Thursday, October 27, 2005

As I said before . . .

Really not holding my breath now that this internal Wal-Mart memo has been leaked. Wal-Mart, champions of externalizing costs: we bring you low prices for cheap goods on the backs of a global workforce desperate to keep its collective head above water. I realize that arguments from analogy are generally quite weak, but to publicly announce that your company is focusing efforts on treating workers better while simultaneously launching an internal campaign against those same workers . . . well, folks, it's business as usual in Arkansas.
Wal-Mart Stores Inc., which built its reputation — and a virulent opposition — on rock-bottom prices, has talked a lot lately about becoming a kinder, more responsible company.

But the retailing giant is finding that convincing the world that it is "committed to change," and to keeping costs low, is a tough balancing act.

On Monday, Chief Executive H. Lee Scott Jr. pledged to bring health insurance within reach of his 1.3 million U.S. employees. On Wednesday, a leaked company memo revealed "bold steps" to reign in Wal-Mart's employee benefit costs.

Among the recommendations: using more part-time workers, cutting life-insurance payouts, pushing spouses off health plans through higher premiums and trying to dissuade unhealthy people from seeking jobs by, among other things, requiring cashiers to gather carts in Wal-Mart's vast parking lots.

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Wal-Mart Trades Yellow Smiley for Green One?

While deflecting the responsibility for paying its employees a living wage to Congress (where WM will probably spend lots of cash lobbying against it), Wal-Mart has announced its intent to be a "good steward for the environment." This sounds a lot like Bush's phrasing during the Presidential debates last fall. It also smacks of conservative Christian Bible talk (see example). Stewards manage the property of others-- whose property is the environment, exactly? God's? (ugh) Future generations? (more plausible) It's also a word that tends to be used in conjunction with inorganic, inanimate objects that can't care for themselves, and it is language that privileges the role of the caretaker.


Here's an excerpt from today's AP report:
Tom Rubel, who heads consultant Retail Forward in Columbus, Ohio, said Scott was leading a genuine effort to adopt new standards.

"I do think that this is a departure. This is sort of vintage Wal-Mart. They have listened, and learned, and now they have set a course and they've established some aggressive goals and now they're going to go after it very aggressively," Rubel said.

Scott said the environmental plan was part of goals set after a year of talks with Wal-Mart's employees, customers and critics that he said showed many of the issues where the company was on the defensive could be opportunities instead.

Scott said those meetings did not include any labor unions or groups such as Wal-Mart Watch and Wake Up Wal-Mart, formed in the past year to coordinate campaigns against the retailer by labor, environmental, women's rights and community groups.

"We met with people who quite honestly have asked us not say who they are. We did not meet with those people who simply wish we did not exist as a company," Scott said when asked about the two campaign organizations. Wal-Mart Watch and Wake Up Wal-Mart say they want to reform the company, not shut it down.

Wal-Mart's targets for raising fuel and energy efficiency and reducing packaging waste are bold but the credibility will depend on whether the company reports its progress to the public, one environmental expert said.

"Wal-Mart is one of the world's largest companies in the world so they have a huge influence in the marketplace. There is a huge opportunity for them to influence the marketplace," said Elizabeth Cook, vice president of World Resources Institute in Washington D.C.

"Wal-Mart will win its skeptics over once it shows that it can deliver on these commitments," she added.

I'm going to be a good steward of oxygen and not hold my breath.