If you're a retailer, it's all about turning over stock. You don't want to have anything in the warehouse too long or on the shelf too long, but once it sells out, you want to make sure another one's replacing it. And Wal-Mart is genius at that. At one point Wal-Mart prided itself on buying American. I assumed that was one of the big things that helped them grow. When did that change, and what's the case today? Sam Walton was famous for a campaign he started in the mid-'80s to get Wal-Mart to buy from American companies. He made a big deal about one Arkansas apparel manufacturer, for instance. But even though this one particular apparel maker was making shirts in Arkansas, they still had Wal-Mart purchase their raw materials in bulk from China. So this move off-shore actually was simultaneous with the Buy America campaign. There's a kind of myth around Sam Walton. A lot of people say that if Sam were alive today, none of this would have happened, and that's just bogus. I think the shift to overseas production transcends one company. It's complicated. On the one hand, Wal-Mart didn't start the trend, but they certainly helped push it. "Wal-Mart is both a beneficiary and a driver of the race to the bottom in the global economy," says Alejandra Domenzain, an associate director of Sweatshop Watch. Tell us more. Activists like the National Labor Committee and others who monitor offshore manufacturing, particularly apparel, note that, while companies like the Gap have signed on to disclose where their factories are and to let independent human rights inspectors into them, Wal-Mart refuses. They will not tell you where they're operating in China, and they won't let human rights inspectors in. I think it was the Gap a couple of years ago that released a report based on these inspections. It wasn't flattering to their own company, but they did it. They were behaving responsibly, even if what they were saying was "Hey, we're not getting it right all the time, here's what we did wrong." Wal-Mart has never acquiesced to that, and I think that's part of the struggle right now. Barbara Briggs of the National Labor Committee out of New York told me that the question used to be: "Can we get these manufacturing jobs to come back to America?" Increasingly the answer is that's not realistic. Now the question is: "How do we pressure and lean on companies to behave responsibly in places like Southern China?" Without getting into a plug, I've heard comparisons between Wal-Mart and its smaller rival, Costco: that Costco's not actually a bad public citizen. Is that true? Though only about 15 percent of Costco stores are unionized, it's my understanding that being a cashier at Costco can be a career. From what I've read, if you've been there four years, you can be making around $45,000. I think 90 percent of their workers have health care and it's fully paid for. That's another model. But Costco's not the same store as Wal-Mart. It's a club store, and
you're paying $40 a year in membership. Shopping there is kind of like treasure hunting. It's hard to do all your grocery shopping for the week there. And when you see how big items are, you
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- Spring '11