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.
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.
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.
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.