Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Intelligent Decisions and the Wal-Mart Effect

Kathleen Parker, over at Townhall, writes an unusual column for a conservative; one that is not completely laudatory towards Wal-Mart. Not to worry, she's no threat to Wal-Mart; she just allows questions to be asked about their long term effect on the world economy.
Take salmon. Wal-Mart, which buys all its salmon from Chile, sells more than anyone else in the country and undersells all other retailers by at least $2 per pound. That's a lot of market power, which prompts Fishman to ask: "Does it matter that salmon for $4.84 a pound leaves a layer of toxic sludge on the ocean bottoms of the Pacific fjords of southern Chile?"

Salmon in Chile are raised in packed underwater pens - as many as 1 million per farm - and fed prophylactic antibiotics to prevent disease. Here's a fact you'd rather not know: A million salmon produce the same amount of waste as 65,000 people. Combine that waste with unconsumed food and antibiotic residue, and you've got a toxic seabed.

Does it matter?

Only if consumers say it does, says Fishman.
Now it may seem like I'm damning with faint praise, but this really is a step up from "Everybody who doesn't like Wal-Mart is a pinko communist.

But not enough of a step. What Parker leaves out in her rosy thoughts on customer determinism is that customers are regularly deceived or given only half the story. How many Wal-Mart customers are aware of the ecological damage their cheap salmon is causing? Presumably very few.

And, of course, American customers are pretty good at overlooking or ignoring the moral implications of their spending power. Unlike Chilean Salmons, we all know that third world textile operations don't tend to be run along humane grounds (all protestations aside). Doesn't stop us from buying them. And I don't think the equation would change all that much if the abused employees were United States citizens.

Or, to put it another way, I don't think we can safely rely on Wal-Mart customers to save the world.

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