Dear Umbra,

Why is Wal-Mart evil? This is really a request for more information. I have often heard that the company has a weak environmental track record, treats its employees poorly, and generally is Satan incarnate. However, when challenged on this position, I have no data. My opponents argue that shopping in bulk reduces packaging. I also have to admit that a case of Pellegrino for $10 pulls me closer to the dark side. I am growing weak. Please combat my temptation with information. Hurry before I have lost my soul.

Washington, Penn.

Dearest James,

Grist thanks its sponsors. Become one.

Why Wal-Mart is evil is too philosophical a question for the likes of me, but I can produce some evil-sounding data. Keep in mind, however, that you may like the Wal-Mart world; cheap carbonated water may rank above healthy unions and livable wages in your personal priorities. I doubt it, but I want to recognize that each of us is a unique person with unique thoughts and opinions.

Grist thanks its sponsors. Become one.

Anywhere, America.

Photo: Wikipedia.

Wal-Mart’s impressively effective business practices have led to the spread of Sam Walton’s Arkansas discount store to 5,000 locations in 10 countries, with $256 billion in global revenue in 2003. Wal-Mart prides itself on (and sells itself on) low prices. You yourself are swayed by them, and they constitute the only argument anyone has been able to muster in favor of the chain.

Sadly, in our economy, low prices and wide profit margins are considered good, while work conditions and environmental and social impact are seldom considered at all. If they were, we would have a very different assessment of Wal-Mart’s business model, considering the company’s enormous adverse impact on: industry wages and state health care programs (more on this below), on sprawl (with its attendant problems of impervious surfaces, destruction of open space, miles driven, air quality, petroleum production, and the death of downtowns), on agriculture (size and sustainability of farms worldwide), on international manufacturing plants and their environmental ramifications (one word: China), on small-business ownership (adieu, ma ‘n’ pa) — I could go on. All of these are environmental issues of the most essential kind — issues, that is, about the physical terrain of our daily lives.

Although the directly observable environmental downsides of giant international outlets sited in strip malls across the world are certainly plentiful enough, I think the success of Wal-Mart has a meta-impact of similar magnitude. I believe Wal-Mart, and the businesses forced to follow its lead or die, are creating a culture of scarcity in the United States.

Consider this: If Wal-Mart, the country’s largest employer, offers unlivable wages and shoddy benefit packages, a giant group of employed people — Wal-Mart workers — are struggling to make ends meet. (It’s a strange feedback cycle, to tout your own low prices while expanding the numbers of the working poor.) In California, Wal-Mart is exacerbating rather than easing health care and welfare burdens on individuals and taxpayers. A study [PDF] out of the University of California at Berkeley found that California Wal-Mart employees earned significantly lower wages than average large retail employees in the state, and employee families used higher proportions of public welfare programs. Berkeley researchers and several other Wal-Mart watchers pieced together the company’s wage structure [PDF] from testimony in a class action lawsuit against the behemoth. Cashiers earn annual wages that fall below the federal poverty line for a family of three. Families of California Wal-Mart workers used health care programs at rates 40 percent higher than large retail employees as a whole.

In short, Wal-Mart disables and replaces small businesses that may have provided health care coverage and higher wages to employees, forcing people to ask the government for assistance or go without health care — ultimately the costliest solution. Meanwhile, those businesses able to survive around a Wal-Mart are joining the race to the bottom. Grocery megastores involved in long union strikes in California over the past year repeatedly cited the need to compete with Wal-Mart as the central problem on their side of the battle over wage and benefit packages.

Income level is no indicator of support for environmental preservation, but in this culture of scarcity that Wal-Mart has helped to create, too many of us are left feeling as though there is not enough to go around. One consequence is that environmental programs become easy prey for pollutocrats, who cast them as costly anti-business hindrances. Whether this cumulative environmental impact of Wal-Mart, at both the meta- and micro-level, is worth cheap Pellegrino is yours to decide.