takes a trip to the mall– about 40 carbon-burning minutes back and forth– as opposed to 10 or 15. So I have a vested interest in trying to see if Wal-Mart can keep its enviromental promises, as well as its promise to buy more locally and so on. I think, too, that Wal-Mart’s labor practices need to change; like all U.S. corporations they tend to see their workers as disposable.

The myth, of course, is that Wal-Mart helps us all via their low prices. As the EPI’s report shows, however, this is a false dichotomy. On the other hand, it is funny that so many liberal groups are so interested in Wal-Mart’s labor and enviromental policies, but then say little about buying their gas from the Exxon, to cite an obvious example. The trouble with consumerist political strategies, of course, is that if you refused to buy from any corporation that did bad things, well, you would just have to stop buying altogether.

I like Thoreau, but Walden Pond is not my goal in life. Meanwhile, the Wake Up Wal-Mart Blog and Wal-Mart Watch are good place to go to keep your eye on the campaign to awaken Wal-Mart’s consciousness. Maybe even better, you can go to the Local Harvest website and look for a Farmers’ Market near your house. Ours is small but fun.


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About Ray Watkins

I was born in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, at Our Lady of the Lake Hospital. I grew up in Houston, as a part of what we only half-jokingly call the Cajun Diaspora. At a certain point during the Regan administration, I had to leave, so I served in the Peace Corps, Philippines, from 1987-89. I didn't want to return to the United States just yet, so I moved to Paris, France, where I lived for three years or so. I then moved back to Austin, Texas, where I had received my Masters Degree, and (eventually) began a Ph.D., which I completed in 1999. I spent a year at Temple University and then accepted a position at Eastern Illinois University where I worked until May of 2006. I now work exclusively on line (although that may change) for Johns Hopkins, the Art Institute Online, and Smarthinking.com. I can be reached most easily via email: raywatkins [that 'at' symbol] writinginthewild.com

One Thought on “Wal-Mart’s Local Harvest

  1. lisa gram on April 10, 2007 at 10:26 pm said:

    I can see the pros and cons of Walmart. But, the reality is after listening to the propaganda I get perplexed daily.

    I worked there to keep my family fed and no it’s not easy to get a job now days so you take what you can get.One of Walmart’s biggest lies is that the average employee makes $10.00 an hour in the state of Washington. Not so,it took me and many others years to make 10.55 a hour mainly because of the merit system. A system based on who likes you, not on anyones true capabilities. Most managers believe that employees are there to make them happy and if you don’t -no pay increase. Another misnomer is that Walmart doesn’t lay off employees and they even tell the employees that. After 5 years my position was dissolved and I was laid off.

    Finally, the only pro is that I wasn’t alone in suffering through the sophomoric attitudes of management. Most employees had to work to keep food in the house. Food or Insurance, what a choice. For most it’s food first and let the state pay for the medical bills. I hope this give ya’ll an insight into the world of Walmart employees.

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