By Charles Fishman
Penguin, NZ$29.95 | Reviewed by Diane Spodarek

IT IS EASY to blame Wal-Mart for everything after reading this book. Even suicide. Recently the BBC reported that Zhang Shu Heng committed suicide in China following the closing of the factory he managed which manufactured unsafe toys for Mattel, 80% of which are exported around the world. Heng paid the 5,000 employees their final pay, closed the factory and killed himself from shame. The factory is only one of many in China manufacturing un-safe, defective, unregulated, untested and false goods. Pet food, drugs, and tyres from China have caused death; now millions of toys have been recalled. (In July, China executed Zheng Xiaoyu, its former top food and drug regulator, for taking bribes to approve untested medicine.) The Wal-Mart connection lies in the fact that the majority of all Wal-Mart goods are manufactured in China.

“Wal-Mart has become the most powerful, most influential company in the world.”

Wal-Mart was founded forty years ago in Arkansas, by Sam Walton to offer the cheapest prices for everything, every day. Wal-Mart began with a simple idea, take away packaging and sell them on the average of 15% cheaper than other stores. Now Wal-Mart is the biggest company on plant earth and more than 7.2 billion people shop at Wal-Mart each year. (The earth’s population is 6.6 billion. In 1959, it was 3 billion.)

Charles Fishman, the business journalist author says that he shops at Wal-Mart to the embarrassment of his wife who does not. She must have read his book, which includes this fact: for every job Wal-Mart creates, it displaces 1.5 existing jobs. Wal-Mart is god.

Fishman has written a powerful and balanced book about the history of Wal-Mart, (short listed for the Financial Times Business Book of the Year Award) that will leave you breathless, disappointed, sad, depressed, and wonderimg how Wal-Mart gets away with it. They get away with it because we are all complicit in our consumer frenzy of always wanting a deal. The consumer will buy anything on sale such as a gallon jar of pickles for $4 at Wal-Mart even though half will be wasted from the buyer’s inability to eat the whole thing before they start rotting; but he/she has got to have it because a smaller jar at another store costs more!

I hate big stores and do not shop at Wal-Mart. When in New York that is easy because there are no Wal-Marts in New York City! When in Wellington I have yet to see a Wal-Mart, but what about The Warehouse? Are they a little like Wal-Mart? Do we know the history behind the Warehouse and how shopping there affects our community? A few months ago I bought printing paper and ink, but according to one website, The Warehouse is the cause for the closure of other businesses in any area in which a new store is opened; and, for every job it creates, another nine are taken away.

“Wal-Mart has become the most powerful, most influential company in the world.”

“Wal-Mart shapes where we shop, the products we buy, and the prices we pay – even for those of us who never shop there.”

My parents love Wal-Mart. Retired at the ages of 80 and 85, they live in Florida and Canada, on a limited budget. My father says he would be stupid to pay more. Most of his acquaintances in Florida pay in the hundreds and thousands each month for prescription drugs. When Dad’s doctor recommended a blood-pressure medication, which would cost around $400 USD for a three-month dosage, Dad went to Wal-Mart. He requested a list of the drugs they sell; he took this list to his doctor and asked her to prescribe a cheaper generic drug from the list. Now Dad pays $4 a month.

Another ‘why pay more?’ story: When visiting my parents last month in Canada, Dad wanted to buy a DVD player, so I accompanied him to Wal-Mart in Windsor, a city the size of Wellington. Two flags, Canadian and British are perched atop a large ugly building. Inside the huge store, aisles after aisles were stocked with everything you need to live, from food to pet food to patio furniture and grills.

Wal-Mart, Windsor, Ontario (Image by Diane Spodarek)

Dad asked me to pick out the DVD. I tried not to be influenced by price, and couldn’t believe my luck of finding a well-known brand with a remote (and batteries), for $49 CAD. In a moment of weakness, I considered a cheaper model for $29. I asked an employee if he knew the difference between the two DVD’s and he said “quality.” I looked at the boxes. The $29 box was stamped “Made in China” and the $49 box was stamped “Made in Thailand.” Let’s go for the $49 one Dad; it’s better, I think. (Later that night we saw a news report about goods from China shipped in boxes stamped with the words: “Made in Thailand”.)

In the food aisles, Dad was looking for his favorite jam. Unbelievably I found all-fruit organic jam for $4.99 CAD. I’m not paying $5 for jam Dad said. I showed Dad the ingredients on his well-known brand jam (all sugar and artificial colour and flavour). It’s not even food he said and agreed to try my suggestion; after all, we expected to pay $100 for the DVD.

In each chapter Fishman skillfully interweaves balanced research with heart-wrenching and ludicrous stories about individual suppliers and employees connected to Wal-Mart. Published in 2006, even with an updated afterward by the author, things change every day. However, one thing remains the same:

“ at Wal-Mart makes us complicit in all kinds of mistreatment that makes our frugality seen misery, even cruel.”

Some people are trying to change the Wal-Mart effect. There are lawsuits on behalf of employees. Wal-Mart is under attack both politically and legally for its treatment of workers for various grievances including sexual discrimination, lack of health insurance, locking employees overnight in stores, and employees forced to clock out and return to work for no pay. And, these are the Wal-Marts in the U.S.

Is there a solution to the Wal-Mart Effect? Just say no? Sometimes there may not be a choice; perhaps you will find yourself, like me, with someone who goes to Wal-Mart; or, you just need it cheap. It. Consider this: how many things do we buy that we do not need just because it is cheap?

The Wal-Mart Effect is a story that doesn’t exist without consumers. Us. Consumerism is a big ugly disease. It is the biggest social, political and environmental cause of the loss of our humanity and compassion for each other. Long after we become extinct from the toxic goods we consume, the earth will regenerate on top of our non-degrading crap. For now, we owe it to each other to only consume what we need. Next time you pull your money out, take a moment to think about what others gave to give us what we are buying. Support local when you can. “The Wal-Mart Effect” is a global story. I will never forget seeing the sign over the kiwi fruit at the supermarket in Mana. It read: “Kiwi from the U.S.”

Here are more quotes from Fishman’s in-depth and balanced book. I chose not to take up the space here to write about the positive effects of Wal-Mart, because despite what the author says, I don’t believe any of it is positive.

“Today Wal-Mart sells more groceries than any company not just in the U.S. but in the world. It has 1,906 supercenters, 1,000 more than it had five years ago...has opened an average of 16 new supercenters a month for five years.”

Wal-Mart is the largest retailer in both Mexico and Canada, and the second largest grocer in Britain.”

Wal-Mart is the nation’s and the world’s largest private employer with 1.6 million employees and 3 million people in the US have jobs directly dependent on purchases from Wal-Mart.”