Can Werbach reform Wal-Mart?

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EDITORIAL Those with power rarely use it to help the powerless: workers, foreigners, or the planet. That's why we're fascinated by the green noises that we're starting to hear from übercorporation Wal-Mart and with its decision to hire our hometown environmental heavy hitter Adam Werbach, a move that reporter Amanda Witherell explores in this week's cover story (see "An Unbelievable Truth," page 15).
We're skeptical of Wal-Mart's motives and commitment to putting the planet before profits, so we truly hope that Werbach hasn't been co-opted into a greenwashing effort. But because of the positive potential in this arrangement, we're willing to trust Werbach's judgment. In turn, we urge him to remember his roots and expect him to document his experience inside Wal-Mart and blow the whistle if Wal-Mart isn't honoring its promises.
Let's take a minute to look at the timing and potential of this. Wal-Mart is on the ropes even though it's the undisputed heavyweight champion of the world. The activists and communities that oppose it are banding together like never before. And they're getting bolder in that opposition, such as when the city of Hercules earlier this year used eminent domain to seize land from Wal-Mart rather than allow a store in its community.
Wal-Mart has also lost some political clout. First it lost its most supportive Democrat when fellow Arkansan Bill Clinton left the White House. The Republican Party it sponsors is also likely to lose ground in the midterm elections, just as the country's trade deficit hits record levels.
People are also waking up to the fact that Wal-Mart's poverty-level wages and lack of good health insurance end up being subsidized by taxpayers. And there very well could bubble up a backlash against the kinds of obscene wealth-hording being pushed by Wal-Mart's Walton family and others, as reporter George Schulz also details in this issue (see "Shackling the Tax Man," page 11).
Finally, consider two high-profile media moments from this summer that put more pressure on Wal-Mart. The Al Gore film An Inconvenient Truth has succeeded in placing global warming near the top of people's concerns. This pressing environmental problem is made much worse by Wal-Mart's practice of importing and distributing goods all over the planet.
The other was a widely circulated essay in the July issue of Harper's Magazine, "Breaking the Chain," which made a strong case for the federal government bringing an antitrust action against Wal-Mart and smashing the chain to pieces. The article focused not on the widely discussed environmental and labor arguments, but on how Wal-Mart's market power and the way it wields it hurts the economy and other businesses because it can dictate terms to all of its suppliers, a concept known as monopsony power.
So we all have good reason to believe that Wal-Mart executives and their newfound concerns for the people and the planet aren't just motivated by altruism. And this corporation has a long way to go before anyone should believe its executives intend to transform it into a force for good. We simply don't trust Wal-Mart and don't think anyone else should either.
Ah, but what if? That's the question that will cause us to hold our fire for now and watch to see whether Wal-Mart's actions follow its rhetoric. Given Wal-Mart's monopsony power over suppliers and near monopoly power over consumers, this corporation has the power to force substantial changes in the wasteful and overly consumptive habits of the average American. The potential here is phenomenal.
Is Werbach the guy to help them realize that potential? Maybe. He's been an inspiring and effective crusader for economic and social justice for most of his life, which is why we were thrilled when Sup. Chris Daly snuck him onto the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission.
But in that role, he hasn't been the bold visionary that we'd hoped for.