By Stephen Burke
It is not difficult to write an article about how terrible Wal-Mart is. The body of research on the subject is astounding. Their labor practices and environmental policies are well documented.
In 2008, a Minnesota judge ruled that the company had violated worker’s rights more than 2 million times over a period of six years. In this ruling alone, Wal-Mart had to pay $6.5 million in back pay and $54 million in lost wages. The list of labor issues goes on, from employing teens in jobs they are not legally allowed to perform to negotiating weak enforcement of these laws with labor departments.
In addition, many of Wal-Mart’s employees lack a comprehensive healthcare plan and so require government support. “So many Wal-Mart employees and their dependents count on Medicaid and SCHIP, taxpayers are paying over a billion dollars a year to subsidize health care for Wal-Mart workers,” stated Nicky Coolberth of Wake Up Wal-Mart, an anti-Wal-Mart campaign sponsored by the United Food and Commercial Workers.
Wal-Mart’s track record with environmental issues is no better. Other than the obvious direct impacts of opening thousands of stores the size of football fields, the government has fined Wal-Mart in a number of states. Some of these violations include $5.5 million for water pollution, $400,000 for air pollution, and more than $700,000 for improperly storing oil.
Because of the company’s sheer size and power, their competitors have to follow in their wake with poor practices. “Wal-Mart is so big and so influential that it is not possible for other retailers to change their ways, to offer more in wages and benefits, or to be more responsible about the environment or their carbon footprint, unless Wal-Mart does,” Coolberth said.
So to reiterate the first point, it is easy to write an article about the many offenses of Wal-Mart.
So why do so many people who know these facts go there anyway?
One answer is clearly far more popular than the others: “because it’s cheap,” said sophomore Geri Silver. This sentiment echoes across age and gender lines, and even former employees agree.
“The cheapest or quickest way to get a lot of things is through Wal-Mart or Sam’s Club,” said Christine Estevez, a former Sam’s Club (a division of Wal-Mart) cashier.
Common sense says that if you want to save money, you go to Wal-Mart. The company has spent many millions of dollars on advertising to get people to think that, and a price comparison with similarly sized retailers such as Target and K-Mart shows that Wal-Mart is a little bit cheaper.
Additionally, many people don’t think that they can make a difference even by ceasing to go to the store completely. “Lots of people do not really have much info on Wal-Mart, and even when they do, they think that individually they won’t or can’t make a difference” said IC politics professor Zillah Eisenstein.
Even for those who do think they could make a difference, sometimes it just isn’t possible. “For others struggling to get by, the low prices just trump everything else—even if they do care,” Coolberth said.
In the middle of a rough financial situation, most families simply do not have a choice. In many cases, “people tend to focus on the immediate situation,” Estevez said.
For many of the people that do have a choice, it’s an easy one.
“I think if you have the means to not support some place that is involved in so many terrible things, then you should,” said sophomore Siobhan Cavanagh.
Other shoppers agree. “I do think that anyone with discretionary consumer power—like myself—should not shop at Wal-Mart and should support more local venues and better union policies,” Eisenstein said.
Although some dedicated people will completely avoid the store, the company’s continually growing profit margin shows that this is clearly not a mass movement and Wal-Mart will remain “successful” for a while.
“Success is defined by sales results, profit; it’s not a matter of what we believe,” said a Wal-Mart media relations officer.
This cuts right to the heart of the matter: Wal-Mart doesn’t care why they are successful, but about how much money they make. In a way, this one corporation represents capitalism in general. It doesn’t matter who gets hurt; as long as money is made, the system will keep going. Like capitalism, Wal-Mart is, for most, impossible to avoid. This one corporation is the logical conclusion of unbridled business: if you let companies compete on an open market, one of them will win.
Wal-Mart appears to have won the “race to the bottom,” as Cornell business professor Kate Bronfenbrenner put it. If they are allowed to continue, they will only increase their power. Although economic conservatives around the world would be ashamed to admit it, Wal-Mart is the epitome of capitalism, and their success acts as a shining beacon to any other corporations looking to be “successful” in the modern marketplace.
Stephen Burke is a freshman TV-R major who gave up Wal-Mart for Lent. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.