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Buy-N-Large Pledges to Promote Healthier Foods
January 24, 2011 6:09 AM   Subscribe

Why Wal-Mart Is Making Our Health Its Problem - "So what's behind the [healthier-eating] initiative? In a word: scale. In a recent article in HBR, Chris Meyer and I argued that we'll see companies taking more and more ownership of externalities they could ignore because of changing sensibilities and better sensors (meaning detection and reporting of impacts by third parties). But we also identified a third driver: the scale of modern business. Whereas in the past, a single grocer could not have much impact on society, in today's highly consolidated market, Wal-Mart touches a significant percentage of the nation's food intake. Once you reach a scale where your decisions have ramifications for millions, it is hard to pretend that the impacts, even as distant ripples, are not your problem."
posted by kliuless (75 comments total) 7 users marked this as a favorite

 
IOW, WalMart killed Jack LaLanne.
posted by Ardiril at 6:12 AM on January 24, 2011 [1 favorite]


Once you reach a scale where your decisions have ramifications for millions, it is hard to pretend that the impacts, even as distant ripples, are not your problem.

It seems unlikely that WalMart, unlike oil companies, media conglomerates and gun manufacturers, would feel guilty about this.
posted by DU at 6:16 AM on January 24, 2011 [4 favorites]


"Once you reach a scale where your decisions have ramifications for millions, it is hard to pretend that the impacts, even as distant ripples, are not your problem."

This statement isn't based on science or logic, it's wishful thinking.

For example, entities whose decisions impact on millions, but don't give a crap about doing the right thing:

The US Government
The Banking/loan Industry
The Republican Party
The Democratic Party
The Tobacco Industry
The Oil Industry
I'm getting bored, but you get the point....
posted by HuronBob at 6:19 AM on January 24, 2011 [17 favorites]


I need to type faster!
posted by HuronBob at 6:20 AM on January 24, 2011


Money spent on health interventions required because of unhealthy diets is not available as disposable income. Ceterus paribus if people have more disposable income they will spend more. WallMart is so enormous and cuts across so many different retail categories that any increase in the consumer spending of Americans shows up directly on their top-line.
posted by atrazine at 6:26 AM on January 24, 2011 [5 favorites]


It seems unlikely that WalMart, unlike oil companies, media conglomerates and gun manufacturers, would feel guilty about this.

Cynicism ditto'd.

My suspicion is that Wal-Mart in fact has seen / projected *significant* profit from this move. The authors were right about the importance of "scale," but wrong in their conclusions, IMHO.

Wal-Mart is the definition of scale. They can determine not just what a vendor produces for Wal-Mart, but what a vendor's entire product line will be, across the entire market. Hell, they can determine who will and who will not be a successful vendor. I remember in my retail days when I was a denim buyer with Macy's, not so long ago, this was very much the case for clothing. I can still remember the time and place I was when I got the news that Wal-Mart had struck a deal with Levi's. That was the beginning of the end for Levi's in the department store world.

If Wal-Mart wants to sell healthier products, its probably because they see either a) higher profit margins in healthier products, b) potential for increased volumes (healthier food generally speaking has a shorter shelf life and needs to be bought more frequently), or most likely c) both. That WM is going to get some good press is simply an added side benefit.

The author talks about Wal-Mart "prod[ding]" its suppliers. I agree with this in the sense that the mafia "prods" those that it works with too. Its a suggestion you're going to wisely align to.
posted by allkindsoftime at 6:27 AM on January 24, 2011 [10 favorites]


No, WalMart is totally and absolutely evil and I will fervently resist any suggestion with my healthiest knee jerk that people within its management are trying to make choices that are less hurtful. Impossible!

That was sarcasm.
posted by Burhanistan at 6:33 AM on January 24, 2011 [3 favorites]


allkindsoftime, don't forget d) : soft-touch voluntary regulation to forestall much tougher legislatively mandated regulation. Not that Wall Mart telling its suppliers to reduce salt is really voluntary for the suppliers of course.

Also, Pepsi recently split their businesses into "good for you" and "fun for you"1. McDonalds bought Pret A Manger and share in an all-fruit smoothie company. All very logical commercial decisions.


(1) They could hardly call it the "bad for you" division, even if that seems the logical complement
posted by atrazine at 6:34 AM on January 24, 2011


If Wal-Mart wants to sell healthier products, its probably because they see either a) higher profit margins in healthier products, b) potential for increased volumes (healthier food generally speaking has a shorter shelf life and needs to be bought more frequently), or most likely c) both. That WM is going to get some good press is simply an added side benefit.


i was under the impression that produce is often a loss-leader for grocery stores. given the basic problem of perishability this makes sense to me.
posted by ennui.bz at 6:35 AM on January 24, 2011



(1) They could hardly call it the "bad for you" division, even if that seems the logical complement


I would not be surprised at all if salaries were twice as high on the "bad for you" side of the company. And I am picturing a much better work environment, complete with flames and little horns on the foreheads and everyone gets a tail and a pitchfork.
posted by Forktine at 6:36 AM on January 24, 2011


They're doing it because they see margin in it and as atrazine said, it's a way to comply with impending regulation on their terms.
posted by arcticseal at 6:39 AM on January 24, 2011


No, WalMart is totally and absolutely evil and I will fervently resist any suggestion with my healthiest knee jerk that people within its management are trying to make choices that are less hurtful.

WalMart is a publicly traded company. It is therefore illegal for them to make choices that are "less hurtful" unless those choices make more money for the shareholders. No amount of arguing from "hard to pretend ramifications aren't your fault" will change that.

Any changes WalMart is making are intended to make more money, period. The reason it might make more money (and whether it actually will) is up for discussion. My guess is they are hoping they can use it as cover for the many many complaints piling up against them, reducing their lobbying and propaganda costs.
posted by DU at 6:39 AM on January 24, 2011 [2 favorites]


> WalMart is a publicly traded company. It is therefore illegal for them to make choices that are "less hurtful" unless those choices make more money for the shareholders.

Ok, good look with your anarchy collective.
posted by Burhanistan at 6:43 AM on January 24, 2011


Once you reach a scale where your decisions have ramifications for millions, it is hard to pretend that the impacts, even as distant ripples, are not your problem.

I'm not so sure about this. I've been watching Wal-Mart closely for the past few years, and despite my many misgivings about the company, I'm finding it difficult to call them the root of all evil.

For one, they have actually done a fairly good job of responding to their critics. Compared to 5 years ago, their stores are cleaner, more attractive, and are starting to tend to have a more "sane" amount of parking available. They've also started to carry affordably-priced organic groceries, and the overall quality of their food (and even their general merchandise) selection has gone up tremendously. They've also leveraged environmental initiatives in such a way that saved the company money, while also improving its public image.

Wal-Mart also seems to realize that their current business model has reached just about every segment of the population that it is ever going to be able to reach. There are a lot of people who despise the company, most of whom are concentrated in urban areas and "blue states." Because they're trying to enter these markets, they're starting to change their formula, with smaller stores that integrate into the urban fabric, and are transit-accessible. They also seem to be making an actual good-faith effort to sit down and listen at community-input meetings. Time will tell if they actually make good on their promises. However, their eagerness to adapt to the urban market, and have an open discussion about their plans seems very unusual for a corporate juggernaut, and should be commended and encouraged.

The argument about displacing local businesses seems to be a canard in this case. People already travel long distances to big-box stores to make their purchases. Might as well make those stores close by, transit accessible, and keep the tax revenues local. Although it would be a tragedy for local supermarkets (regardless of ownership) to be put out of business in favor of a further-away Wal-Mart, I don't suspect that this will be the case. In the DC market at least, Wal-Mart intend to set up shop in neighborhoods that have no access to good food stores ("Food Deserts" in urban planning parlance), save for one or two absolute shitholes. I also think that more price-based competition in the NYC area would be a tremendous net-positive to that city. The cost of even basic groceries in NYC is insane.

Wal-Mart are also experimenting with tiny (5000 sq. ft.) stores on college campuses that could prove to be an interesting model. Like the NYC Bodegas, I won't bemoan any competition against CVS/Rite-Aid/Walgreens (all of which are expensive, owned by corporate juggernauts, and very depressing places to shop). European supermarkets and big-box retailers like Tesco, Marks & Spencer, and Morrison's have all had luck building very small urban stores, and I'm actually somewhat surprised that nobody has ever attempted to adapt that format to the American market. Trader Joes is probably the closest thing that we have, and their stores are so successful that they're usually packed to the gills, and towns frequently lobby the company to set up shop nearby. Allegedly, they have one of the highest profit-to-square-footage ratios of any retailer.

I still don't shop there, but it's certainly interesting to see what they're doing.
posted by schmod at 6:44 AM on January 24, 2011 [21 favorites]


As an aside, if Wal-Mart paid it's workers for the hours they worked (ref1), they might be able to BUY food, rather than rely on the federal goverment subsidising their employees (ref2).

It is remarkably naive to think that they care about any human's health.
posted by a womble is an active kind of sloth at 6:44 AM on January 24, 2011 [5 favorites]


WalMart is a publicly traded company. It is therefore illegal for them to make choices that are "less hurtful" unless those choices make more money for the shareholders. No amount of arguing from "hard to pretend ramifications aren't your fault" will change that.

It is NOT illegal for them to consider making more money off of you for a longer period of time than one particular trip to their store. They are taking a longer than quarterly view of capitalism, instead of suspecting them, maybe we should thank them.
posted by DigDoug at 6:44 AM on January 24, 2011 [3 favorites]


i was under the impression that produce is often a loss-leader for grocery stores. given the basic problem of perishability this makes sense to me.

Walmart probably projected that by "partnering" with factory farms in 3rd world nations and employing slave labor they could effectively undercut and destroy the burgeoning buy local trend that is slowly sweeping the American culture. It threatens their longterm viability if it ever makes the jump from produce to, I don't know, really cheap disposable crap from China.
posted by any major dude at 6:46 AM on January 24, 2011 [1 favorite]


It would be a great thing for powerful market actors like Wal-Mart to push the packaged food market in a healthier direction, whatever the reasons.

I don't see how the author can believe this is "internalizing externalities," though. The author's earlier article was called "Leadership in the Age of Transparency," i.e., "So It Turns Out Companies Yield To Public Pressure." In these days of Whole Foods and organic produce, Wal-Mart is trying to get ahead of the curve of changing customer attitudes, and to supply healthier food, thereby improving its public image (partly through publicity pieces like this one) and possibly protecting its bottom line.

Isn't that the way free-market capitalism was always supposed to work?

A few years ago, there was a flurry of business news stories about what a responsible company Wal-Mart was for saving the world by making a big push to sell compact florescent light bulbs. But in fact, Wal-Mart saved a ton of money by switching demonstrator lamps in its stores to CFLs. And CFLs higher price tags almost surely mean higher profit per unit for Wal-Mart. It was hardly a charitable act. It was a way of driving change and profiting from that change, rather than scrambling to react to a change someone else was profiting from. It wasn't so much a story about a powerful entity behaving responsibly, but a powerful entity behaving powerfully. Not really news.
posted by Western Infidels at 6:47 AM on January 24, 2011


It is therefore illegal for them to make choices that are "less hurtful" unless those choices make more money for the shareholders.

This is so oversimplified as to be inaccurate.
posted by Inspector.Gadget at 6:50 AM on January 24, 2011 [3 favorites]


Walmart probably projected that by "partnering" with factory farms in 3rd world nations and employing slave labor they could effectively undercut and destroy the burgeoning buy local trend that is slowly sweeping the American culture.

People don't buy "local food" to save money in the first place.
posted by overeducated_alligator at 7:04 AM on January 24, 2011


If Walmart is trying to make us healthier to improve its profits, then this is cause for celebration; it means the system is working right.
posted by Bovine Love at 7:11 AM on January 24, 2011 [10 favorites]


While liberals are cynical, conservatives, naturally, are outraged at Wal-Mart being forced to sell healthy food by the Obamas' Chicago-style, Islamo-Kenyan, Communofascist thuggery.

No word on whether Limbaugh used 70s-style jive speak to imitate Michelle Obama.
posted by dirigibleman at 7:16 AM on January 24, 2011 [8 favorites]


For one, they have actually done a fairly good job of responding to their critics. Compared to 5 years ago, their stores are cleaner, more attractive, and are starting to tend to have a more "sane" amount of parking available. They've also started to carry affordably-priced organic groceries, and the overall quality of their food (and even their general merchandise) selection has gone up tremendously. They've also leveraged environmental initiatives in such a way that saved the company money, while also improving its public image.


How does any of that relate to the most common complaints about Wal-Mart? Critics of the company don't care that they've made the stores cleaner and provided more amenities for customers; they're upset that the company relies almost entirely on acquiring goods made by foreign/slave labor and/or forcing producers of their goods to take a lesser profit in the form of bulk sales to allow Walmart itself to undercut all competition, as well as gross employee rights violations including illegal labor and union-busting.

Whether or not they're improving their "public" image is utterly irrelevant to what they're doing behind closed doors.
posted by XQUZYPHYR at 7:18 AM on January 24, 2011 [4 favorites]


It is NOT illegal for them to consider making more money off of you for a longer period of time than one particular trip to their store.

No, that hypothetical scenario would probably not be illegal, yet. Although I'm not sure, actually.

They are taking a longer than quarterly view of capitalism, instead of suspecting them, maybe we should thank them.

Oh, so now you are claiming that's what they ARE doing? This would be a very sharp deviation from all previous behavior of theirs.
posted by DU at 7:24 AM on January 24, 2011


It is therefore illegal for them to make choices that are "less hurtful" unless those choices make more money for the shareholders.

I don't think this is true. Failing to maximize profits by any (legal) means necessary is not a breach of fiduciary duty. Cites?
posted by yarly at 7:24 AM on January 24, 2011


I always make the same self-link in Walmart threads, but it's doubly relevant today: A sufficiently advanced capitalism is indistinguishable from socialism
posted by anotherpanacea at 7:28 AM on January 24, 2011 [1 favorite]


>If Walmart is trying to make us healthier to improve its profits, then this is cause for celebration; it means the system is working right.

No, it's only further proof of Walmart's eeeevil.

>How does any of that relate to the most common complaints about Wal-Mart? Critics of the company don't care that they've made the stores cleaner and provided more amenities for customers; they're upset that the company relies almost entirely on acquiring goods made by foreign/slave labor and/or forcing producers of their goods to take a lesser profit in the form of bulk sales to allow Walmart itself to undercut all competition, as well as gross employee rights violations including illegal labor and union-busting.

Whether or not they're improving their "public" image is utterly irrelevant to what they're doing behind closed doors.


^Case in point^

Walmart suffers from a base of critics for whom they can never redeem themselves. Foreign labor will always be "slave" labor. Their leverage over unionizing and suppliers is bad regardless of the outcome for end users. And they generally seem to be punished for actual illegal behavior. And if they actually do something to "help" their customers, it's still not a good thing because they have evil intentions.
posted by 2N2222 at 7:32 AM on January 24, 2011


If Walmart is trying to make us healthier to improve its profits, then this is cause for celebration; it means the system is working right.

On the other hand, fattening us up can help them sell exercise gear, weight-loss supplements, etc. This was WAL*MART's strategy for the burgeoning middle-class in China. A subset of Chinese were gaining weight from eating increasing amounts of processed foods, and WAL*MART had already planned out two to three years in advance what to buy in anticipation of weight-loss trends that would be coming.

I'd be curious to what extent WAL*MART's changes in the US are driven by ridiculous healthcare costs, which are forcing people to make longer-term choices that would not be in WAL*MART's interests, choices which hurt the company's profits, if the company continues selling poor-quality food.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 7:32 AM on January 24, 2011


> WalMart is a publicly traded company. It is therefore illegal for them to make choices that are "less hurtful" unless those choices make more money for the shareholders.

Ok, good look with your anarchy collective.


The opposite of government run for the benefit of large corporations is not anarchy.
posted by odinsdream at 7:35 AM on January 24, 2011 [2 favorites]


WalMart is a publicly traded company. It is therefore illegal for them to make choices that are "less hurtful" unless those choices make more money for the shareholders.
Do you have a citation for that? Because I believe it is a common misconception.

Walmart is pretty bad with stuff relating to labor relations, but in other areas, particularly the environment, they are actually pretty progressive. They monitor their carbon emissions and try to reduce them, for example. And interestingly they've been lobbying for things like greater food stamp coverage and so on: because food stamps are likely to get spent at walmart.

But the clearest example of corporations not acting in their best financial interest is their lobbying. Corporate lobbyists spent a ton of money on healthcare for their employees, money they wouldn't need to pay if we had universal healthcare. But they invariably lobby against it. Why? Because taxes would go up on the corporate leadership. Even though corporate profits would go up, they'd individually take less money home.
posted by delmoi at 7:38 AM on January 24, 2011


> The opposite of government run for the benefit of large corporations is not anarchy.

Eh, it was one useless hyperbole offered against another.
posted by Burhanistan at 7:44 AM on January 24, 2011


But let's not pretend we're actually discussing anything here by tossing out weird facile statements that try to sum up an entire operating body's activities.
posted by Burhanistan at 7:45 AM on January 24, 2011 [1 favorite]


People don't buy "local food" to save money in the first place.
posted by overeducated_alligator at 10:04 AM on January 24 [+] [!]


didn't think I needed to spell this out but I see that a lot of people hear take a very short-sighted view of the benefits derived from a thriving/ever-expanding Walmart. Localism will eventually cut into their profits, when people buy food/products based on value as opposed to price - Walmart loses.

Keep looking out for #1 America, it's been working out just great for the last 30 years.
posted by any major dude at 7:53 AM on January 24, 2011


hear should read here. Freudian slip
posted by any major dude at 7:53 AM on January 24, 2011


Let me see if I've got this...

Walmart is either an evil corporation that is using their market size to force people to buy healthier food.
or
People desire healthier food, and Walmart has figured out a way to profit from that.
or
Walmart feels that the government will regulate, so they begin to offer healthier food.

This somehow does not raise my outrage alarm. I can't understand the argument that somehow millions of Americans eating healthier food is a bad thing because Walmart's name is attached to it and they have found a way to profit from it one way or another.
posted by TheFlamingoKing at 7:56 AM on January 24, 2011 [4 favorites]


WalMart is a publicly traded company. It is therefore illegal for them to make choices that are "less hurtful" unless those choices make more money for the shareholders.

Ugh, are we dragging out this old canard again? It's not true. It's not even close to being true.

The board of directors and company executives have a fiduciary duty to the shareholders, but it is very weak. The board would have to pretty much literally be spending money on hookers and blow to open itself up to a shareholder lawsuit, and even then I would not bet that the shareholders would win. Courts have been very permissive in what they will allow boards of directors to do, I think based on the theory that the correct action for disgruntled shareholders is to use the company's structure to replace the board or change the direction of the company, rather than the courts. (You could argue that this leaves shareholders in a very weak position in many cases, and I'd agree, but it seems to be the dominant position of the courts in the US.)

It is certainly not "illegal" for a company to take a less-than-immediately-profitable course, and I think they could head off almost any lawsuit just by arguing that they're taking the long view. There are lots of companies whose directors take actions that are not profitable in the short-term, or perhaps at all, and tell their shareholders to suck it up. Google rather famously during their IPO was very blunt that they were prepared to do things that might not be profitable in the short term...and there is nothing wrong or illegal about that. WalMart, if they wanted to, could do the same thing.

Investors, directors, and executives of US companies have made a conscious choice to pursue short-term gains uber alles, and although there are a lot of reasons that we can point to for why that is the case, some sort of legal sword of Damocles swaying over those poor executives' heads, forcing them to make dumb long-term moves, is not one of them.
posted by Kadin2048 at 8:05 AM on January 24, 2011 [6 favorites]


Walmart suffers from a base of critics for whom they can never redeem themselves. Foreign labor will always be "slave" labor.

"Suffering from a base of critics?" If you want me to stop being a "critic" for mentioning "slave labor" then maybe Wal-Mart should, oh I don't know, stop using slave labor.

Just out of curiosity, are you saying I'm wrong or are you saying you just don't give a shit? I'm guessing it's the latter. But you either think that Wal-Mart doesn't engage in the abusive practices I just pointed out, or you just don't give a shit. And either way you should say so instead of trying to play the lazy "oh you just aren't happy about ANYTHING are you?" card. Sorry, I don't accept Argument By Eyeroll.

Their leverage over unionizing and suppliers is bad regardless of the outcome for end users.

Ummm... yes, that was actually exactly my point. Thank you for repeating exactly what I said. Again, if you want to say you don't care because you prefer having cheap jeans, by all means do so, but actually have the guts to say openly that you think cheap prices are better than fair labor practices.
posted by XQUZYPHYR at 8:06 AM on January 24, 2011


the clearest example of corporations not acting in their best financial interest is their lobbying [against universal healthcare]

An even clearer example: Executive compensation.
posted by stupidsexyFlanders at 8:12 AM on January 24, 2011


While liberals are cynical, conservatives, naturally, are outraged at Wal-Mart...

If both the left and the right are outraged at something, that something is probably a good something.
posted by storybored at 8:19 AM on January 24, 2011 [3 favorites]


While this whole initiative that Wal Mart is doing may be valid, I can't help but think of the main motivator behind it; their greed. Every article I read about it smacks of a corporate press release.

Seriously, this is WAL MART and they may be necessary, but that doesn't make them less evil. So what if they are going to start carrying fresh food more? This just means that a lot of smaller farmer's markets will now have to deal through them.
posted by Catblack at 8:22 AM on January 24, 2011


Walmart suffers from a base of critics for whom they can never redeem themselves.

People who hate Walmart tend to do so (IMO) for one of two reasons. The first is its historical behavior. For example, because of past labor practices and business practices. Scamming their employees and depending on the government-funded social safety net to pick up the slack was, for a fair bit of time, a systemic problem. When the company is punished and legally forced to change its practices, it doesn't necessarily convince anyone that the fundamental nature and inclination of the business has changed.

The second reason is because Walmart is, at the end of the day, just a successful implementation of the ideal that globalized free markets point towards. Even if it broke no laws, it would still be an example of a creature that has grown too big and has become dangerous; the system encourages it and has no upper bounds.

You can argue that it's unfair, but I don't think it's accurate to say that the Walmart critics are simply unreasonably antagonistic. Some are, but many are just very skeptical given the nature of the system Walmart exists in and Walmart's past behaviors.
posted by verb at 8:24 AM on January 24, 2011 [2 favorites]


Yeah, I assumed the motivation was that they were projecting a significant portion of their customer base as becoming to obese to actually drive to the store.
posted by BrotherCaine at 8:26 AM on January 24, 2011


TheFlamingoKing,

So Walmart gets into the organic game and basically drives down profits to effectively squeeze local independent farmers out of the game. Then on the other end they lobby the government to broaden the standard for what can be considered "organic" so we end up back to square one. Eventually they run the entire game and Walmart/factory farms win and independent farmers/retailers lose. This is good for America? I for one believe our country is healthier when money made in a town one day is spent/invested in that town the next. Every night at midnight the money made at a local Walmart is transferred to a bank in Bentonville, Arkansas, this is not a recipe for an expanded middle class, it's a recipe for funneling wealth upward to the point that that top 1% in this nation control 20% of the wealth. That's a recipe for walled cities. Hey but at least you'll be saving 30 cents a pound on grapes - while your children are halfway around the world fighting wars against enemies made rich by Walmart.
posted by any major dude at 8:30 AM on January 24, 2011 [1 favorite]


Why Wal-Mart Is Making Our Health Its Problem

To make money off it.
posted by thsmchnekllsfascists at 8:39 AM on January 24, 2011


Funny, what I read in the news just a day or two ago told me that WalMart makes people fat, and there is evidence to prove it.
posted by hippybear at 8:45 AM on January 24, 2011


If both the left and the right are outraged at something, that something is probably a good something.

Can we please stop making this idiotic argument?
posted by Legomancer at 8:48 AM on January 24, 2011 [6 favorites]


Can we please stop making this idiotic argument?

Seriously. If the entire country is mad at something, it's most likely not a good thing.
posted by thsmchnekllsfascists at 8:55 AM on January 24, 2011


XQUZYPHYR:

I'm saying you're wrong.

When you say Walmart is using slaves to make their goods, it seems you may be engaging in a bit of dishonesty, using loaded terms to frame Walmart in a position that becomes moral imperative, for the sake of making a colorfully dramatic point.

Their ability to leverage over unions and suppliers may be a bad thing... for unions and suppliers. But not likely for their end users, who also reap the benefits of low prices. If you want to argue fair labor practices, please do so. Spare us the drama.

>While this whole initiative that Wal Mart is doing may be valid, I can't help but think of the main motivator behind it; their greed. Every article I read about it smacks of a corporate press release.

Yet more evidence for my point. By this logic, Walmart is evil, even if they create objectively good outcomes, because their intentions are not sufficiently pious. This is a situation where Walmart, regardless of their good or bad business practices, is always the bad guy, just because.
posted by 2N2222 at 8:56 AM on January 24, 2011 [3 favorites]


If both the left and the right are outraged at something, that something is probably a good something.

this is the kind of thinking that listening to simplistic morons like David Brooks, Thomas Friedman and Chris Matthews breeds. There are pundits that make careers by being polarizing, that doesn't make those that make careers out of straddling the line any less devious.
posted by any major dude at 9:05 AM on January 24, 2011 [2 favorites]


I wonder if Sarah Palin will make fun of that little smiley face guy while she stuffs a smore into her mouth...
posted by l33tpolicywonk at 9:26 AM on January 24, 2011


I'm saying you're wrong.

When you say Walmart is using slaves to make their goods, it seems you may be engaging in a bit of dishonesty, using loaded terms to frame Walmart in a position that becomes moral imperative, for the sake of making a colorfully dramatic point.


In other words, you're not saying I'm wrong. You're "saying" you'd like to imply my position is without merit because you don't like a word I used (perhaps I can make PR spin attempts like "end user" and related nonsense too) as a means of backing the public-defender-esque bullshit you just uttered because for the second comment of yours in a row about this you won't actually say if you find the evidence I linked to factual or not, or for that matter what your opinion of those facts are.
posted by XQUZYPHYR at 9:30 AM on January 24, 2011


Furthermore, let's make sure we're still on the original ground here. You whined up above that poor, poor Walmart is "suffering from its base of critics" to which I pointed out that they are.... holy crap.... doing things to be critical of them over. And you continue to have no desire to acknowledge that, instead trying to pass off an explanation of your original complaint as "drama."

You haven't linked to or offered a cite for any of your points, only condescending spin like calling displeasure with their practices a sarcastic "being insufficiently pious." You literally just don't like that people have reasons to dislike Walmart. Well bully for you. I have reasons to not like like Bangladeshi teenagers being forced to work 18 hours a day without bathroom breaks. You'll just have to deal with my flag-planting on the moral high ground on this one.
posted by XQUZYPHYR at 9:38 AM on January 24, 2011 [2 favorites]


If both the left and the right are outraged at something, that something is probably a good something.
Yeah other people pointed out this is wrong. But more then that, it tends to be something that benefits the companies that fund both parties. Why would anyone donate to both parties? For exactly the reason that it lets them lobby for stuff that "the left and the right hate", and get it passed with no way to exercise democratic accountability (because both choices support it)

OTOH, that model doesn't really apply to what walmart is doing. There may be people on both sides who don't like this, but there are lots of people on both sides who probably think it's a good idea.
When you say Walmart is using slaves to make their goods, it seems you may be engaging in a bit of dishonesty, using loaded terms to frame Walmart in a position that becomes moral imperative, for the sake of making a colorfully dramatic point.

Their ability to leverage over unions and suppliers may be a bad thing... for unions and suppliers. But not likely for their end users, who also reap the benefits of low prices. If you want to argue fair labor practices, please do so. Spare us the drama.
I'm not really sure that's a valid argument. If you buy something produced with slave labor, then you're directly supporting slave labor. Duh.

On the other hand, there's no way to know if mom & pop stores wouldn't buy from the same suppliers if there were more of them. Why wouldn't they? Most small business owners are conservative republicans. They're the most reliably republican demographic.


I don't really have a problem with wallmart per-se. It seems to be an ideal economic order would be high efficiency with the benefits distributed widely, where as other people want to induce inefficiencies in order to create regulatory niches for people to make money for themselves. That just seems kind of wasteful.
posted by delmoi at 9:45 AM on January 24, 2011


Their ability to leverage over unions and suppliers may be a bad thing... for unions and suppliers. But not likely for their end users, who also reap the benefits of low prices. If you want to argue fair labor practices, please do so. Spare us the drama.

I'd argue that you are denying the elephant in the parlor:

The sheer size of Walmart makes them evil - regardless of their intentions. They are an example of why we used to think that companies shouldn't be so big that they could dominate their sector.

Here's why they are bad:

Their low-low price strategy is, plain and simple, a race to the bottom for everybody. They apply their sizeable pressure to vendors to lower costs. This puts pressure on on vendors to do things like cut wages, cut workforce, and/or move production where wages are cheaper. This leads to a situation that feeds on itself - lower wages and fewer jobs lead to less money leads to more customers for Walmart leads back to the beginning of the cycle. There is no good ending for this. Not for workers and not for economy.

You cannot save you way to prosperity on a large scale. Lower prices is not the answer, raising opportunity and living standards is.
posted by Benny Andajetz at 9:52 AM on January 24, 2011 [1 favorite]


Because they're trying to enter these markets, they're starting to change their formula, with smaller stores that integrate into the urban fabric, and are transit-accessible.

My brother is an architect and has designed a number of Wal-Marts. One store he worked on was in south Florida, in an Art Deco-ish looking area. As a result, they went for a smaller footprint, smaller parking lot, and styling that blended in with the architecture of the area. I saw some of the renderings, and his firm did a great job on it.

Store didn't get approved, though, since the unions packed the meetings Alinsky-style to cajole the council to reject the permit.

Laying aside their poor record with unions, the Wal-Mart of 2011 isn't anything like the EEVL WAL-MART of the past. They're doing a lot of things, like this food initiative, to improve their bottom line, but it will have a huge impact given their broad reach.

Sometimes people do the right things for the wrong reasons. It's one of the underlying issues with charity. But sometimes you just have to take the money and do good with it despite whatever perceived evil is behind it. And it's the same here. Wal-Mart has started making a lot of positive changes in the name of improving their bottom line and profitability.

It's easy to be cynical. It's harder to choose the high road.
posted by dw at 10:24 AM on January 24, 2011 [1 favorite]


You cannot save you way to prosperity on a large scale.

And yet food costs are actually lower now than they were 30 years ago -- if you take out the produce flown in from Chile and other parts. Mostly because of improved supply chain management and better preservation techniques.

The idea this is a race to the bottom is a bit silly given there's just not a lot left to cut in terms of wages, especially with the collapse of the migrant farmer population as a result of the recession. The next frontier is reducing spoilage and waste in produce, and I expect that's what a lot of these big farms are going to start exploiting.

And the plus to this is that with Wal-Mart starting to target lower-class urban areas with Neighborhood Markets a lot of areas lacking a nearby grocery store will finally have a good one nearby with decent produce.

When I lived in the lower-class, "ethnic" Rainier Valley here in Seattle, there was one grocery store within two miles of my house. Where I live now, in lilywhite North Seattle, I can walk to the grocery store and drive to 4 more within 2 miles.

Until last year, north Tulsa, which is majority African-American had no grocery store and hadn't had one in 5 years. The city ended up subsidizing a local Mexican chain to come open a store in an old Albertsons, with decidedly mixed results (and a bunch of Tea Party whites demanded to know why they're flushing their tax dollars into a "failed business" in a "failed area.")

The two biggest reasons why African-Americans have no access to healthy foods are cost and a lack of choice. Wal-Mart, in its way, can help solve that. And I'm not saying that to dismiss farmers markets, because I think they are essential for bringing locally grown food into the heart of majority-minority neighborhoods. But let's not reject what Wal-Mart could do to provide lower class folk (who are on the whole more obese than the rich, a very strange inversion from the rest of the world) with more choices and healthier choices.
posted by dw at 10:40 AM on January 24, 2011 [1 favorite]


Walmart has sold cheap, non-nutritious, and very profitable food very very accessible for most of america.

When they start carrying glucose monitors for the adult onset diabetes they have caused, should we applaud them for looking out for the health of americans?
posted by hal_c_on at 10:47 AM on January 24, 2011


Their low-low price strategy is, plain and simple, a race to the bottom for everybody. They apply their sizeable pressure to vendors to lower costs. This puts pressure on on vendors to do things like cut wages, cut workforce, and/or move production where wages are cheaper.

Don't forget that their pressure to vendors also results in lower-quality product being sold on their shelves. I read a few years ago that one of the reason Rubbermaid is so hard to find in WalMart stores is that the pressure from the company toward lower prices involved suggestions that they perhaps use lower-grade materials or make thinner-walled products, and Rubbermaid decided they'd rather lose the WalMart market base than degrade their product quality.

If it's happening with crappy molded plastic items, I am positive it's happening with all their other products, too.
posted by hippybear at 10:48 AM on January 24, 2011


So Walmart gets into the organic game and basically drives down profits to effectively squeeze local independent farmers out of the game.

This argument comes up again, and again, and it makes no sense.

"Organic" has never meant "Grown on a chic, independently-owned farm in New England run by an adorable interracial married couple, and their cadre of at-risk inner-city youth on their summer vacations."

You may like all of those things, and can choose to patronize producers that support those sorts of things. However, none of them have anything to do with the organic-ness of the food itself. If Organic food gets cheaper, more of it will be sold, and thus a greater portion of our agricultural output will be organically-produced, and less pesticides/chemicals will be used. This is a good thing.

Organic vs. local/independent is a false dichotomy. Farms can be one, both, or neither. There was a thread about organic eggs a few months ago that suffered from the same conflation of terms.

Also, if our farms are pressured to become more efficient, we'll have to import less food, we'll use less fuel to do so in the process, and maybe we can finally start rolling back farm subsidies (About $20bn/year in the US, most of which goes to corn, cotton, soy, wheat, and tobacco(!!); in that order).

Again, I don't like the economics of Wal-Mart, but I find it difficult to hate them in this particular instance. 99% of us already buy our groceries from one megacorp or another. Wal-Mart isn't even the worst of them, and I find it odd that other companies escape the sort of scrutiny that Wal-Mart gets. Using its buying power and market influence to bring cheap healthy/organic produce to the masses strikes me as one of, if not the most socially-positive things that Wal-Mart can do with its formidable corporate stature.
posted by schmod at 10:49 AM on January 24, 2011 [7 favorites]


But I need a bogeyman!
posted by Burhanistan at 10:53 AM on January 24, 2011 [1 favorite]


The idea this is a race to the bottom is a bit silly given there's just not a lot left to cut in terms of wages, especially with the collapse of the migrant farmer population as a result of the recession. The next frontier is reducing spoilage and waste in produce, and I expect that's what a lot of these big farms are going to start exploiting.
I agree in principle, but it's important to keep in mind that hourly pay isn't the only measure of prosperity. I'm not suggesting that "But, are you FULFILLED?" is a useful metric. Rather, noting that things like "reduction in spoilage" and "improved supply chain efficiency" and so on aren't magic money.

When produce spoils, the company buys more produce to replace it. When a supply chain is 'inefficient," more money than necessary goes to paying people between the production point and the end consumer. When grocery chains (the area I've had the most experience with) increase the efficiency of their pricing and sales system -- and pass that along to the consumer in the form of lower prices! -- that means that they have created systems that can efficiently perform the work that additional workers were previously needed for.

None of this is inherently bad, especially if the idea is to optimize efficiency as a moral imperative. But I'm reminded, in some ways, of the remedial social safety net that was created in ancient Israel -- a level of enforced inefficiency was required of farmers, so that the poor and indigent could come by and pick up the slack to live on. While it doesn't necessarily capture the complexity of a modern economy, I think there's something to be said for recognizing that people are the fundamental "inefficiency" in capitalism, and eliminating inefficiency is almost always synonymous with eliminating work.

That's a systemic problem, not a Walmart specific one.
posted by verb at 10:53 AM on January 24, 2011 [1 favorite]


WalMart is a publicly traded company. It is therefore illegal for them to make choices that are "less hurtful" unless those choices make more money for the shareholders. No amount of arguing from "hard to pretend ramifications aren't your fault" will change that.

Is this actually the case?

It is my understanding that corporations must abide by the corporate charter and the wishes of the shareholders.
Other than that, they are free to operate in whatever manner they see fit.
If the charter does not promise to "maximize shareholder value", then they are under no obligation to do so.
posted by madajb at 11:16 AM on January 24, 2011


WalMart has made some pretty smart PR moves. This is likely to be another one, at least in part, so there's no conflict to shareholder interests. But just because it's a PR move doesn't mean it can't actually do any good. This seems like a potential win for public health. You can hate WalMart and still applaud this move, if only because responding with jeers won't win anyone over to your side.
posted by zennie at 11:51 AM on January 24, 2011 [1 favorite]


"99% of us already buy our groceries from one megacorp or another."

Schnucks? Never again. But moved out of their range a couple decades back.
Winn Dixie? Moved out of local area.
Albertsons? Okay baked goods, otherwise... no. Scarce around here.
Kroger? Not bad, better than Publix.
Publix? Not bad, high prices.
Food Giant? Oh, hell no. Overpriced low quality crap. (At least locally, your mileage may vary.)
Sam's Club? I see folks buy massive amounts of staples there - must be a restaraunt or preschool, charity or corner market sort of thing. I DO get paper goods there - you know you're going to use the toilet paper, might as well get a shitload... so to speak. Beats buying it in 6-packs... if you've got somewhere to put a 36-pack.

It kind of boils down to three things.

1. People will buy what they need, or think they need.
2. They're going to look for the closest store that supplies their needs, at...
3. A price they're willing to pay.

Give them that, and they won't care if it's 'organic' or whatever - they'll buy and be glad of it.
posted by JB71 at 11:53 AM on January 24, 2011


it's important to keep in mind that hourly pay isn't the only measure of prosperity. I'm not suggesting that "But, are you FULFILLED?" is a useful metric. Rather, noting that things like "reduction in spoilage" and "improved supply chain efficiency" and so on aren't magic money.

Oh, I know. But the equation seems to be that Wal-Mart is going to cut costs on the backs of a bunch of poor people, and the truth is the equation is much more complex than that.

None of this is inherently bad, especially if the idea is to optimize efficiency as a moral imperative. But I'm reminded, in some ways, of the remedial social safety net that was created in ancient Israel -- a level of enforced inefficiency was required of farmers, so that the poor and indigent could come by and pick up the slack to live on.

If the enforced inefficiency can be recaptured, it could do us a lot of good. I'm specifically thinking of food programs where produce grocery stores would be throwing out is being given to pantries and community dinners. If anything, we should be doing more of that, since even that is doing more for us than just chucking the spoilage in the garbage.

But at the same time, an efficient supply chain means less fertilizer, less irrigation, and getting more out of the arable land we're losing as a nation. It's a bit overreaching to say it'll reduce food imports, but the other environmental effects will be tangible.

And there's the rub that I think you're speaking of. An efficient food supply chain will improve our environment, but at the cost of jobs and of whatever recapture we currently have in place. So, possibly more hungry people, and ironically costing more to feed them than under the current inefficient system.

I can't pretend to say that we'll ever have a perfect supply chain or that having one solves all our problems. But if it helps in getting affordable healthy food in the hands of an obese lower class, I'm in favor of it.
posted by dw at 12:10 PM on January 24, 2011 [1 favorite]


When they start carrying glucose monitors for the adult onset diabetes they have caused, should we applaud them for looking out for the health of americans?

This is really non-sensical. The problem with all that cheap, fattening food comes down to a combination of government subsidies for fat and carbs that make unhealthy food cheaper than healthy food, a farm lobby that keeps them in place, corporations who exploit a "bug" in human evolution that makes us desire that fat and sugar, and a capitalist system that increasingly is pushing families towards being overworked and underpaid and without time to do anything but chuck a government subsidized chemical-laden pizza in the oven instead of making a decent mean by hand.

Wal-Mart is just the dealer. A very, very rich dealer who got in on the marketing size and controls most of the street corners in America, but still, they're the dealer in this equation.

Solving this problem starts with understanding it's a public health problem first, an economic problem second. It won't be solved with some sort of Fight Club first-let-us-kill-the-corporations final solution I hear from so many people. The problem is written in our DNA. The solution starts with science and ends in economic reform.
posted by dw at 12:19 PM on January 24, 2011 [2 favorites]


And there's the rub that I think you're speaking of. An efficient food supply chain will improve our environment, but at the cost of jobs and of whatever recapture we currently have in place. So, possibly more hungry people, and ironically costing more to feed them than under the current inefficient system.

I can't pretend to say that we'll ever have a perfect supply chain or that having one solves all our problems. But if it helps in getting affordable healthy food in the hands of an obese lower class, I'm in favor of it.


Yeah, I hear you. And I'm definitely in favor of Walmart doing this. Sadly, most of the issues around things like this boil down to 'The world is complicated and almost any entity with the ability to affect change without violent revolution is already contributing to the problem.' (Full disclosure: by a couple degrees of client separation, I've done work for Walmart. I've contributed to the growth of the beast, woo!)
posted by verb at 12:43 PM on January 24, 2011


The last couple of years Walmart was almost a trillion dollar company. Bigger then Exxon Mobile Corp, and the biggest company in the world. Think about that: their sales are a significant portion of the US debt.

With those kind of sales, your potential liability to a sharp group of people is practically speaking unlimited. I think Walmart will do just about anything at this point to cover their asses given the size of the target (ahem, no pun intended) painted on their back.
posted by digitalprimate at 4:16 PM on January 24, 2011


Some of these so called urban "Food Deserts" are just not true. The Houston Heights is by no means a "Food Deserts". The Heights proposed location is not transit-accessible. They also are not making an actual good-faith effort to sit down and listen at community-input meetings. I am afraid that all of the effort to Stop the Height WalMart may be in wasted. The mayor has already promised them tax breaks and they are creating an off-ramp nearest the proposed location.
posted by nimsey lou at 6:00 PM on January 24, 2011


I guess my question is, "Is it really going to be healthier food??" One of the Wal-Mart guys in the links said something more or less to the point of "Our customers want to know why they have to pay more for whole wheat macaroni and cheese than they do for white."

In many ways there is not a lot of difference between whole grain that has been finely ground and white flour from which the bran and the germ have been removed. If the fibre is powdered enough you don't get the same colon scrubbing health benefits from it. I've also noted that much of what is sold recently sold as 'Whole grain" has been super-processed with the addition of new additives and ingredients that make a label comparison a far from simple task. Whole grain has morphed sometime in the last few decades from meaning "made from ground up grain" to "made from some portion of a ground up grain, but probably not the germ and treated with an additive that prevents any residual germ oil from going rancid, with the addition of some fibre that was removed put back again although possible not coming from the same part of the plant and in fact coming from a plant that could be considered a different subspecies. And possible with some chemicals to make it fluffier since the gluten we used to add to whole grain products getting unpopular due to all the gluten intolerant people"

And then there is the question of is ANY form of boxed mac'n'cheese a healthy food? Let's see... naturally occurring vitamins... no. Harmful fats... yes.... High salt content...ouch! Added highly processed vitamins which are not in natural ratios or necessarily dietary accessible form... oh dear.

When ever anything has vitamins added to it you can assume that you would be better off just swallowing a decent little multivitamin and leaving the nutritionally inert "food" alone.


On the other hand, I do not think the authors of the two Wal-Mart positive articles in the HBR have been deluded by Wal-Mart. I'm just assuming they were paid by Wal-Mart instead.

And then, of course it's worth noting that Wal-Mart is an entity comprised of people who mean well in varying degrees, and are unlikely to be trying to do harm when they can avoid it without trouble to themself. So I expect that this health initiative will have both good and bad results like every other human endeavour...

Keep in mind that the ideal for a human is a diet of a wide range of plants picked within the last few seconds grown in naturally fertile soil, or else animals fed without human intervention on a natural diet procured from the same abundant environment. Ain't gonna happen. Those boxes of agonizingly unhealthy processed food -fruit roll-ups, frozen juice concentrate, bologna, individual pouches of peanut butter cracker sandwiches etc.- are the result of trying to feed umpteen million people who are in no way actually involved in food production but are instead at the end of a gigantic chain of people making their living off that chain in order to afford their own place at the end of it as consumers. The fact that any nourishment at all remains in the food available for us to eat is astonishing when you consider it in this light.
posted by Jane the Brown at 8:34 PM on January 24, 2011


I honestly don't shop at WalMart, maybe been in one twice in the past 3 years or so... but if I recall correctly, they have a large variety of fresh produce, a pretty extensive meat selection, and dairy items. If they carry flour and sugar, then that's pretty much all you need to cook for yourself and your family and entirely avoid exactly those kinds of foods which Jane the Brown is questioning the value of in her comment.

Yeah, yeah, I know... convenience, time, whatever the reason is for buying the prepared stuff... But if WalMart actually does carry spices and staples, not just prefab food, then that's not an entirely bad thing.

Now, how it's marketed to the customer, both in and out of the store, THAT may speak more to whether WalMart is trying to increase their customers' health, or just trying to drive more feet through their doors. Of course, if they REALLY were concerned about their customers' health, they'd probably work toward eliminating those pre-fab foods entirely and working to educate those who shop there with in-store free cooking demonstrations, shelf displays which make it easy to buy an entire recipe's ingredients, and development of ways to work the same seductive marketing on carrots and apples as Frito-Lay uses on Doritos.

But I don't see that happening any time soon.
posted by hippybear at 9:42 PM on January 24, 2011


You cannot save you way to prosperity on a large scale. Lower prices is not the answer, raising opportunity and living standards is.
That's really a slogan, not an argument. Obviously, if you stop wasting money, you stop wasting labor. That means both more wealth and more leisure. The problem is distributing it evenly.
My brother is an architect and has designed a number of Wal-Marts. One store he worked on was in south Florida, in an Art Deco-ish looking area. As a result, they went for a smaller footprint, smaller parking lot, and styling that blended in with the architecture of the area. I saw some of the renderings, and his firm did a great job on it.

Store didn't get approved, though, since the unions packed the meetings Alinsky-style to cajole the council to reject the permit.
Whatever you want to say about the "new" walmart, you simply cannot say that they aren't against unions. So I'm not exactly sure why you would be surprised that unions would be against walmart.
posted by delmoi at 1:02 AM on January 25, 2011


How dare they sell affordable goods to low income families?
posted by blue_beetle at 5:40 AM on January 25, 2011


and that would include payday lending services, if not banking...

i generally agree that walmart isn't doing any of this out of the kindness of their heart, but to the extent that enlightened self-interest is good for (long-term, sustainable) business, i think it's interesting that they're even looking ahead, in contrast to much of the rest of head-up-the-hole corporate america.

it does seem to be as if walmart sees this as a competitive advantage, which i think is what the HBR article brings out, that along with scale, "changing sensibilities and better sensors" (public pressure and the threat of gov't regulation) is forcing them to adapt, which i guess is what you'd expect of any good business. to trot out the cliches, whether 'fake it 'til you make' ends up working -- in terms of public perception and brand image -- it appears an uphill climb. i'd just note they're trying, like 'you have to start somewhere'.

as vonnegut implored (echoing lewis): "Be careful what you pretend to be, because you are what you pretend to be." while cynical, it also gives cause for hope. that even walmart can change, perhaps not for the right reasons, but still for the better. and that could be what the overall lesson really is is more 'don't hate the player, hate the game'. change the game -- by "changing sensibilities and better sensors" -- and the rest will follow, even if it's just pretending for a while:
In other words, in a society with some voting feedback (I will avoid the word "democracy" since this implies a level of control by the people that is, of course, only a fantasy), the government does not have to be good, but it has to avoid violating the norms of our society to the point that it becomes obvious that the official story (for example, the story that we're a "free" country) is a sham. In other words, our leaders do not have to really be fighting for justice and freedom, they just have to appear to be doing so.
the same holds true i think for megacorps.
posted by kliuless at 11:34 AM on January 25, 2011 [1 favorite]


I honestly don't shop at WalMart, maybe been in one twice in the past 3 years or so... but if I recall correctly, they have a large variety of fresh produce, a pretty extensive meat selection, and dairy items.

They're very close to Fred Meyer in terms of layout and offerings.

In most of the rural and suburban South and Midwest the main model of Wal-Mart is the Supercenter, a grocery store mashed together with a discount store (and with a pharmacy and bank). This is one reason why Albertsons and other chains are struggling in the Mid-South -- Wal-Mart offers one-stop convenience and better prices. In fact, Albertsons gave up on the entire Oklahoma market a few years ago, leaving Oklahoma City with only one national grocery chain: Wal-Mart.

I think that's one reason I'm not very cynical about Wal-Mart doing this. They're the market leader in the most obese parts of non-urban America. Even if it's for the wrong reasons, it's going to help some people.
posted by dw at 12:41 PM on January 25, 2011


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