Wal-Mart’s green makeover
I have an op-ed on TomPaine.com today about Wal-Mart’s recent green initiatives. Give it a read. I’m sure the accusations of corporate whoredom will come rolling in at any moment.
I worry that, even given the copious pixels expended, my overall point was not entirely clear. So below the fold, I shall try to express it in more compact form.
The basic dilemma Wal-Mart’s greening poses is this: they’re doing good environmental things — real things, substantive things, despite knee-jerk dismissals from some quarters — but they still suck on labor relations (wages, healthcare benefits, etc.). Since many progressives consider themselves both environmentalists and labor advocates, they’re bound to be torn.
For better or worse, though, the situations (labor and environment) are not entirely parallel.
The fact is, there are many ways to green business operations that make perfect hard-headed pragmatic sense, from a purely bottom-line perspective. After all, reducing waste and improving efficiency are hallmarks of good management. The ways greens favor — alternative energies and fuels, reduced packaging, shorter supply lines, closed-loop manufacturing — have not been adopted on a wide scale for two reasons. First, they’re just new, and business leaders, like most people, are creatures of habit and custom — small-c conservative — as well as frequently short-sighted. Second, such green methods have ideological connotations. They’re associated with environmentalists, leftists, commies, whatnot, and business leaders are also often capital-c Conservative. They don’t want to be associated with lefties.
Wal-Mart is showing other businesses, in rather spectacular fashion, that those ideological connotations no longer hold, and that green innovation is smart even for large, middle-American companies. Which is an unqualified good, and to be celebrated.
The labor question is different. Paying workers more, offering better benefits, really does cost businesses more. It really would eat into Wal-Mart’s narrow profit margins. And, perhaps most importantly, it would disadvantage Wal-Mart relative to its retail competitors. There are benefits, of course, to having happy, healthy workers, but there’s no real sign that Wal-Mart workers are any more unsatisfied or unhealthy than the average service worker. If we progressives want to improve labor standards — and I do — it seems to me we should be focusing on the public sphere. We should be advocating for universal, publicly funded health care, a repairing of the social safety net, a reversal of the post-Reagan decline in union law, a substantial bump in the minimum wage (which Wal-Mart’s CEO supports, BTW), etc.
So, for progressives to say, "sorry, you get no thanks from me until you green and improve labor standards" is to reject the good in favor of the perfect. Businesses exist to make money. We want to convince them that being green can help them make money. Defending the rights of workers has traditionally been the role of government; that’s what progressives exist to fight for. I’m all for pressuring Wal-Mart to become more of an advocate for worker-friendly public policy — their help in the fight for universal health care would be immeasurable — but it just seems short-sighted to me to reject the positive steps they’re making.
(Incidentally, I had a whole section in the piece about the energy economy, which might do more to damage Wal-Mart’s business model than anything advocates could do, but it was getting too long and complicated.)
(So much for using fewer words.)