Shifting my main base of operations from the stately Mead manor in Queens to the rustic Mead hideaway in the rolling hunt country of Duchess County involves a lot of shopping; fortunately for me there is a Walmart just a few miles away.
At the risk of forfeiting any remaining elite cred I may have, let me confess: I love Walmart. For years, every time I traveled outside New York, I descended on Walmart stores across the country. Everything in those stores is significantly cheaper than in the hoity-toity New York department stores that want me to pay $9 and up for a “designer” undershirt. For the price of a pair of socks in New York I can get three pairs at the average Walmart.
The first Walmart (Credit: Bobak Ha’Eri)
But now that I’m living like a normal American — driving to the mall in a car rather than walking to the store down the block — my personal relationship with Walmart is deeper, richer, more meaningful than ever. I don’t have to limit myself to what I can carry in a shopping bag; I can fill the trunk and the back seat of the car with my loot. As I pushed my enormous shopping cart through the grocery aisles last night, I felt like an immigrant from the Soviet Union: so many choices, such convenience, such friendly staff, such low prices! Milk that costs $2.50 in the glamorous borough of Queens costs $1.16 chez the Mart. Soup, bread, cereal: all are 40% to 50% cheaper out here.
As I drove my load of goodies home, I started to feel a surge of Green Guilt: the Great Wastrel staggers home in his gas-guzzling automobile stuffed with Big Box Retail productions — the enemy of everything sustainable. Shouldn’t I be riding a bio-degradable bicycle to the farmer’s market to pick up locally produced heirloom beets and carry them home in my reusable organic burlap shopping sack?
Actually, no. Walmart and its Big Box friends are making the world a greener, more sustainable place. This isn’t because of any PR stunts or corporate green initiatives they may have going; it’s because they are relentlessly focused on profit and efficiency. It is their cutthroat capitalism not their sense of corporate citizenship that will save us — if anything can.
Walmart is helping to save the planet because it’s tough and realistic and focused like a laser on the bottom line. Giving customers what they want at low prices has made Walmart an irresistible force in the market. Every sock factory in China, every flatware manufacturer in Bangladesh wants to crack the Walmart market. Some purchasers buy by the crate and the carton; Walmart buys in the millions and billions.
But there’s a catch. Walmart wants to sell cheap to its customers; that means it must buy cheap from producers. And Walmart isn’t loyal; what have you done for me lately? is what its buyers want to know. Maybe last year you sold them ten million pairs of men’s shorts; if you want to repeat that you are going to have to be the low bidder yet again. If the factory across town (or across the ocean) figures out a way to make shorts that meet Walmart’s specs for two cents a pair less than your price — it’s goodbye to those ten million sales.
That means you, and everyone else trying to sell to Walmart, have to spend all your time figuring out how to produce the same product with less. Walmart’s ruthless focus on reducing prices is driving producers everywhere to cut the costs of production: to switch to cheaper materials, use less packaging, cut down on waste of all kinds and to consolidate and rationalize both production and distribution. The result is a steady and inexorable decline in humanity’s impact on the environment for every unit of GDP.
The Green Police couldn’t do it any better. In fact, given the political cluelessness, uncertain signals (is nuclear energy a good thing or a bad thing?), and anti-scientific knuckle dragging from environmentalists on subjects like the use of GMOs in agriculture, it’s likely that a world run by Walmart would be both richer and cleaner than a world run by Greenpeace. Not that I want Walmart (or Greenpeace) to run the world, bu at the end of the day, being ruthlessly cheap is the most important way of being green. To cut out waste, to use methods of production that cut the energy consumed at every stage in the process, to strip packaging to the barest minimum, to reduce the amount of raw materials in every product: this is the mother lode of green. This is how a growing human population limits its impact on the earth. This is where Walmart and green are as one.
More, by doing what so many of its critics hate and driving small mom and pop stores out of business, Walmart is making the planet greener still. It is much more energy-efficient to have one large store that receives large shipments than to have dozens of little trucks roaming the highways and byways with small deliveries to small retailers. It is also more efficient to have consumers come to one store for all their needs rather than having them drive all over creation — to the farmer’s market for the local rutabagas, to the small appliance and notion store for the toaster, to the pharmacy for the drugs, the optometrist for their glasses, to the butcher and baker and candlestick maker for everything else.
Meanwhile, Walmart, like other enviro-friendly companies like Amazon and Costco, is doing its best to become greener still by luring customers to shop its website. It is much more environmentally beneficial for Walmart to ship my socks and my garden tools directly to my door than for me to drive to the mall to pick them up. Delivery trucks use complicated mathematical algorithms to make the most deliveries with the least use of fuel and time. That’s especially true because Walmart is clearly dreaming of the day when it can cut back on expensive stores and sell more of its products directly through the web. (Amazon has gone a step farther; not only has the ultra-green Amazon done away with retail outlets completely; the mighty Kindle doesn’t even need a delivery truck to get me the books.) The transition from millions of shopping trips to mom and pop stores all over town to a mix of big box retailers, internet orders and pure e-commerce is probably going to save more trees and cut more carbon emissions than all the high profile international junkets (pardon me, conferences) that all the world’s environmental NGOs and foundations put on from now to Doomsday.
According to the packaging mavens at (yes, this really exists) Packaging Digest magazine, we have Amazon to thank for working with manufacturers to reduce the amount of annoying and environmentally packaging surrounding so many products. As the New York Times noted, Mattell simplified its packaging and incidentally made it more sustainable environmentally. It’s cheaper, greener and consumers like it better, but there’s a long way to go. (Only 600 of the tens of millions of products Amazon ships have adopted ‘frustration free packaging’ and, sadly, Walmart like Target has yet to see the light on this one.)
Frankly, Walmart like capitalism itself can be a little greener than I’m comfortable with. Walmart’s relentless drive to control costs is accelerating the rise of manufacturing in China and other low wage countries. Shipping jobs from America to China is good news from a green point of view. Chinese workers bicycle to work or take public transportation rather than tooling around the burbs in SUVs; they don’t take long vacations or buy big gas grills; they eat less meat, buy fewer airplane tickets and generally have less of a ‘carbon footprint’ than their American counterparts. There are greens whose principles are pure enough and whose vision stretches far enough that they can rejoice in this thought; as wages fall in the United States there will be fewer of those horrible snowmobiles and motorboats disturbing the silence of our rural retreats. I can’t quite go there — but I know people who do.
Figuring out how Americans can maintain a middle class lifestyle as the international competition gets tougher is a big question, and one of the country’s legitimate grievances against the policy elite in past years has been the failure of elites to provide effective leadership on this issue. But even when it comes to the future of the American middle class, Walmart is not just part of the problem. Walmart’s low prices give us all a break — and low prices help the poor as much as or even more than everybody else. The struggling immigrant families in my neighborhood in Queens would benefit hugely if a Walmart opened its doors nearby, driving down the cost of everything from meat and milk to school supplies and kids’ shoes. Get the single moms raising three kids and the unemployed in my neighborhood into a Walmart and their lives will be better because their money goes farther.
Ultimately, the low prices on more and more goods from smart retailers like Walmart is going to help the United States rebuild its economy. It’s cheaper than ever to start up a business when you can go to Office Depot and Staples for every business need at 40% discounts from the prices rapacious ‘mom and pop’ stationery and office supply stores used to charge. A ream of 16 pound copy paper costs about what it did back in the Kennedy administration when I was the eleven-year-old editor of The Neighborhood Gazette and paper was the biggest single item in our budget — and today you can get it made out of recycled stock. It’s also cheaper to pay your employees a living wage when stores like Walmart are bringing down the cost of living. With luck, Walmart’s ventures into optometry and health care are going to set a trend towards a new kind of affordable medical practice. I wouldn’t be surprised if in the end retailers like Walmart and its peers do more to put this country on the road to a sustainable health care system than anything or anybody else.
That doesn’t mean that everything Walmart is doing makes sense. It’s sadly clear that in many cases, Walmart has offloaded the health care costs of its employees onto state, federal and local governments. Uninsured by their employer and not always earning very much money, Walmart employees may turn up uninsured in hospital emergency rooms, or will be eligible for state and federal health care subsidies. One rather disquieting study noted that in all states which have released the data, Wal-Mart leads the list “of companies with the most employees and dependents enrolled in state-funded health care programs.” Further, in a 2005 Wal-Mart memo, the company admitted that “that 46 percent of the children of Wal-Mart’s 1.33 million United States employees were uninsured or on Medicaid.” And it’s clearly the case that many Walmart (and not only Walmart) suppliers around the world are responding to Walmart’s pressure to cut costs not just by improving efficiency but by treating workers harshly, paying sweatshop wages, exposing them to dangerous chemicals and in other ways demonstrating that the ugly face of capitalism is very much with us today. (For a tough look at the case against Walmart, go here to a 2007 article by Jim Hightower. For more recent critiques, there’s a dedicated anti-Walmart site here; unions hate Walmart and one somehow suspects that in some way they and their allies are funding operations like this. Walmart tells its side of the story here, at its corporate site.)
I am not one of those people who believes that a free market economy doesn’t need regulation. Countries like China really do need to adopt and enforce environmental and labor legislation that prevents manufacturers from meeting Walmart’s cost targets by hiring child workers and dumping toxic sludge in the river. Here in the United States workers also deserve some basic protections, and it is the duty of both the political system and the moral leaders of society to draw the line between legitimate competition and unacceptable levels of exploitation. Walmart’s failures, and the failures of other companies in similar situations, partly reflect the failure of the world to think through these important human issues with sufficient care. One reason governments need to slim down their size and their role is so that they can concentrate more effectively on what really matters, and the delicate and difficult tasks of policing the labor market against unacceptable abuses and protecting the environment are among the things that truly count.
We need to do better — but we also need the improvements in efficiency and productivity that Walmart at its best can provide. We don’t just need companies to make large contributions to the premium costs of employee health insurance; we need companies that work aggressively and cleverly to bring down the cost of health care. Without those improvements, health care for employees in retail (where value added is inevitably low) will always be unaffordable, or will always depend on unsustainable government subsidies. Our society has to be able to provide acceptable health care with the efficiency that Walmart brings to providing us with cheap can openers and crock pots — or that McDonalds brings to the french fry. Getting the incentives right so that companies like Walmart can and will make money by providing cheaper forms of health care is the key to ensuring that health insurance remains cheap enough for average Americans to have it.
For the time being, then, I’m keeping the biodegradable bike in the second-growth lumber shed near the compost pile of the rural hideaway and driving my car to the mall. Caveats duly noted, Walmart–like the capitalism which it so dynamically practices–is, for all its shortcomings, a mighty force for good in a troubled world. We cannot and should not be blind or silent about what is wrong; but neither should we fail to celebrate success.
See you at the mall.