Sunday, August 21, 2005

Why Wal-Mart Is Bad For You

I can remember joking that one of the best places to run into other Nuu-chah-nulth people was at the Wal-Mart in Nanaimo. Quu’as came from far and wide to take advantage of the “everyday low prices.” Earlier this year, with much fan-fare, Port Alberni was graced with its very own Wal-Mart. I must admit to having shopped at the store in Nanaimo numerous times and in Port Alberni exactly three times. While I had a basic idea of the size and conduct of the company before this year, perhaps it was the first invasion by the big-box retailer into Nuu-chah-nulth territory that prompted me to do some investigating and ultimately swear to never shop there again.

The first time I aimlessly wandered around the Port Alberni Wal-Mart I was struck by how bright and clean the place was. It almost had an antiseptic–institutional feel about it. The shampoo bottles and deodorant sticks looked like little soldiers, all lined up neatly in unbroken rows as if I was the first hapless consumer ever to venture down that particular aisle. The store seemed to have everything a small-town family could want from DVDs to clothes to hardware to pet food, even groceries. Indeed, the suburban retailing behemoth had come to Hupacasath and Tseshaht territory with its seemingly bullet-proof formula for success.

According to the Fast Company, “The Wal-Mart You Don’t Know” article, published December 2003, “Wal-Mart is not just the world’s largest retailer. It’s the world’s largest company – bigger than ExxonMobile, General Motors and General Electric. The scale can be hard to absorb. Wal-Mart sold $244.5 billion worth of goods last year.” In 2004 Wal-Mart profited over $10 billion and Sam Walton’s family heirs have a net worth of over $90 billon notes Fortune and Forbes magazines respectively. According to the 2005 Annual Report issued by Wal-Mart Watch, President and CEO, H. Lee Scott reported $17,543,739 in income last year – 871 times more than the average US Wal-Mart employee. Good for them you say? A closer look reveals many disturbing facts.

“We want clean air, clean water, good living conditions, the best healthcare in the world – yet we aren’t willing to pay for anything manufactured under those restrictions,” Steve Dobbins states in the same Fast Company article. Because of Wal-Mart’s commitment (and our addiction) to lower prices year after year, suppliers are under increasing pressure to reduce their costs, which often translates into abominable working conditions and below-poverty wages for Indigenous people all over the world. In countries like Nicaragua, Honduras China and Taiwan, workers earn as little as 3 cents an hour, working 14-hour shifts, 7 days a week, 30 days a month. According to a National Labour Committee report, 46% of workers in China earned nothing at all and were actually in debt to the company.

A large percentage of people in Central and South American countries are Indigenous or Mestizo (mixed ancestry) and an even larger percentage of those countries’ poor people are of Indigenous ancestry. The question you have to ask yourself: Do I want to support a company that exploits people just like me? Wal-Mart fails on numerous indicators of corporate citizenship (see, but I want to keep the focus on its negative impact on Indigenous communities, here at home and around the world.

Wal-Mart wields an enormous, almost unprecedented amount of purchasing power when dealing with suppliers. It has driven many North American suppliers to close local factories and move operations to third world countries where, labour costs are lower and health and environmental regulations are negligible. By shopping at Wal-Mart (and numerous other retailers, such as dollar stores) Indigenous consumers here in North America are directly supporting the relentless exploitation of our brothers and sisters in other countries.

On top of poor labour practices in other countries, Wal-Mart and other mega-corporations like McDonald’s have the unique distinction of virtually no unionization in North America. Both companies have elaborate systems in place to respond to any employee rabble-rousing at a moment’s notice. Workers at a Wal-Mart in Quebec attempted to organize and the store was promptly shut down, citing a lack of profitability. Wal-Mart is also known for using its power to obtain tax breaks and subsidies which, according to Good Jobs First, totalled more than $1 billion in the US alone.

The Wal-Mart Watch Report states, “Market analysts estimate that for every Wal-Mart opened, at least two local supermarkets will close.” The effect of a Wal-Mart on small, locally-owned businesses can be devastating. In Port Alberni, we have already seen one of the first casualties: Foto Source closed shop shortly after Wal-Mart opened, unable to compete with the giants’ super fast, super cheap photo developing services. I suspect that Foto Source was the first of many local businesses to be driven out of by our new blue smock-wearing neighbours.

I believe that our decisions as consumers and choices as Nuu-chah-nulth citizens can make a difference. Unless we make a conscious effort to support locally owned, ideally Indigenous businesses, we become nothing more than willing participants in the devastation of Indigenous economies and communities here and abroad. I encourage you to find out more about globalization, fair trade and truly sustainable Indigenous economies. More than that, I encourage you to put down that Starbucks mocha frappuccino (don’t get me started on them) and go fishing. We do not have to submit and become mindless drones in the dominant consumer culture. We can take back what is ours and show others a good way to live with the earth; a true part of the Ha’hoolthee of our Ha’wiih.


At 5:55 AM, Blogger swanky panky said...

LOL I shop at Walmart in Naniamo, shoes for my kids, there is never a good selection around here.

I once bought jackets for all my kids at the Gap... then they had a show about how the Gap treats thier employees in Mexico. I stopped shopping there and then learned how to sew on a machine.


Post a Comment

<< Home