(Author’s note: this is a long post-5 pages, double-spaced. It’s taken me over a week to write, and I’m not entirely in love with it, but here it is anyhow.)
By now you’ve probably seen or heard the story that Wal-Mart Plans to Make Its House Brand Healthier. This promises to be what the pundits call a “game-changer,” considering that WM is the nation’s largest grocery retailer, indeed the world’s largest retail company. The leverage the WM has with its suppliers is both massive and legendary, and its ability to make or break a vendor is well-known. I’m sure this is why so many are leery of its latest foray deeper into the food business. The availability of food, and the success of small producers, is woven tightly into our emotional fabric, and a viable local food system is an important element of a successful community.
And yet…Michelle Obama worked with WM on this. The First Lady! America’s Mom! She wouldn’t-and I’m not being facetious here-she wouldn’t steer us wrong, would she? Nor is this the first nice-guy gesture from WM, either. Rather, this comes on the heels of their carbon-reduction and more-local produce initiatives, apparently as part of a larger strategy. So, it’s a marketing ploy, right? “Green-washing?” If so, it’s on an epic scale. For a corporation that large to change so many ways of doing things, and to call upon their supply chain to do them as well, has got to be a massive undertaking; surely there must be an ulterior motive!
Granted, these moves will make more money for the corporation. A dollar saved is arguably worth more than a dollar earned, if saving it costs less. Plus, the company with the cleaner face will stand to increase sales and market share, which will in turn raise the stock price. And that’s what really matters, if Milton Friedman is to be believed. He only had to knock down a few straw men to make his point.
One has to wonder, though; what if WM…oh, I don’t know…paid its associates more? Imagine 1.4 million workers with $50 more in their pay each week: that would be another $7 billion per year flowing through the U.S. economy. Even if the company split its cost savings with its employees, it would have an impact on the ground. But…what if those employees turned around and spent that money in another store? That probably wouldn’t play in Bentonville. Then again, how much of that would be discretionary income at all?
Back to motive, ulterior or otherwise. First of all, the colossus appears to have picked up a goal beyond making money. They explicitly list “being a good steward of the environment” as a corporate goal compatible with “being an efficient and profitable business,” which I’m sure Friedman would dismiss as “hypocritical window-dressing.” He employs a convenient dodge here, filing doing good under “self-interest.” This is an old ethical circle, deriding altruism as selfish because of the positive feelings it produces in the doer; but I find that argument wanting. The self-sacrifice exemplified by a parent working three jobs for a child or a firefighter going up a burning skyscraper to save a complete stranger is not about self-interest or image, but comes from deeper waters. There are ethics of duty, loyalty, and love that ignore bottom lines and mathematical models.
I say that not to bring WM up, or Friedman down, but to enter new variables into the equation. Many things of value are hard to put a price on, and there are things we value that we cannot measure, let alone quantify. This operates on two levels: the practical, or utilitarian; and the ethical, or deep. In practical terms, the first level means that the earth and its systems perform functions by which we benefit-filtering sunlight, purifying water, pollinating plants-that would have a high cost to replicate by technology. Therefore, the land, air, or water which provides these functions should have the functional value attached to it, as the service will still arguably be necessary if the land, water, or air is no longer available. This arena is becoming fairly well-established, with a growing body of literature and practice; if you’ve heard of carbon credits, you’ve heard of ecological economics. I’ve been working my way through Gretchen Daily’s excellent book on the subject. It is all well and good, as far as it goes; it gets the land a place at the table.
It is a discipline in its infancy, grasping to hang price tags on the wind and the waves, to calculate the return-on-investment of the call of geese in the winter. There is much that it misses, being what Aldo Leopold referred to as “(one) of the stones which serve(s) in lieu of a land ethic” when “the logic of history hungers for bread.” An even younger babe, then, is this land ethic, this deeper level of value which asserts that wild places and wild things have inherent worth, aside from their commodity or eco-service value to us. The cheek! To imagine that it’s not all about us! But it’s not, if we stop to think about it. Biologically, we’re just one species among a myriad. God may love us, but does the galaxy really give a hoot? At least in this one sense, it does. Because we are one species among many, we are part of what Leopold called “the biotic community.” What we do matters. This, then, is the essence of the land ethic: to be good neighbors to the earth, and all else that dwells in it and moves upon it. If we begin to see ourselves this way, as fellow travelers on Spaceship Earth, then our behavior must be shaded with the tones of this deeper sensibility.
This ethical stance has consequences, though; it demands action. It leads to new thoughts, new methods, and can emerge in diverse ways. An individual, community, or corporation can decide to manage their growth and minimize their impact, adopting “sustainability” as a stated goal. There are many ways to go about this, from carbon accounting to waste scavenging. Sustainable growth, however, is still growth. The next step is a treacherous one: questioning growth itself. That is the domain of dangerous radicals: Jesus, Buddha, St. Francis, Thoreau. Bill McKibben is the current leader of the pack, and I am beginning to explore his ideas in Deep Economy (2007). But for a large corporation, beholden to stockholders who expect a return on their investment, merely holding steady may not be an option.
Nevertheless, we see where sustainability, conservation, and social responsibility are drawn from an ethical well that runs deep into our past and has developed with our other values. Indeed, it can be argued that as these values are becoming more mainstream, they are forming an “ethical custom.” Hmmm…where have we heard that phrase before? Yes, Mr. Friedman, I think we’ve got you in a corner now. Nice of him to leave that loophole, wasn’t it? What’s that, you say? Up above that, in the second paragraph? Something about “‘business’ as a whole cannot be said to have responsibilities”? Tricky. Let’s try this: since “business as a whole” is the aggregate of all businesses; and since each individual business is an actor in a landscape, interacting with vendors, customers, employees, utilities, regulators, municipal agents, and the environment from which it draws resources, and into which it puts material; and since the land ethic teaches that we as actors need to act in consideration of the land, as a member of the biotic community, avoiding that which damages and promoting that which heals; and since this ethical stance is becoming an ethical custom, by which even Friedman himself admits corporations are nominally bound; what’s that? Oh. Okay, thank you. It seems that Mr. Friedman has left the building to rationally purchase guns and butter on the margin. Let us proceed.
We see now that corporations are legitimate actors on the landscape, and that sustainability is a valid operational goal for a corporation. But how do we know that this particular corporation means it this time? After all, their track record at social responsibility is spotty at best. We’ve been burned so many times before-and I do mean all of us, there are no free riders in this system-it’s hard to summon the will to believe. So is there any evidence at all that they are sincere in this? It’s not like they’d cut into their profit margin to make this happen, right? Sorry, what’s that?
‘Wal-Mart will work to eliminate any extra cost to customers for healthy foods made with whole grains, said Leslie Dach, Wal-Mart’s executive vice president for corporate affairs. By lowering prices on fresh fruits and vegetables, Wal-Mart says it will cut into its own profits but hopes to make up for it in sales volume. “This is not about asking the farmers to accept less for their crops,” he said.’
Oh, I see. That will be the ground I feel, shifting beneath my feet.
Being an Episcopalian, I am familiar with the concepts of redemption, grace and forgiveness. My church teaches that no one is beyond God’s redeeming grace, as the Parable of the Prodigal Son demonstrates, so I am willing to suspend (some) of my skepticism here. For a retail corporation to willingly forego profit in anticipation of higher sales volume is not so unusual, but for this corporation to do so in this context gives me a glimmer of hope. If they truly have embraced a business ethic based on sustainable practices, then the benefit could be substantial. I’m reminded of the young Virginia couple profiled in the NPR story some months ago, doing their monthly shopping. I recall the comments on the story, when so many well-meaning people questioned what the couple may have put in their cart and wondered if-and how-they could have done better.
The dynamics of our current food system are fraught with complexity and contradiction, but so is the life of a modern Western family. We make decisions based on so many non-rational, but essential, criteria-weather, hunger, need for solitude, need for company, politics, revenge-all riding on the broad back of efficiency. I don’t see the big, shiny box full of stuff going away anytime soon, which leads me to two thoughts: one, all the more reason to keep building and maintaining our small-scale food infrastructure; and two, if the big boxes start carrying better stuff, then maybe young Virginia couples shopping at midnight with their food stamps will be able to fill their carts with better food after all. This I want to believe.