The Mixed Grocery Bag That Is Walmart


Love it or hate it, you can’t deny that whatever the giant retailer, Walmart, does sends shock waves through their supply chain. Lately they’ve introduced some bold initiatives in greening their supply chain. Are the efforts real or are they marketing? Will they help the environment, consumers, workers and producers – or harm them? The answer is: All of the above.

Walmart has been busy developing a sustainability index for every product it sells. I could argue (and others have) that flimsy, cheap plastic consumer goods people don’t actually need are not sustainable by definition.

But what about food and household cleaners? Those are not recreational purchases.

And many people, in many parts of the country, need to shop at Walmart because, frankly, there are no other options or they simply can’t afford the local stores.

According to, opening Walmarts in areas known as “food deserts” is really just a band-aid that masks the underlying causes of poverty and inequality.

This is true and there’s no doubt it is a complicated issue. Similarly, many commenters pointed out in this article by Marc Gunther that the entire model of how Walmart builds and spreads across the landscape is flawed. Again, indisputably true.

But Walmart isn’t going anywhere, anytime soon. Is it possible to look at some of their initiatives in a positive light?

For example, the recent news that Walmart is partnering with the leading green cleaning product brand, Seventh Generation, was widely lauded for its potential to bring truly green products to a larger audience. But on the other hand, as this Treehugger piece asks, does the partnership simply lend undeserved credibility to the retailer’s green efforts?

And what of the retailer’s local food initiatives?

In the midst of a highly entertaining grocery smackdown in The Atlantic in which a bunch of foodies choose Walmart produce over Whole Food’s in some aspects of a blind tasting, there’s a little tease about Walmart’s Heritage Agriculture program. The program encourages farms within a day’s drive of one of the company’s warehouses to grow crops that would normally be trucked from far-away states.

The three-tiered strategy of the Heritage Agriculture program is to create a transparent supply chain of local and regional sources, support women and minority businesses, and reinvigorate historic growing areas for produce that is popular with the United States’ growing minority communities.

This all sounds great. On the surface, it could be a powerful way to re-regionalize the food system, keep farmers on their land, and increase the diversity of crops grown in different parts of the country. A regional, diverse food system is better for the environment than monocropping and more likely to result in increased accessibility to better quality food for consumers.

The problem is that Walmart doesn’t do anything without a compelling business reason. And often when a whale as large as Walmart moves an inch, it displaces everything around it. In Walmart’s case, the business reason is always to obtain products at the lowest price possible and pass that savings on to consumers. This could end up being a problem for the very farmers Walmart supports with the initiative. In 2006 farmers received just 19 cents of every dollar consumers plunked down for food. That’s a pretty small margin to work on, and with Walmart in the mix, it could get worse.

Walmart has a reputation for squeezing suppliers. Consider if Walmart, with its immense power, offers to buy a small, regional farmer’s entire harvest. The farmer, already squeezed by the system, may jump at the chance to sell all her output. If the farm no longer had sufficient supply to continue to sell to its local mom and pop and co-op stores (assuming any exist) then those stores would have to find other suppliers and try to compete with Walmart on price.

Competing with Wal-Mart on price is impossible. Those stores would likely go out of business, taking with them the only other outlets that small farmers have for their products, putting people out of work, and decreasing choices for community members. Once all other buyers are gone, Walmart could pretty much pay the farmer as little as it wants. In this way, we could end up with the control of our food system concentrated in the hands of one corporation, killing any chance we might have of rebuilding community based food systems that are more democratic in nature.

And it’s not just the farmers. Walmart squeezes entire communities economically. Once Walmart is one of the only employers in an area it can effectively keep wages down and unions out. When the farmers don’t make enough money to live on and neither do the employees of the only game in town, you can bet everyone is dependent on the always low prices that Walmart offers.

It’s true we need affordable, accessible, high quality food in all communities, but wouldn’t it be better to fix it from the ground up systemically instead of leaving it to one company?

Maybe Walmart’s grand plan to green and localize its supply chain will remove XX amount of carbon from the atmosphere. But some things can’t be quantified. Like the pleasure of talking to your neighbors and connecting with the people who grow your food. It just makes for stronger communities and relationships. This article makes the point that no matter how much local food Walmart buys, it can never replace the deeply human interactions that happen in a farmers’ market.

I would also add that it’s within these interactions that democratic change happens and, while we may cautiously applaud Walmart’s efforts for the great impact they might have, it’s not time to roll over yet. I think a more democratic food system is worth fighting for. As long as I have a choice, I will continue to shop for seasonal produce at my local farmers’ market.

This is the latest installment in Vanessa Barrington’s weekly column, The Green Plate, on the environmental, social, and political issues related to what and how we eat.

Image: Monochrome Flickr

Vanessa Barrington

Vanessa Barrington is a San Francisco based writer and communications consultant specializing in environmental, social, and political issues in the food system.