Sunday, December 10, 2006

The evil empire

Joining a foundation staff a year ago turned me from a non-profit specialist into more of a generalist as far as subject area. One subject that keeps coming up at conferences and online within the U.S. non-profit sector now is Wal-Mart.

For instance one project I'm heavily involved in at work is related to the food system, seeking to leverage a big increase in the amount of food that is grown locally and/or organically. Activists in that subject are talking a lot about Wal-Mart these days, with no clear consensus on whether on balance the company's entry into the issue is a good thing or bad. A colleague on that project who is a veteran public-health advocate mentioned one day that those folks are slightly agog over the rapid expansion of Wal-Mart's cheap generic drug offering which, if successful, seems to shake up some of the public-policy debate regarding our health care system. Pro-choice activists scored a big win early this year when the company reversed course on the morning-after pill, particularly since they sell it for far less than other pharmacies do.

On gay-rights websites there is chatter about the company's moves the last couple years on that front, as for example noted here, which is inspiring calls by religious-right groups for boycotts. And thanks to Al Gore's public endorsement of Wal-Mart as a key green change agent (which, as an aside, is my least-favorite new non-profit-sector buzzword), the company's environmental impact is getting more attention. I've seen this news article linked a few times now.

Anti-sprawl activists continue to name Wal-Mart as a poster child for unsustainable economic growth, as do labor unions. This progressive activist's research paper coming to a different conclusion gets linked a bit and the author got a couple of invitations to speak on campuses and debate online, but he's been largely ignored by the mainstream media.

And recently a friend who is heavy into the stock market noted this irony: Wall Street thinks that Wal-Mart, as a business, peaked several years ago. Its stock price hasn't even kept up with inflation for three years now and its sales growth lags well behind that of competitors like Target. As a dominant economic force it may be that the company's historical moment has, for better or worse, passed.

1 comment:

sdrone said...

Passed? Maybe so. Walmart, GE, Microsoft - you eventually get so big that you can't expand and all you can do is try to milk more profit out of the same piece of pie.