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walmart: socially just or just plain evil?

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’.

credo: a better world, one phone call at a time

Some time ago, I became more aware of how my choices as a consumer have a real impact on the world around me, so Chris and I have set out to make some changes. We’ve been making relatively small, painless changes in our daily shopping habits, but yesterday we made a big change. We dumped our current mobile phone service–Verizon Wireless–in favor of a socially responsible company called Credo Mobile (a Working Assets company). We had learned that Verizon has earned an “F” for overall social responsibility by the Council on Economic Priorities (CEP) and that they have given over $84 million to Washington lobbyists. This coupled with the likes of monopolistic angling, unsavory and discriminatory treatment of pregnant employees, and the denial of service to pro-choice groups, places Verizon in the ranks of “corporate villain.”

So, we’ve moved to Credo. The parent company–Working Assets–was started in 1985. Here’s how they describe their beginnings:

A small band of idealists comes together to further the causes of human rights, women’s rights, peace, environmentalism and an entire progressive agenda. They have an idea about helping people spend in a socially responsible way, turning everyday purchases into automatic acts of generosity.

Credo donates a portion of every dollar (at no extra cost to the customer) to progressive groups working for a better world in the areas of civil rights, economic and social justice, environment, peace and international freedom, voting rights and civic participation. Each year, Credo’s customers have the opportunity to nominate worthwhile organizations to support. Fifty are selected and then Credo’s customers vote on how the money will be distributed to these various causes. To date, Credo members/customers have donated over $65 million to progressive organizations for a better world. I have a feeling it’s going to feel pretty good doing business with this company.

If you want to feel good about your mobile phone bill, try Credo. They offer a $200 contract buy-out for up to three lines to allow you to get out of your existing contracts with your current provider. In other words, they will float you up to $600 to help you break the chains of your current contract in order to spend your money more responsibly. You can keep your current number, and the phones that they offer are made “green” by Credo’s purchase of carbon credits to offset the fuel it takes to ship them and the electricity they’ll use over their life span, and they will make it easy to ship your old phone back to them for refurbishing or recycling–to keep it out of a landfill. Did I mention that Credo’s bills are printed with soy-based inks on all recycled paper? And that for every ton of paper Credo uses, they plant 100 trees (enough for another ton of paper). I’m getting excited now. I almost can’t wait to rack up a big cell phone bill. Some money you don’t mind spending.

making changes with the money we spend

Mike gave me a cool little book for Christmas–The Better World Shopping Guide. It’s a user-friendly guide that ranks products and companies from A to F. The ranking is based on 20 years of research and looks at several issues, such as human rights, animal protection, environment, social justice, and [singlepic=540,250,250]community involvement. It’s an interesting little book with some surprising (and not so surprising) information about many stores, products, etc.

The book makes a thought-provoking argument by reminding us that as consumers we have the power to make changes in this world with the money that we spend. As the book states, “every dollar you spend is a vote for the world you want to live in!” It goes on to say that the average American family “spends about $18,000 every year on goods and services.” $18,000 every year! That is a lot of money every year! Who exactly is this money going to? And how exactly are these companies who get this money treating our planet and the people in it? These are important questions for us all to consider. Since receiving this book Mike and I have already made a few changes in our shopping habits and we definitely plan to make a few more.

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