talking walmart + food hubs.

My dear, smart-as-a-whip-and-passionate-about-sustainability friend, Clare, recently sent me this article from ASAP (aka the Asheville, NC-based Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project) that talks about Walmart’s involvement in food hubs — wanting to create new ones, scale existing ones, and otherwise work with “small- and medium-sized farmers” here in the U.S. and globally — and how that’s probably not a good thing. Clare asked my opinion of the piece, and because I can never seem to be succinct when asked a question like this, below is a version of my rambling response.

locally grown DC-area produce

Dupont Circle Farmer’s Market, summer 2012

Before I go on, a little background. I do not think Walmart is perfect — far from it — though a) I worked at the company after business school (if you go back far enough in blog time you’ll see there are some Arkansas posts; maybe I’ll do a #tbt AR post…) and b) I do not think all of the issues Walmart gets criticized for are exclusive to it, but because it’s such a big target it ends up in the crosshairs (I was going to say bullseye but I suppose Target should get to keep it) more often than not.

I DO think there are a lot of uber-business-minded people there, though, that perhaps to the ASAP article’s point don’t give as much thought to or don’t realize the full consequences of their actions. Or perhaps these generally well-meaning workers of Bentonville think about how their decisions ripple up and down the value chain, but maybe don’t reeeeaally think negative effects are as severe or pervasive as they’re made out to be or that so much of the effects are directly related to Walmart and not other factors.

And I’d gather there are those select company employees and related suppliers, consultants, and other stakeholders there who have a full understanding of what they’re doing with respect to improving or worsening an issue — and don’t care. But I’d argue that this mindset is in no way exclusive to Walmart (hello, finance, predatory lending, apparel industry, auto recalls, mining, etc…) — it’s a problem that is far more rampant and I’m sure is the study of many an ethics professor.

locally grown garlic scapes

Still at the Dupont Market, checking out garlic scapes

That clearly doesn’t exonerate Walmart — and as the world’s largest retailer its hyper-visible and influential position in some ways obligates the company to steer the industry, and arguably business more broadly. Noblesse oblige (see also: Ted Kennedy or rather, his mother, Rose). And in many respects, this is exactly what Walmart has done and one of the things that made me want to work there; efforts such as its work through The Sustainability Consortium and work to make organic foods more accessible seem like net positives.

But those two bright spots, while connected to the food hub issue and local sourcing, are a horse of a slightly different color. With respect to Walmart and local sourcing, the push likely stems somewhat from pursuit of its sustainability goals (which I’m sure aren’t totally divorced from driving down operational costs as stated in the ASAP article. It’s Walmart: so it’s always about more efficiency if there’s a way). Walmart has an aggressive goal for the amount of local produce it has committed to sell in the United States, aiming for 9% of the produce it sells in domestic stores to be locally sourced (It’s important to note here that a lot of Walmart’s work to bring small- and medium-sized farmers to market is not U.S.-focused and was borne out of necessity as many markets don’t have big ag like us. That’s a post for another day.). And on the organic front, I didn’t see any organic goals on its corporate website, which doesn’t surprise me as oftentimes locally grown might not have used pesticides but a farmer didn’t go through the organic certification process, so “locally grown” casts a wider net. When I was at Walmart in 2010-2011, local was defined as “within the same state” which I agree is definitely subject to criticism, especially when we’re talking about states like California or Texas with huge footprints.

Despite the fact that there’s no publicly articulated sustainability goal, Walmart is still pushing to source more organic foods; sustainability aside, it’s a consumer trend that organics are growing in popularity and from that standpoint alone it’s important for Walmart to follow it. But feeding this rising demand presents challenges, as there’s actually not enough existing organic supply to meet Walmart’s needs at least on the produce front, so the company has been doing a significant amount of work with larger, commercial organic farms.

I also just saw this week that Walmart is partnering with Wild Oats to get more organics into stores and lower prices. At the outset I’m not opposed to this action because it seems like it could result in incremental improvements such as greater access to affordable organics for lower income shoppers and potentially converting some conventionally farmed fields to organic. Of course, driving prices down has to squeeze pennies from somewhere…and only so much of that comes from volume purchasing. At a point, after you’ve done all the operational optimizations and efficiency increases and achieved economies of scale — and the rest has to come from paying people less, lowering ingredient quality, or other less desirable changes.

drowning in a sea of summer squash

And now I’m drowning in a sea of summer squash, still in DC.

And now I’m talking about Walmart and wages. Just like everyone else. But it is connected to all of this, no doubt about it.

Back to food hubs. Walmart getting involved in local sourcing as it relates to food hubs IS trickier to me, because as that ASAP article notes, this means Walmart is now mucking around in much smaller-scale operations. It makes sense that they’re doing it for similar reasons that they’re working to scale organics: the market they need doesn’t exist, so they’re creating it. BUT there’s a big ‘ol divide between food hub creation that scales so more people in a reasonable radius from said hub can benefit from local food items, and so farmers can reasonably grow larger quantities that can be grown and sold at a decent price. The inputs to this ‘reasonable radius’ and ‘reasonable quantity’ equation is very different by orders of magnitude than the scale Walmart needs for the farm operations, distribution channels, quantities — and prices — to make its numbers favorably compute (for the company).

There’s also another piece, perhaps tangential, that I wonder about in Walmart’s interest in scaling food hubs and local sourcing, in that produce that comes from smaller, less commercial operations is often not cosmetically perfect. I can’t speak for shoppers globally but I can say that most Americans expect shiny, symmetrical, uniform, non-dented produce. Misshapen? Discolored? Lopsided? In need of a good wash? Not sure some people are so into that. Is Walmart then going to not only work on building food hubs (regardless of their goal on size) — but also work to ensure the produce that gets to those markets looks and feels just like the other, more mass grown (whether organic or conventional)? That’s an even bigger fish to fry for the company and one I’d recommend they don’t tackle. I’d much rather see an in-store campaign that educates in the aisle about the fact that diversity of color is great and means more vitamins or higher nutrient density, “misshapen” actually means normal, and so on…but I don’t see that ever happening.

All this is to say that I’m wary of Walmart getting too deep into smaller-scale local food communities here in the U.S., but I also know there are super smart people with the right backgrounds working on this at Walmart who have a clear vision for what the ideal should be. But like Congress, where there are members of the House and Senate who know what policy is best, politics aside, politicking is part and parcel of the business as it is at Walmart and other companies, too, especially the behemoths. So what we end up seeing as the consumer (or citizens in the Congress analogy) is a compromise — sometimes grudgingly acceptable, and almost always disappointing to nearly everyone. That doesn’t make the outcomes right because they’re less than perfect, to be sure, whether in DC or Arkansas or wherever.

Uplifting picture, I know. Despite the challenges and concerns I’ve discussed, I’m going to stay glass half full. I want access to healthy foods to be more democratic, and I also want to Walmart to act as a positive change agent as much as possible. Mutually exclusive? TBD.

I’d love to hear your thoughts, comments, suggestions for other reading, etc. if you’ve managed to read this far.

And as a bonus for finishing this tome, check out this fun list from EcoWatch that ranks states for their support of locally grown foods. Maine is #2 on the 2014 locavore index! Unsurprisingly, Vermont took #1.

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2 thoughts on “talking walmart + food hubs.

  1. clare

    Robin–I love that you haven take up my provocation into a blog post!! On many counts I agree with you regarding the local food/food hub issue, but I think my, and others’, wariness towards Walmart comes from a more deep-seated critique of their concept of “sustainability” to begin with. If sustainability is about the triple-bottom line (which itself I believe is an oversimplified framework, but serves at least as short-hand for the multi-dimensional quality of sustainability), then there has to be an emphasis on social considerations as much as environmental ones. But what I see is that so many companies, Walmart included, conflate slightly “greener” environmental production practices with sustainability. But when did “less bad” become “sustainable”? A product is NOT (in my mind) sustainable unless is what produced in a socially just as well as environmentally friendly way. Marketing an item that has a somewhat lower carbon footprint (a highly contested index given the huge assumptions that go into footprint calculation—but that’s another story) as “sustainable” if it was made, shipped and sold by people who are not treated well and don’t make a living wage is misleading and a perversion of the holism that is inherent in the concept of sustainability. This is why the “wages issue” always comes up—because social wellbeing is part and parcel of sustainability, and no amount of green and brown packaging can overcome that sticking point. Sustainability cannot be reduced to a GHG emissions scorecard, or even a pesticide exposure scorecard (as much as I’m a fan of organics). Similarly, on the food hub issue, the ASAP article critiques Walmart’s tendency to “reduce ‘local’ to geography, to use local as a cultural shorthand for issues of social justice, environmental sustainability, and food access and as evidence of corporate responsibility”—the point being that food sourced within state guarantees a certain kind of geography, but does not in and of itself achieve any particular social and environmental goals other than (possibly) shorter transport distance.
    Of course we want goods to be affordable, and especially goods that are produced in less environmental harmful ways (ie organics)—but when that low cost comes at the expense of producers—whether they be “local” farmers or sweatshop workers in Bangladesh—Walmart’s green stars get rather murky. I have no answers to all of this, except to say that while I am sure there are many smart, well-intentioned folks working at Walmart, I worry that the meaning of sustainability is becoming diluted as corporate employees seek to have their cake and eat it to (ie pass on the costs of new demands on production yet maintain their low price points and profit margins).
    I will save my rant on the degradation of the meaning of “organic” as well as my critique of whether “sustainable” fishing (another big Walmart push) is actually sustainable for another day—and also skirt around the bigger elephant in the room—that if we really wanted to move towards sustainability, we would also thinking about reducing western levels of CONSUMPTION—but that of course does not fit within anyone’s business model (except maybe Patagonia?) Instead I will note that I love the pics on the blog! Seas of summer squash!

    Reply
    1. robindeliso Post author

      Clare! I totally agree with you. I sort of went where you ended up when I talked about the murky definitions of local — same state doesn’t cut it as a definition min my mind — but this is a fair extension. And to be clear, I am not walking away from the fact that wages are connected to all of this and that taking a triple-bottom-line approach is sustainability vs having a few sustainable practices here and there. Some people want big box stores to go under entirely and are fighting for that outcome; maybe this is cynical but I accept that they are likely not going to leave us, so it’s about moving each of these icebergs inch by inch. To do that, though, you need the internal change makers I mentioned in the post who won’t get fed up with the seemingly slow rate of internal change…and then you need people on the outside throwing rocks, pushing companies along and reminding them, “Yes, you might have earned a cookie for that treat but you just learned to raise a paw. Talk to me when you’re fetching babies from burning buildings.” (How’s that for another analogy?).

      And yes, reducing consumption doesn’t compute for so many people. Even for Patagonia, while they advertise it you could argue that it’s a fantastic business positioning for them since it taps right into the values of their target audience, ourselves included (who, when they make the choice to consume, have the wherewithal to purchase from Patagonia). And now I’m Frank Underwood again.

      Reply

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