In short, Fishman’s book is meticulously researched and documented, thoroughly readable and accessible, extremely fair and balanced in its perspective, and devastating in its analysis and critique. This is no mere hatchet job on Wal-Mart – it’s a methodical, painstaking and careful study of all the questions that Wal-Mart raises. Some sample issues:
Does Wal-Mart actually create jobs in a community, or does it kill off existing businesses and jobs? Both. A new Wal-Mart may hire 300 people, but on average, 250 people at nearby businesses will lose their jobs, and about four local businesses will close. A Wal-Mart not only siphons business away from other merchandise retailers, it also impacts service and repair businesses, as it becomes cheaper to buy new ones than repair them. Wal-Mart’s cheapness of products contributes to a throw-away society.
What is Wal-Mart’s effect on local communities? A study of Iowan small towns showed that restaurants near Wal-Marts had 3% increases in business, probably because of increased traffic. But nearby towns without Wal-Marts lost 47% of their retail sales, as customers drove out of town to shop at Wal-Mart. During the period that Iowa went from no Wal-Marts to 45 Wal-Marts, 43% of men’s/boys’ clothing stores in Iowa went out of business.
Wal-Mart demands that suppliers reduce their costs and lower their prices, which in turn reduces margins for suppliers. A company that does 10% or less of their business with Wal-Mart has an average profit margin of 12.7%, but one that does 25% or more of their business with Wal-Mart has a margin of 7.3%. And Wal-Mart’s pricing demands have cannibalized markets, becoming the downfall of dozens of vendors – Vlasic pickles and Levi’s jeans are just two of many examples Fishman highlights in the book.
More significantly, from a global justice perspective, Wal-Mart’s business practices lead to overseas manufacturing that is poorly monitored and prone to countless human rights and labor abuses. In order for companies to provide products at low enough a price to satisfy Wal-Mart’s demands, factory workers are forced to work fourteen hours a day, six or seven days a week. A factory worker in Bangladesh was beaten with the pants she was making when she didn’t make production quotas. Fishman makes the point that Wal-Mart’s customers are buying pants that were literally used to beat the people who made them.
Wal-Mart’s sheer size makes it an unparalleled force for either good or ill, and Fishman argues that it has not yet wielded its might in ways that promote human rights or environmental stewardship. It has only used its power to squeeze every possible economic efficiency out of suppliers and workers. Its bottom line of “everyday low prices” means that it does not provide adequate health care insurance for its workers, outsourcing health-care costs onto the government. It means that workers are forced to work overtime without pay or locked in stores overnight. It means that suppliers and factories are not encouraged to have safety or quality controls because such safeguards would add costs to their systems.
All this (and much, much more) reinforces my conviction never to shop at Wal-Mart again. True, I have little sense if other retailers have similar, if smaller, impacts. What would be really useful would be if all retailers and suppliers had far more information available about their labor and manufacturing conditions, and whether purchasing those products are ultimately helpful or harmful. Maybe some day we’ll be able to identify fair-trade toilet paper and toothpaste the way we can now identify fair-trade coffee, and regulators and watchdog groups can enable our consumer choices to be more just. But until then, for me and my family, conscientious shopping means that we vote with our shopping carts and shop at stores other than Wal-Mart.