Wal-Mart has been getting some great press lately. At the beginning of the week, newspapers were full of stories about Wal-Mart's plan to ask its suppliers to measure and reduce their carbon emissions for the benefit of the environment.
Then, on Wednesday, the New York Times' Thomas Friedman wrote a column promoting Wal-Mart as a role model for the U.S. and Chinese governments' to follow as they develop policies on global warming.Has Wal-Mart transformed itself from the poster child of bad corporate behavior to an exemplary corporate citizen? Not everyone thinks so.
Just a few days before the articles about Wal-Mart's suppliers and their carbon emissions were published, thousands of workers who are employed by one of those very suppliers took to the streets in protest. Ten thousand garment workers for the Nassa group, which sells clothes to Wal-Mart and other companies, protested for higher wages and better working conditions on the streets of Dhaka, Bangladesh, even though their government has banned public protests. They earn $25 per month. Is Wal-Mart going to have its suppliers look at the pay and working conditions in their factories at the same time they analyze their carbon emissions? I don't think so.
Wal-Mart is notorious for continually demanding lower prices from its suppliers, who, in turn, make more outrageous and abusive demands on their workers in order to meet Wal-Mart's requirements. This year, the Worker Rights Consortium released reports about serious labor violations at the Chong Won Fashion factory in the Philippines and the TOS Dominicana textile factory, both of which produce clothing for Wal-Mart. In September 2005, the International Labor Rights Fund filed a lawsuit on behalf of Wal-Mart supplier sweatshop workers in China, Indonesia, Bangladesh, Nicaragua and Swaziland. The workers were denied minimum wages, forced to work overtime without compensation, and were denied legally mandated health care.
Other worker rights violations that have been found in foreign factories that produce goods for Wal-Mart include locked bathrooms, starvation wages, pregnancy tests, denial of access to health care, and workers being fired and blacklisted if they try to defend their rights.
The health, safety and well-being of the human beings who work in its factories should be just as important to Wal-Mart as is the company's impact on the environment.
Sweatshop workers are not the only people who don't buy the idea that Wal-Mart is now one of the good guys. They are joined by citizens in communities throughout the United States - and the world - who are trying to prevent Wal-Mart from building new super centers in their cities and towns. From Johnson City, New York to Clovis, California to Xalapa, Mexico, people are saying that they don't want Wal-Mart steamrolling its way into their communities. Why? Because Wal-Mart pays low wages and pushes down wages at nearby businesses; because Wal-Mart drives small, local companies out of business; and because Wal-Mart affects towns in many other ways as well - from increased traffic to changes to the town's character to environmental impacts.
As Al Norman, the founder of Sprawl-Busters, writes in his book Slam-Dunking Wal-Mart, Wal-Mart's impact on local communities is also an environmental issue: "All across America, consumers are making decisions every day that impact the environment they care the most about: that 10 or 15 mile radius that circumscribes most of our daily living. This is our "personal environment." ... The construction of land-devouring, windowless hulks of dead architecture in our hometown is like insulting our Mother! How else can you explain hundreds of citizens showing up to testify at a Zoning Board hearing? From Kanawha City, WV to Tijeras, NM, we sit through hour after hour of dry testimony from traffic engineers and hydrologists--all because our home is being attacked, our personal environment is on the line. In many cases, citizen activists have derailed big corporations, or held them at bay for years. The key factor in these confrontations is that we sense that the future of our personal environment, and that of our children, depends on us. It's a matter of home rule. This is one battle where we make a difference."
So, the newly "sustainable" Wal-Mart is still allowing its products to be made in sweatshops and is still devastating local communities. But even if we look only at the environmental issues - especially the issue of climate change - Wal-Mart is still a problem. That's because despite the company's laudable environmental policies, its entire business model is unsustainable, and in fact, extremely harmful to the environment.
One problem with the model is that it induces people to drive more and to drive longer distances to do their shopping. Because of the huge size of Wal-Mart super centers, they take up very large amounts of land, so they often have to be built on the outskirts of cities and towns. This means people will get in their cars to go shopping rather than walk to the store. The additional driving induced by big box stores significantly increases greenhouse gas emissions.
Another major problem with the Wal-Mart model is that the company buys so many of its products from suppliers on the other side of the globe, rather than buying them from local farms and factories. This isn't just bad for local suppliers; it also means products have to travel thousands upon thousands of miles to get to Wal-Mart's shelves. When garlic is shipped to Wal-Mart stores in California from China instead of from Gilroy, then that much more fuel is used and that much more CO2 is emitted than if the products were purchased locally.
It's time to counter some of the hype about Wal-Mart's sustainability. On Saturday, November 17th, the Saturday before Thanksgiving and the beginning of the holiday shopping season, people all over the world are organizing an international day of action against big box stores, to demand reforms from Wal-Mart and other companies that are harming workers, communities and the environment. Thousands of people are going to join their voices together to say NO to policies that harm human beings, our communities and the environment, and YES to human rights, worker rights, local, independent businesses, and respect for the planet.
If you think Wal-Mart's getting too much positive press while still doing way too much harm, please join the day of action!
Ruben Garcia is an economic justice campaigner at the human rights organization Global Exchange. Andrea Buffa is a freelance writer and activist. To get involved with the day of action against Wal-Mart and other big box stores, contact Ruben at firstname.lastname@example.org or 415-279-3174.