Sunday, October 12, 2008

More on the Wal-Mart Conundrum

After I wrote about Seventh Generation and Wal-Mart the other day, my sister and I talked about the partnership. We talked about candor and forgiveness and greed and sincerity. We talked about sustainable business. We talked about responsible consumption. And we asked each other some questions:

If you agree with Jeffrey Hollender, and you think it's important to work with Wal-Mart and support the good things they're doing, how do you think we should do that, and how far do you think we should take it?

Should we go to Wal-Mart and buy their organic foods?* Would that send a good message? Would it make them more likely to replace their twinkies with organic snack cakes? Would that inventory switch create a bigger market for eco-cakes? Would small sustainable businesses that supply the cakes to Wal-Mart grow and grow and grow?

But what if you have a local baker whose shop you love and whose little business feels like an essential part of the community in which you live? Shouldn't you buy your organic cakes directly from him instead? Wouldn't it be better to support the little local guy than feed profits to a morally ambiguous corporation?

Or is that corporation's impact so big and so important that we ought to focus there? And maybe focusing on Wal-Mart will help the baker even more. Maybe if we buy lots of organic cakes from Wal-Mart, Wal-Mart will need to sign on a new load of cake suppliers. Maybe they'll hire our same little local baker to bake more cakes than he's ever baked and let him take his tiny sustainable business and turn it into a not so tiny sustainable business. Would that be better than buying directly from the baker?

But we can't forget the big box culture. The strip malls. The suburbanization. The parking lots. How damaging is that to a community? Does it keep us stuck in an unsustainable present?

Or is our reaction against it a clinging to an unsustainable past? Maybe we need big boxes. Maybe the communication line from consumer to manufacturer is clearer when the retailer in between has enormous power over the manufacturer. Maybe we can demand sustainability more effectively by demanding that Wal-Mart demands sustainability of their suppliers.

It's tricky. But I think it's all worth considering.

*Note: I realize that the system we have in place for organic certification and labeling is a bit of a disaster, but we're operating hypothetically here, and another fact about this little hypothetical world is that food that's labeled organic is actually no question about it chemical free and sustainably produced.