Catlin Gabel School, Catlin Speak
If there is a common enemy among union activists, green activists and social equality activists, it’s the heartless, dominating corporation. And if the heartless, dominating corporations of the world have a poster child, it’s Walmart. The expansive, low-cost, merchant-of-everything store has 11,164 locations worldwide, and 4,177 of those are in the United States. Few companies in the U.S. have a worse reputation, yet it remains the largest retailer in the country. Does it deserve the criticism that it receives? And if so, to what degree?
Let’s start with Walmart’s most infamous company policy. Their treatment of workers has created quite a bit of controversy over the last twenty years or so. In addition to general anti-union policies, store managers often bar union representatives from speaking to employees in the store or even at times kick them out. A CatlinSpeak reporter was recently escorted out of a local Walmart after attempting to create an accompanying photo essay for this article. The company’s higher positions are largely filled in-house; over two-thirds of the store managers began as hourly workers and were promoted up through the ranks. Still, the overwhelming majority of their workers are at minimum wage positions, which is part of what has led to such negative response.
The pro-union and anti-union sentiments create a harsh divide among company employees. To be clear: there are many people who love working at Walmart. While many large brands have become infamous for their dead-end jobs, like Mcdonalds and the so-called “Mcjobs, ” Walmart provides much more opportunity for promotion than most companies its size. And there are those who hate working at Walmart, and wish to do away with the prevalence of minimum wage positions, harsh treatment of union activists, and other harmful company policies.
Many underlying work methods at Walmart harm the average worker. In 2003 in Oregon, employees sued their local branch for the store’s approach to the overtime policy. Apparently higher-ups in the company put so much pressure on store managers to cut labor costs that they often persuaded workers to work unpaid overtime. Quickly more news stories spread, and eventually it became clear that this was a widespread issue. However, Walmart played it off as a few rogue managers going through drastic measures to cut costs.
Other criticisms have surfaced. Environmental activists often accuse the company of “greenwashing,” a method by which Walmart paints itself to be a sustainable, green-friendly company purely for marketing purposes, while in reality rarely fulfilling those goals. This is true in some ways and false in others. In 2011, according to statistics provided by Walmart and published in the Huffington Post, the company managed to keep 80.9% of their waste out of landfills, a decent number, and in the same year increased its usage of locally grown produce by 97%. Still, any company as large as Walmart will struggle to remain sustainable. The company’s green power usage, the amount of their energy use that comes from renewable sources, is a measly 28%, while competitors like Kohl’s use solely renewable fuels.
A lot of these problems come from the company’s size. It’s the single largest private employer in the country. Not only that, but the number of their employees just in the U.S. is twice that of any other U.S. company’s total global employee count. From 1995 to 1999, Walmart accounted for 4% of U.S. economic growth. In 2013, their sales totaled $468 billion. The next closest retailer? Kroger, at $92 billion. More than 90% of Americans live within 20 miles of a Walmart. Needless to say, it’s a massive company, and one with a substantial carbon footprint that it finds difficult to reduce.
Most of Walmart’s problems can be traced to a single root: the vision of the company’s founder. Sam Walton, who started the store in a small town of 20,000 in Arkansas, had a particular way of doing things. He wanted to cut prices to the lowest possible number that would still yield a profit. Typically, retailers search for savings through lower wholesale costs, and keep the same retail prices. Walton thought differently.
His success spoke for itself. He kept his vision as the first supercenters began to open up in the 1960s and as they spread across the country over the next two decades. By the 1980s, he was the richest man in America, but he still drove an old Ford pickup, never flew first class, and shared hotel rooms on business trips. In many ways he was the charm of Walmart, the leader of a corporation that just wanted to pass the savings to the customer while still turning out a profit. This was certainly the image he and the company wished to promote to the public. Those ideas were kept long after Walton’s death. Walmart’s CEO from 2000-2009, H. Lee Scott, once remarked in a New York Times interview that he drove a Volkswagen Bug. His salary at the time was an annual $18 million.
Few legitimate price comparison studies are available, but Walmart tends to back its low-price claims up. Their prices are largely the reason for their growth, as they are consistently the choice of the average American looking to save money on groceries and other products. This also leads to another criticism: when supercenters open up in small towns, mom-and-pop stores are often forced to close down because of Walmart’s cost cutting.
All of the other problems make sense in this context. Of course they don’t want unions forming; they’d rather pay 1.5 million employees less if it means saving money for their nearly 13 billion annual shoppers. Of course they have poor environmental standards; cheaper fuels means lower prices. They exemplify the type of company that will move freely with consumer demands, greenwashing when customers ask for more organic produce, cutting costs when necessary.
So, perhaps Walmart’s image belies a much less simple company. Its actual value is difficult to quantify, and is perhaps better phrased as a personal question. What savings are you willing to take advantage of, and at what cost? Are Walmart’s environmental performance and treatment of its workers too horrible for you to support? And, perhaps most importantly, are you willing to allow others to support it, and for it to continue its practices as a whole? These are certainly not easy questions, and require more than a little research and clarification.