When I think of Walmart, I tend to think of the merciless South Park episode in which the mega-chain comes to town and drives out every other business with its low prices. While it is not entirely realistic to think that, like Cartman, you will become possessed by the evil power of Walmart, it is a corporation that rarely generates a warm and fuzzy feeling. How did it gain such a notorious reputation?
Let’s go over a little history. When it was originally founded in 1962 by Sam Walton, Walmart was a revolutionary idea. With the interests of his customers in mind, Walton was able to offer cheaper prices because of his decision to buy wholesale; who doesn’t like bargains? In 1982, Walton acted with the interests of his country in mind by launching his “Made in America” campaign in which Walmart promised to select American products over foreign competitors if they were within a 5% price range. Walmart then: a responsible provider for the American people… and then Walton died in 1992.
Within months of the death, s^%& hit the fan. First, Walmart was condemned for putting “Made in America” signs over many products, while in reality, 80% of its goods were produced in foreign countries. The company apologized, but this original folly pales in comparison to the ever-growing list of accusations against it. Since then, Walmart has been charged with violating of the Fair Labor Standards Act, violating the Family Medical Leave Act, union busting, failing to provide adequate employee benefits, and gender discrimination.
So, we should just boycott Walmart, right? Well, this is where the ambiguity starts. Walmart has instituted a rigorous campaign to restore its public reputation. As mentioned in the 2008 documentary, Food Inc., greener, environmentally friendly practices can only really take hold when they gain corporate support. And, let’s face it, Walmart isn’t just any corporation, it is a major entity with enough power to change sustainable practices nationwide. And Walmart has now pledged to generate no waste, be 100% sustainable, and to support organic products. So you’ve got low prices on one hand, accusations of atrocious employee policies on another, promises to make positive changes on another, and accusations of putting local businesses out of business on yet another. (Yes, that’ a lot of hands.)
What’s a ‘lil ole consumer to do when faced with such an agonizing moral dilemma? Recognize that as consumers, we have power. Just as Walmart rose to fame through its initial customer conscientious practices, it must do the same to survive. Why did Walmart commit to new sustainability initiatives? In order to please the customer. When we demand organic eggs, they provide organic eggs. No, “Walmart” may never conjure up images of beaming laborers holding hands and dancing amid fields of daisies, but by showing corporations the issues we care about, we have the power to change contemporary destructive business practices.
So, no, I am not asking you to start/stop shopping at Walmart. The bigger lesson is that wherever you choose to shop, select and demand products that are made using conscientious environmental and labor practices. Make social corporate responsibility a priority. No Walmart love required.