As the world’s largest retailer, Wal-Mart has consistently been listed among America’s most respected companies in Fortune magazine. Wal-Mart is the largest corporation and private employer in the United States today. However, the company is also one of the most frequently criticized, often targeted for its effects on communities and the economy.
It is practically impossible to avoid hearing about this retailer in the news, whether for the company’s philanthropic endeavors or employment practices, and many still wonder whether or not it is ethical to shop at big-box stores like these.
I would not describe myself as a Wal-Mart shopper. I do not even have a Wal-Mart in my city. I do not characterize myself as a champion of Wal-Mart because I am sure that Wal-Mart, like many other companies, has many weaknesses. However, to suggest that Wal-Mart is unethical is a flawed argument.
Moreover, it is interesting to note that Wal-Mart has repeatedly been voted as one of the most respected companies in America. Despite the recent gender discrimination suits and lack of health benefits afforded to employees, the company continues to come out on top. That is because Wal-Mart democratizes the American dream. Workers are paid above the minimum wage. Low prices spur productivity and aid in fighting against inflation. Consumer satisfaction is generally high, whereas that is not always the case with smaller businesses that charge more for the same services.
Another fact that many critics choose to overlook is that Wal-Mart is widely known for their philanthropic work, giving millions back to communities. In fact, despite wide criticism, Wal-Mart was presented with the Ron Brown Award for Corporate Leadership, which recognizes companies with outstanding achievement in employee and community relations. Even Americans named Wal-Mart as the company they think of first in supporting local charities.
It is my firm belief that Wal-Mart’s ‘evil’ reputation is rooted in the fact that many small businesses and retailers are losing business. Perhaps this company symbolizes the deterioration of traditional downtowns and communities. While I completely acknowledge that big box stores have taken business from smaller retailers, it is important to acknowledge that we cannot place the blame solely on Wal-Mart. Target, K-Mart, Best Buy, shopping malls, Costco, Sam’s Club, McDonald’s, Barnes and Noble and Starbucks are all guilty of ‘taking’ business from smaller merchants.
Choosing whether to shop at stores like Wal-Mart and Target comes down to values.
On one hand, as is the case for many Americans, our values are often determined by economic class. For instance, an individual will purchase a product if he or she can afford it, opting to shop at ‘cheaper’ stores and getting more for his or her money. On the other hand, if a person values a company’s health care policy for their employees, then it is perfectly reasonable for that individual to not shop at any of the company’s stores.
It is very likely that even the critics of companies like Wal-Mart will find that they have investments within these companies. Over 850 mutual funds are invested in Wal-Mart. Some of these are the largest mutual funds out there.
Sen. John Kerry’s wife, Teresa Heinz, knowingly had more than one million dollars invested in Wal-Mart when she publicly blasted the company’s policies. Heinz’s criticism was sorely misplaced, for she had repeatedly held stock in the company. Heinz shows that we need to be aware of our particular values prior to both shopping and investing.
It comes down to how much you are willing to pay. Is it reasonable for billionaire critics like Heinz to tell middle-income Americans where to shop? No.
Perhaps people should first analyze their own values and investments before pointing the finger.
Reut R. Cohen is a third-year English major. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.