Sunday, November 21, 2004

The People vs Wal-Mart

Wal-Mart seems to become more and more evil every day. They destroy local economies by running local stores out of business, their stores are aesthetic blights, they treat their workers unfairly both at home and abroad. If one were to make a list of all the things people don't want giant companies to do and compare that list against Wal-Mart's record, my bet is that Wal-Mart would come out wanting. About the best thing one can say is that stuff at Wal-Mart is cheap, which is a good thing for families on tight budgets.

Cheap stuff for cash strapped families is good, but the rest of Wal-Mart's behavior is unacceptable. What would it take to change the way Wal-Mart does business? And is that change worth it if it means Wal-Mart's merchandise becomes more expensive, thus making life harder for low-income families? These are the questions and issues that we as consumers and citizens must consider when it's time for us to spend our money. So let's spend some time thinking about them here.

There are two ways we can go about changing Wal-Mart's behavior. We can do it with laws, or we can do it with dollars.

Liberals usually aim for laws first. Law's have the benefit of being like "fire and forget" weaponry: you fight and fight and fight to get them in place, but once they're there, you can forget about them for awhile and get some rest. The downside to laws that regulate corporate behavior is that they're constantly victim to a fickle electorate. The same people who elect the candidate who brings corporate reform one year, might next year elect the candidate who is strong on "values" but who is going to undo everything the reformist accomplished. Our priorities, both locally and nationally, are ever shifting, and the nature of our winner-take-all political system means that we often have to give up some priorities (in this case, corporate responsibility) for the sake of others (i.e. "values").

This brings us to option 2. Using our dollars to force a change in Wal-Mart's behavior starts with a simple premise, but also comes with significant difficulties. Here's the first step: don't shop there. Don't shop at Wal-Mart. Pretty easy. If people simply didn't shop at Wal-Mart, then Wal-Mart would be forced to either change or go away. And now here's the obvious, and much more difficult to accomplish, second half of the equation: you've decided not to shop at Wal-Mart, but now how do you get everybody else to follow along? No simple task. Plus, assuming you can get people to not shop there, how do you make sure your boycott sends the right message? The goal isn't to drive Wal-Mart out of business but rather to get them to change their business practices (which, if they did, you'd be happy to go shop there again).

Neither method seems very good. However, I'll argue that the dollar approach is the better of the two.

To successfully achieve the goals of corporate reform via laws and regulations, we'd first need to overhaul our entire political system so that it can work towards the goals of more than one group at a time. We only get one shot every two to four years to make that happen, which means the process could take decades, and a single defeat along the way could send us straight back to square one, undoing a decade's worth of progress. And only after all of that is done can we begin writing the legislation we'd need to make Wal-Mart behave itself.

To successfully achieve the goals of corporate reform via market forces, we need a majority of consumers to be informed about what their shopping habits are supporting, and we need them to make conscientious decisions when spending their money. There's no easy way to make that happen, but that doesn't mean the problem can't be solved, and it's definitely worth our time to look for the answer. In spite of how daunting this seems, we're more likely to make this happen than to reform our entire government in order to reform corporations. We also can start right away. A small core of conscientious shoppers can grow into a cultural movement one day at a time, one person at a time, and as long as we're committed, our progress can never be undone.

This is where the power of the people truly lies, and it's both immediate and effective. When it comes to taking on huge corporations like Wal-Mart, this is how we're most likely to achieve long term and meaningful success.

1 comment:

Jarrett said...

What you need is an organization to organize a boycott, to negotiate terms, and then call an end to the boycott. I'm thinking something like the Montgomery Improvement Association that organized the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Think Rosa Parks, and a very young, just-starting-out MLK. There is tons written about it, but I like this page the best:

They boycotted the bus for a whole year, and against fierce resistance.

Maybe your consumer union would do this, but how would it get the word out? Maybe you should organize, or file for non-profit status. I bet Ralph Nader would help you find some funding sources, grants and what not.