Is Walmart a “sustainable” company? They’re certainly efficient, and efficiency creates our wealth. But, my impression is that they can be relatively unfair to their employees and suppliers. And, they sell a lot of junk, and in some ways are a prime example of a key problem—excess consumerism. This reminds me of a bumper sticker that is stuck to the wall of the local pizza joint that says “Malwart—Your Home for Cheap Plastic Crap”. When you’re in the store, one look at the fuzzy slippers, Chia pets, and “As Advertised on TV” items in peoples’ carts gives evidence of this.
So to what extent is that Walmart’s fault? I would say, off the top of my head—not much. I’d put fault with 1) the customers, and 2) with advertising. Walmart exists to please their customers, and like all retailers, they strive to provide their customers with what they want. BUT, what their customers want is often a function of advertising. The market system is amoral—there is no natural inclination for growth or profit to be in directions that are necessarily good, or bad. The system is neutral in this way. Advertising reflects this, and tends to create or enhance demand in any legal (usually) direction. So, this could be anything from Toyota Priuses and organic spinach to cigarettes and fried Oreos. As such, advertising is also neither good nor bad, but can be seen as an amplification of human proclivities, tendencies, and inclinations.
In the end, all things taken together, I’d have to rank Walmart as neutral, or as a mirror of society. Their efficiency is admirable. Their record of corporate responsibility is spotty. They have improved their environmental impact in ways that also improve their bottom line—reduced packaging, solar panels on the roof of many stores in the Southwest where solar investments pay off. Again, I see this as neutral. A company can’t be blamed too much for doing what companies are designed to do—make profits.
What I really see when I look at Walmart is an example of an institution that exists to satisfy demand. Which in some ways proves the point I’ve had all along—if we could change demand, Walmart would be an asset, and could be used to leverage that change. (And that demand could be for fair treatment of employees as well as for sustainable practices and products). The market system is nimble and adept, but we have to keep ourselves in the driver’s seat, and not let Walmart (or any big business) drive us. Yet once again, demand matters.
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