The recent announcement that Wal-Mart will be evaluating the environmental impact of the products sold in its stores was more than a little weird. As the biggest of the big box stores worldwide, a merchant that made “we sell for less” the gold standard in retailing, this new obsession with “sustainability” and “traceability” gave us real pause.
Wal-Mart’s track record as a steward of decency is, to put it mildly, thin. They have been forced to settle court cases on employee overtime issues, gender discrimination and have ongoing inquiries with states over taxation and with environmentalists over new sites. They alone are the single largest party responsible for the transfer of dollars to China and the rise of the Yuan as a global currency. Their stance on labor organizing is well known. Many have blamed the demise of Main Street on their predatory pricing policies. We could go on.
But what caught our eye at is that someone very, very high up at Wal-Mart thinks the public wants to know what is the karma behind the products they buy to wear, use and eat. We agree. Our thesis of “responsible hedonism” and the “ethics of luxury and the luxury of ethics” have always stood for learning what is behind the wines we drink. We have always asked: How was this wine made? How were the vines nurtured? What were the field workers exposed to? What was added in the vintning process? What was the energy profile in the making and storage?
We have always thought this was an important part of the enjoyment of the beverage, and now so does Wal-Mart. This could be huge because this retailer touches the very core of America and, increasingly, the world’s shoppers. When they start demanding from their suppliers proof of sustainability, what comes next? Will they list the pesticides, herbicides and fungicides that are used? Will they reveal water usage per acre? When it comes to wine, will we be told the levels of these chemicals found on their vineyard laborers skins?
This door is a very hard one to close. Back to the stores themselves: We can see the rise of outside graders who will analyze the economic impact of Wal-Mart on small towns and suburban counties. We could see sending monitors to the countless Chinese factories churning out all the low price stuff. Anyone want to guess what they would find in terms of environmental and labor issues? Yet, all in all it’s a good thing because these proposed little profiles on the shelf next to the product will be a constant reminder that what is behind the product can be as important as the product itself. If it backfires, that will be a good thing too because it will force them to reform or abandon the plan in an embarrassing retreat. If it works, it could force everyone else to stop hiding behind sexy, clever ad campaigns and low prices and tell us what we’re really buying and drinking.