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I recently wrote about the Food Justice conference in Oakland, where I attended various workshops on the Farm Bill. But through all that I was eagerly awaiting the end-of-the-day panel titled "Walmart and Corporate Social Responsibility: An Inherent Contradiction?"
Right off the bat, the moderator left the question-mark off the title, giving it a conclusive air. She sheepishly corrected herself, but this - and the fact that we were at a Food Justice conference - gave away the bias of the panel. But the speakers' points definitely legitimized their position.
First, some facts. How does Walmart relate to our food system and control of power?
- Walmart is the number one company on the Fortune 500 list at 421,849 million in revenue and 16,389 million in profits.
- Walmart also happens to bring in the most in grocery sales in the US, and over half of their sales can be attributed to their grocery endeavors.
- Walmart is betting on their grocery sales to save them from slumping growth
- Walmart may even be one of the largest suppliers of organic food in the U.S.
- They've also been given a ton of free positive PR for making promises, not for their actions. They even got Michelle Obama on board with their promises.
On the panel was Moderator Kathy Mulvey, CFSC Policy Director; Carl Pope, Sierra Club Chairman of the Board; Michele Simon, Eat Drink Politics and author of Appetite for Profit; Deepak Pateriya, United Food and Commercial Workers; Eduardo Carrero, a former Walmart employee and a member of Warehouse Workers United; and Kiran Patel, former Walmart employee in India.
I'll start with some points by Michele Simon. While many people are touting the benefits of such a large corporation making change, if only because they will be able to affect so much of the industry, Simon feels that the Walmart business model "is in deep conflict with our movement; sustainability, health, fair labor and practices." Because they cannot change their business model, she says they have responded with tactics used by corporations, including PR and philanthropy. Here's how this works:
Convince the public that the corporation is changing its practices by offering up voluntary changes. In this case, Walmart is promising to change the type of food they sell. This is effectively changing the democratic promis, and Simon says we should push to create actual policy change.
The idea is that corporations can give donations to organizations that are doing good in the world, thereby earning more positive PR and potentially buying silence from these organizations. Walmart has already started using philanthropy tactics this within the sustainable food world. Simon pointed out that this was also a tactic used by the Tobacco industry (and still is, apparently).
Her main point is that right now "Walmart is calling the shots," and that's not a very good place to be.Carl Pope of the Sierra Club was articulate and used stories to illustrate his points, which I appreciated. Want to hear a story?
Walmart's Jump Into Organic Cotton
Pope says that 15 years ago, Walmart wanted to start sourcing organic cotton, which at the time was primarily grown in Turkey, India, and Uganda. Most of the organic cotton was coming from Turkey. Walmart came to talk to Pope about sourcing organically, and he suggested going to India or Uganda, where they could potentially improve the quality of the cotton farmers' lives (most of whom were farming organically by default, not being able to afford pesticides). Walmart turned around and said they wanted to source from Pakistan, where the cotton farm were run like feudal plantations. That's how Walmart was planning to "go organic".
Even Fortune 500 CEOs Feel It
Pope also recounted a talk he had with a local CEO of a Fortune 500 company. Obviously someone who has been successful and lives a privileged life - even has some power. He described the company as progressive. The CEO says that his ability to improve the sustainability and quality of his own products was "jeaopardized by how Walmart was cracking down on the suppliers and demanding lower costs". If this guy is being forced to make ethical compromises, how can a small organic farmer stand a chance?
Pope's overall conclusion was that the business model is a mistake, and he has turned down requests from Walmart to discuss their sustainability initiatives because they have refused to include a discussion of the unsustainability of their own business model. But why is their business model so singled out among big corporations?
Apparently, the standard business model is to make the most profits as possible per store or per item. Companies that are good at this, like CostCo, have less inefficiency. Walmart's model is to "drive prices down and volume up at the expense of people who manage, work, buy from, and supply your stores" (Pope). This benefits the owners, solely, and you can imagine what this might mean for the food industry.
Organic food at Walmart basically guarantees that the company is "squeezing the lifeblood" of the farmer until they go out of business. Does that sound sustainable to you?
Eduardo's story, told to the audience through a translator, was also powerful. He worked in a Walmart Warehouse for about one year, and immediately noticed safety violations. Workers were expected to work too much, pay was never adequate, never received proper training, and worked non-stop. He described being called an animal and being yelled at.
A promise to supply organic food does nothing for these workers. Isn't that reason enough to argue against Walmart's practices?
How are you feeling about Walmart and its dive into the sustainable food world? Here's some more reading on the topic:
An overview of a interview with both Michael Pollan and Eric Schlosser that digs into what Walmart's practices mean for food in America.
A controversial article by Simon on Walmart buying Growing Power's silence.
Nutritionist and Author Marion Nestle's take on Walmart's Sustainable Food Strategy.
Walmart and Michelle Obama partner up to promote healthy eating.