Talking recently with my friend Michelle, the topic of corporate/consumer responsibility and social justice came up, and before long we turned to Walmart as a case in point. (I know, right?)

Michelle’s question/statement to me went something like this:

Many do not necessarily have a need to shop at a place with such low prices like Walmart, but some do. Walmart may help them provide for their families. With the economy the way it is and job security a scarcity, Walmart allows many families to make [singlepic=1073,275,275]it here in the US. Walmart also supports many organic farms, has green LEED certified buildings or has green features that save energy in many of their buildings, and the foundation gives millions to support women-owned businesses, farms and factories, job training and education, hunger relief, military, education, disaster relief, and gender diversity. But there is a cost for Walmart’s low prices. Manufacturing plants around the world that supply to Walmart pay workers unfair wages, demand extremely long work days with few to no breaks, often provide no weekend breaks, employ children at a very young age, have shown documented cases of employee abuse and rape, and have disgusting working conditions. So how do we deal with having stores like Walmart that seem to support people in need, but also foster abuse in so many others? Is there a way to balance out the social justice issues of a place like Walmart?

This is an interesting question and of course one that throws a monkey wrench in some people’s tendency (and perhaps desire) to see the world in dualistic terms. The notion of Walmart as socially just or just plain evil, itself, suggests a kind of faulty dualism. Of course, we know this is a false choice; it’s not that easy, and this is damn disconcerting.

I don’t and won’t shop at Walmart. I recognize their angels and devils, but being in a position to opt out of Walmart, I will every time, even if it means paying significantly more. Of course, as Michelle is quick to argue, Walmart may provide economical alternatives to those who otherwise could not afford certain goods. (Although, this idea of a “good deal” may also be false and more about marketing and perception than anything else.) For me (privileged enough to opt out of Walmart), I think this “affordability” they provide makes them that much more evil. There are costs to the goods they hawk–even if these costs are externalized and carried on the bruised backs of sweatshop laborers. The reality, too, is that they do not provide an alternative option; rather, they aggressively work to remove buying options by monopolizing small town economies all across this country.

Ahh, but there we were at that moment, in the shadow of Walmart, with our own devil and angel.

Ok, I lied earlier. Of course I’ve been in a Walmart and have given them my money at least once or twice in the past. Last fall my family and I were camping outside a very small Wisconsin town. The weather was unseasonably cold, and so we went in search of a blanket to buy. We drove up and down every little street that made up that town looking for a shop or shanty to pedal us a blanket and, to our disappointment, every road led back to Walmart. So we, with heads hung low, shuffled through florescent-lit aisles of a Walmart warehouse in the middle of corn field, bought our blanket, and left swearing to take the amount of money we gave to Walmart that day and donate to a social justice organization.

Ahh, but there we were at that moment, in the shadow of Walmart, with our own devil and angel. We cannot right these injustices by making reparations. It’s impossible to undo damage done–to ruin one person’s life, buy a gift for another, and then call it even. It doesn’t work that way.

The real challenge, as I see it, is working through the difficulty and the thinking and the making of hard choices–the idea of how to know what to do when every choice seems like a bad one. It’s overwhelming having to think about it all. Thinking about it all, though, is critical consciousness, isn’t it? This is what I, as an educator, hope to cultivate in my students and, as a parent, in my son–the willingness and desire to ask critical questions, to pursue informed decisions, to do the work, and to live deliberately–but never off the broken backs and blood of other human beings. I’m just sayin’.