Sunday, April 23, 2006
Wally World
I recently watched the documentary Wal-Mart: the High Cost of Low Price. While I've always known that Wal-Mart has a lot of unethical business practices, I never really realized how much of a menace they are to ideals of community, livable wages, local economy, and care for Creation, among other things. As the second largest corporation in the world (after Exxon) what Wal-Mart does has global ramifications. And the frightening thing is that Wal-Mart is just one of hundreds of corporations, most of whom likely act in similarly despicable ways (c.f. The Corporation DVD for more on this).

This documentary naturally began by talking about the damage that Wal-Mart does to local businesses in small communities. This is a reality that I myself have personally experienced in several of the small rural communities I've lived in around the state of Michigan. In fact, my dad's current place of employment, a small local grocery store is, as we speak, under threat from the big new Super Wal-Mart grocery that just came to town. One line from the movie that struck me is that "you can't put a price on small town living." There is something lost in our quality of life when we don't know the people who sell us our food and clothes and tools. When the profits from our purchase don't stay within our local communities to improve the quality of life for our neighbors, but instead goes to line the pockets of corporate CEO's, billionaire owners, and faceless investors, we are all diminished.

The movie also mentioned the absurdly low wages and lack of decent benefits that Wal-Mart associates labor under. Apparently full-time Wal-Mart employees make so little that they still qualify for welfare, food stamps and government healthcare... and Wal-Mart's official benefits policy actually encourages their employees to apply for government assistance! But when Wal-Mart employees try to unionize to demand a living wage, the corporation goes into high-alert and utilizes rather extreme tactics to squash any unionizing attempts.

For more on the drastically low wages of Wal-Mart employess check out the hilarious online music video I've Got Friends With Low Wages. It's another flash animation short similar to the Meatrix ones I posted below.

The film also discussed the sweatshop conditions in China that Wal-Mart products are produced in. Part of the reason Wal-Mart can sell you shirts for under $10 and jeans for less than $20 is that they only have to pay the people who actually make those clothes a few pennies for each item they produce. (Question: would you be willing to pay $0.20 more for your clothes if it would double the daily wages of the Chineses workers who make them for you, vastly improving their standard of living?)

Besides these issues (as if these weren't enough), the film also brings up the ecological damage that Wal-Mart stores often cause to their local environments; the high percentage of crimes that occur in Wal-Mart parking lots because of their failure to provide security for their customers on their own property; and the tax breaks and financial incentives that small towns often offer to Wal-Mart in hopes of luring them to town, only to have Wal-Mart set up just beyond the city limits to avoid actually paying any sales taxes back into the community.

Of course, all these issues don't lend themselves to easy answers. Simply boycotting Wal-Mart isn't going to solve the problem. Many people have to shop there out of financial necessity. And Wal-Mart isn't going away anytime soon regardless, so the question is not how can we get rid of them, but how do we influence them to change their practices and become more ethical?

On a more positive level, we can also start to dream about how we can begin to support and increase local economies. What is a viable alternative to the Wal-Martization of society? How can we help our communities become places where our money largely stays within the community? How do we create a society where economy isn't just about buying goods and services from generic corporate vendors, but it once again becomes a vital part of the intricate web of social connections and relationships that helps us love and care for our neighbors?

And on an individual level we can question our own spiritual condition and whether we have fallen prey to the demons of consumerism and materialism that are the root cause of all the evils perpetrated by companies like Wal-Mart. In what ways do I personally serve the god Mammon rather than the One, True God? When am I more concerned about saving myself money, or just acquiring more stuff, than I am about justice and love for others? Can I begin to practice the spiritual disciplines of simplicity and fasting as a counter to the temptations of our consumer society? What else do I need to do to begin the necessary spiritual transformation within myself as part of the larger solution?

Of course, some might question whether these kind of concerns are really "spiritual" issues in the first place. It is too easy for people to label concerns like these with terms like "liberal" or "activist" and thereby simply dismiss them. But when one reads a Bible that says things like ""This is the kind of fast day I'm after [says the LORD]: to break the chains of injustice, get rid of exploitation in the workplace, free the oppressed, cancel debts...get rid of unfair practices." (Isaiah 58:6) you begin to see that fair wages and just business practices are the kinds of things God is passionate about too.

These are spiritual issues. They are not just "activist" issues, they are gospel issues. When Paul writes that Jesus has triumphed over the powers and authorities (Col. 2:15), one of the major "powers" he is referring to is the power of money and greed over our lives. Our cutthroat capitalist economy is a "power", Wal-Mart is a "power", corporate greed is a "power"... and they are all powers that have been made subject to our Lord Jesus Christ through his victory on the Cross.

Fighting these powers may seem hopeless, pointless, futile... until we remember that Jesus has already overthrown them and is in the business of redeeming them for his glory. Another world is possible! Another world is already here! Let's leave behind the economy of corporate exploitation and join the economy of love!

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posted by Mike Clawson at 9:59 PM | Permalink |


At 4/24/2006 08:28:00 AM, Blogger gerbmom

So, you might enjoy this:

Also, Smiley demoted?


At 4/24/2006 05:30:00 PM, Blogger gerbmom

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.


At 4/26/2006 11:57:00 AM, Blogger TXatheist

Something we agree on. I haven't shopped Walmart or bought gas at Exxon/Chevron/Shell in years. I bought the dvd also.


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