What if you could buy social justice? (Part 3: The Temple of Wal-Mart)

When I read that a Wal-Mart worker had been trampled to death by stampeding shoppers eager for bargains on “Black Friday,” I flashed back to Reverend Billy. His over-the-top evangelical-style preaching’s that encourage ‘worshipers’ to STOP SHOPPING in the docu-comedy What Would Jesus Buy equate our consumerism to evil, to greed, and, catchingly, to the “SHOPACOLYPSE.” Black Friday’s news, with one Wal-Mart worker dead as a result of consumer madness, and several others injured, as well as the shoot out at a Toys-R-Us in Palm Desert that left two more men dead, seemed to indicate that the ‘SHOPACOLYPSE’ is indeed upon us.

As someone who includes a directive to please not buy any needed supplies at Wal-Mart on my course syllabi, I often get questions as to why I have a vendetta against this store. Many cite it is hardly the only company that relies on exploitive labor systems both here and abroad, and that, more prosaically, they rely on the cheap prices. Well, Wal-Mart is like the grand-daddy of exploitation, the icon of cheap consumerism. If we can, as socially conscious consumers, bring down this evil symbol of corporate global capitalism, other companies will surely take notice.

As for the claim that people ‘need’ to shop at Wal-Mart for economic reasons, I do not fully agree, at least not in all cases. I understand that restrictive budgets require ‘bargain shopping,’ yet, what places like Wal-Mart promote is not shopping for necessity, but shopping in mega-quantity, the happy face price slasher beckoning customers to fill, fill, fill that oversized cart.

Wal-Mart encourages people to BUY MORE and PAY LESS doing so, rather than to buy less and be willing to pay more for equitably produced products. Yet, I realize that for some non-urban dwellers, Wal-Mart is pretty much the only place to shop (as the corporation has been so successful at putting mom-and-pop stores out of business). For others, the cheap prices really are a necessity. It is not these shoppers that are treating Wal-Mart as a temple – these are the very shoppers that are consumer capitalist system FORCES to make choices that are in fact counter to their own interests. Those at the most exploited end of the labor system are the most likely to HAVE to shop at places like Wal-Mart, and also the most likely to be exploited by employers such as Wal-Mart and other corporations. This is why, of course, that in these darker economic times (I say ‘darker’ as they have been dark for MANY for a lot longer than this latest “economic meltdown”), about the only places seeing sales increase are places like Wal-Mart. What horrible irony that the very corporations that create such an exploitive, unequal society also reap the most benefits when the economic house of cards comes crashing down…

At cites like Wake Up Wal-Mart and Wal-Mart Watch make clear, Wal-Mart is a major corporate evil-doer – it is, in keeping with the faith metaphor, the devil that entices us to keep sinning, both individually and collectively. This holiday season alone, each employee will generate over $2,000 in profit for Wal-Mart, or, “from the work of 1.4 million Americans, Wal-Mart will reap billions of dollars in sales” (as cited here). Yet, these workers will not reap the benefits of the billions in profits. Rather, they will, in true Wal-Mart fashion, be denied healthcare and other benefits, be underpaid and overworked, and be prohibited from unionizing. Or, they may be, as Jdimytai Damour was on was on Black Friday 2008, trampled to death by Wal-Mart customers.

As Jeff Fecke reports in “Always Low Wages. Always,” WalMart is allowed to carry on their heinous practices with merely a light slap on the wrist once in awhile, as in the case of the latest settlement where the company has agreed to pay $54.3 million to settle a lawsuit. The suit, about their practice of requiring employees to work off-the-clock, is one of many taken against this frown-inducing corporate giant. As Fecke reflects,

“While it’s good to see the suit settled, and employees compensated after a decade of stalling, I’m a bit disappointed that it’s being settled. As noted, a jury trial could have cost the company $2 billion, and that kind of money might have motivated them to, you know, pay their workers and give them adequate breaks. Instead, Wal-Mart will pay their parking ticket and continue to screw over their workforce.”

Issues like these are only some of the reasons I target Wal-Mart as a place to BEGIN the consume-less-and-do-so-more-responsibly revolution (ok, so I need to think of a shorter name for this revolution…)

Another key reason to people-cott Wal-Mart is because it perpetuates social inequalities in the areas of race, class, gender, ability, etc. For example, the trampling of Jdimytai Damour serves as a horrible, yet telling, symbol of the racism and classism Wal-Mart propagates. An analysis of the pictures of this tragedy reveals that not only was the person killed a POC, but the majority of people waiting outside to take advantage of bargains were also POC. Is it a COINCIDECE that POC are disporportionately represented as workers and shoppers at Wal-Mart? No – it is a reflection of the race and class inequalities in our society that means CERTAIN people will be more likely to have to work the shit jobs and to shop at shit stores to make ends meet.

This is also true on a global scale – Wal-Mart could in fact be viewed as one of the prime masters of modern slavery. As with earlier historical slave practices, the masters are white (the Walton family) and the slave workers are largely POC – especially the lower down the Wal-Mart job ladder you go (although it can’t rightly be called a ladder as many will never climb anywhere in that corporation). Wal-Mart, as the documentary The High Cost of Low Price makes plain, is not one for advancing/promoting its workers, especially if they have vaginas or non-white skin…

Further, while I appreciate the fact that so many films, websites, and activist groups are focusing on Wal-Mart’s deleterious effects, I take issue with the tendency to offer “buy American” as the (under-analyzed) solution. For, while there are many merits to shopping locally, the “buy American” mantra is often framed in an us-verses-them way. As in THEY (the rest of the globe) are “stealing our jobs,” are “ruining American industry,” are “driving down wages.” What gets lost in this us-verses-them thinking is that we all live on one planet.  In fact, the otherwise wonderful Frontline series on Wal-Mart announces this mentality right there in its title: “Is Wal-Mart Good for America?” What we should be asking instead, is: “Is Wal-Mart Good for the Globe?”

As global citizens we should be worried about fair wages and an environmentally safe planet for ALL PEOPLE, not just for Americans. Further, buying items that claim to be “American” or “Made in the USA” is no guarantee they were produced equitably, nor do “Made in USA” tags guarantee items were actually made in the US let alone made under fair labor conditions (as Ms. Magazines article “Paradise Lost” reveals). This narrative also ignores the fact that there our many sweatshops within the US – they are not all “over there” in China or Indonesia. They are right here in Los Angeles, San Diego, New York. The “made in the USA” is a false feel good tag.

While there are no easy answers to the Wal-Martization of the world, a first step would be for those of us who have the privilege of being able to afford to shop elsewhere to do so. Further, we need to make sure we are not using the “LOW PRICES!” as an excuse to buy more stuff then we really need. We need to ask ourselves is shopping at Wal-Mart REALLY a necessity due to budget, or do Wal-Mart prices encourage the buying of many non-essentials thus mitigating the “I can’t afford to shop anywhere else argument.” If you are buying things you don’t need at Wal-Mart because they are so cheap, the money saved from not buying these things could be used to shop somewhere with more equitable labor practices (and hence higher prices).

Further, rather than worship at this temple dedicated to ceremonies of conspicuous consumption, we could do like Jesus and attempt to destroy the temple. In order to bring down this money-changing temple, we must resolve to resist the false happy face promises, the artificially low prices, and the lure of bargains. For, the bargains at Wal-Mart come at a very high cost – they come at the expense of exploited workers around the globe, environmental harm, and, yes, even democracy. (See, for example, my post here for how Wal-Mart bribes politicians such as California Governator Arnold Schwarzenegger).

So, dear readers, if you haven’t already, please consider people-cotting Wal-Mart. If monetary or geographical locations don’t make this possible, you can take action by staying on top of Wal-Mart news at cites like Wake up Wal-Mart, Wal-Mart Sucks, and Wal-Mart Watch and via signing petitions, writing letters, and making your voice heard in the blogosphere and elsewhere. Wal-Mart may be only one consumerist temple among many, but it is the ‘patriarch’ of temples in so many ways – bringing down this daddy of corporate capitalism would help give our global family a better chance at living free from domination and exploitation brought to us via Wal-Mart sweat-shops, factories, and ‘super-centers.’

And, in case I haven’t dampened your holiday spirit or disturbed or pissed you off enough already, stay tuned for the next post in the series where I attempt to de-throne the mouse: “The Church of Disney.”

21 thoughts on “What if you could buy social justice? (Part 3: The Temple of Wal-Mart)”

  1. Very interesting. I read the start of the book The Effect of Wal-mart. In was amazed with the percentage of Americans that are within a 10 or 15 minute drive from Wal-Mart. My city in Canada tried for a long time to keep Wal-mart out. Now it is on the north side, far from the university. They make a lot of money in this country though I don’t think they get the same profit from selling food as they do in America. We still have stores like No Frills that try to sell food as cheaply as possible by not having the extras some grocery stores have. So I don’t know why people near such stores would go to Wal-mart.

    1. Lyndsay,
      Thanks for your comments. I hadn’t heard of the book you mention.
      The idea of showing free documentaries to expose the evils of places like Wal-Mart is a good one. It is partially practiced by groups who volunteer to show movies in their homes — this was done with The High Cost of Low Price documentary, for example. But, a public screening would certainly be more effective. I think the problem is who would do such screenings besides colleges/universities/libraries — even then, such establishments are bound by copyright law. I do think, though, that raising awareness is key. Most people don’t know the gritty reality behind lots of their consumer practices…

  2. Also, I wonder what would happen if some one in a city tried to get a space to show free documentaries on a big screen. On my campus there is a documentary shown every Wednesday night. I wonder if the general public saw more documentaries about such issues and then talked about it with their friends…

  3. Here’s a phenomenal resource for your “consume less and do so more responsibly” revolution: The Better World Shopping Guide (www.betterworldshopper.com)

    It ranks hundreds of companies according to human rights, the environment, animal protection, community involvement and social justice. The book assigns grades A through F as well as lists top corporate heroes and villains.

    It’s not exhaustive, and it’s not the answer. But it’s definitely a start. It helps get the ball rolling to educate oneself on ethical shopping.

    1. Davo,
      Thanks much for the resource. I will add this to my list of resources to be included in the last part of the series! It certainly is a great start.

  4. Good points you make again about Wal-Mart. As for profits not trickling down to the workers, I think that gets to me the most. Those people who put in 10-12 hours a day and have crappy benefits to begin with. I don’t know how it is over there in the West Coast, but I see more minorities in the Wal-Mart around my house. I’ve noticed that the people who can afford to not shop at WM, end up at Sam’s Club, where you have to purchase a membership. I notice there are less minorities at Sam’s Club. Any thoughts?

    1. MM,
      Yes, I think Wal-Mart definitely intersects (and perpetuates) the race/class inequalities both in the US and elsewhere. Here on the West Coast there are more POC shopping/working at Wal-Mart — yet, surprise, surprise, the managers are usually white. We have Costco, not Sam’s Club, but, yes, the demographic of shoppers at the two stores is definitely different… Also, with places like Costco and Sam’s Club, it’s not only the membership, but the cost of buying in bulk. Even though it’s saving money in the long run, it’s a bigger initial outlay.
      I tried to convey in the post how W-M propagates race/class inequality on a global scale and I think this dynamic can be seen in the way you mention, just by looking at who shops/works there — and also, of course, by looking into where and how the products are made.

    1. Veronica,
      Thanks for this link. I had never seen the 11moms site. While the tips were problematic in my opinion in the first place (and work to enshrine the stereotype of the mommy as shopper), the fact they were not taken down, edited, or commented upon after a WM worker was trampled to death on Black Friday is pretty appalling – especially given the specific verbiage of the tips with references to “die hard” and “run you over.”

  5. Here’s a Shop with a Conscience Guide published by SweatFree Communities and International Labor Rights Forum (www.sweatfree.org/shoppingguide). The standards the retailers have to meet are rigorous: The clothing listed is made by democratic unions or worker-owned cooperatives.

    1. Yes, the film High Cost of Low Price touches on healthcare issues, as well as on the fact that many employees are on different forms of Welfare and can’t afford to feed their families…
      Thanks for your comment.

  6. Thank you for bringing up the “Buy America” (or in my case, “Buy Canada”) mantra. It isn’t about global justice – justice for ALL workers – it is most often about us vs them (e.g. “those foreigners are taking our jobs!”) without acknowledging why jobs are outsourced – to exploit the labour of our sisters and brothers around the globe.

    Sure, it is nice to buy from areas where there is less exploitation. However, there are sweatshops in the US and Canada (and other countries of the North), and my understanding is that American “colonies” without any sort of labour laws or rights can have the “Made in the USA” label.

    I don’t think capitalism can ever be a vehicle of empowerment. Ever. That said, as an anti-capitalist, I still live in a capitalist world that for the most part requires that I purchase what I need. I do as much dumpster diving as possible but I could do a lot better. I could also participate more actively in the growing of my own food. (My garden is enough to supplement my diet, but I still buy most of my food). Thanks for the reminder that it is worth it to do more. Buying “USA” (or “Canada”) is not enough.
    🙂 monika

    1. SV,
      Thanks for your comment.
      You are right about the “Made in USA” label often being a con.
      As for your comment that “I don’t think capitalism can ever be a vehicle of empowerment. Ever.” — I agree, especially capitalism of the consumerist/corporatist variety, which is, of course, what we have now.
      Dumpster diving? Wow. You are committed! Can’t say I have done this… Also, I have an anti-green thumb so no gardening for me — I can’t even manage a cactus. So, as you can tell, I need to do more too — it is so damn hard living in a capitalist world, especially when one was raised to see shopping/consuming as key form of pleasure!

    1. I had a friend in high school who worked for the local grocer and learned then how much is thrown away. Another friend recently dumpster dived at Trader Joe’s. One of the things he reported the bin was full of was bottles of alcohol — crazy as alcohol has a LONG shelf date…

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