Global discount retailers like Wal-Mart boast low prices, but are there larger costs? Arnie Frenette dug red tulips from the ground in front of his trailer and put them in buckets while Pete Cavanaugh recorded the scene on his digital video camera. At 77, Frenette and his wife, Anna, 74, were moving from their home of 26 years at Wildwood Park in Plainfield to make way for a Wal-Mart supercenter. Cavanaugh, who is 18, is spending his summer between graduating from Plainfield High School and starting college at Ball State documenting the story of the Frenettes and some of the 200 other people forced to move from their homes. “How do you feel about moving?” Cavanaugh asked Frenette as he shoveled up another flower. “I didn’t want to. I didn’t want to,” Frenette answered without looking up.
Inspired by Michael Moore’s documentaries, Cavanaugh, who doesn’t live at Wildwood Park but used to ride through it on the school bus, is making a film about the plight of the people there. He hopes to finish it by the end of the summer. “This story just stuck for me. Nobody wants to help the people here,” he said. “Society doesn’t appreciate what they’re going through.”
While Cavanaugh hopes to remain neutral, allowing people to watch the film and decide for themselves if Wal-Mart is a villain, concerned Plainfield resident Mickey Kinder pulls no punches. He’s been writing letters to newspapers and is considering a run for public office over what he sees as an injustice.
“How much convenience do you need when you are going to kick 200 people out of their homes?” said Kinder, a businessman who now lives in a suburban Plainfield neighborhood but once lived in a trailer park. “These people are our neighbors and nobody spoke up for them.”
The homeowners of Wildwood Park, who pay $240 a month to park their trailers there, will likely lose big as they try to sell homes that must soon be moved. And Wal-Mart has offered no financial assistance. “A couple of people have sold their trailers but it was for $1,500 or so. They were pricing them as cheap as they could just to get rid of them,” said Teresa Abernathy, a six-year resident at Wildwood Park who has her home up for sale.
Her husband is currently active-duty in the military. “So this is pretty hard on us right now,” Abernathy said. “But it’s even worse for some of the other people here. They can’t afford to live anywhere else.”
“Like a pea on a griddle” A bland and vacant big box store sits empty just east of the Frenettes’ lot at Wildwood Park. While many of the residents have already moved, some of those who remain can look out their bedroom windows and see this tan building — the first Wal-Mart plopped here along U.S. 40 in 1985. It’s one of nearly 400 old Wal-Marts left vacant across the United States.
Just east of the coin-op laundromat and tobacco store, Wildwood residents can just make out the current Wal-Mart discount store, built in 1990 and expanded to its current hulking size in 1995. “They just jump all over the place — like a pea on a griddle,” said Al Norman, a Connecticut-based anti-Wal-Mart activist. His book, The Case Against Wal-Mart, details a long list of concerns with the company’s practices.
Norman calls out Wal-Mart for mistreating employees, for being uncharitable, for forcing high-paying manufacturing jobs out of America and for contributing to the suburban sprawl that destroys the environment and this country’s landscape. “Wal-Mart is the darling of Wall Street and the devil on Main Street,” Norman said. “The merchants don’t like them, their workers don’t like them. They have a big PR problem because 44 percent of their workers are going to quit this year.”
At least 10 residents of Wildwood Park know, first-hand, about Wal-Mart. They work at the soon-to-be-abandoned store they can see from their soon-to-be-abandoned homes. Afraid for their jobs, they declined an invitation to talk about the situation. But others in the neighborhood spoke up.
“I don’t understand it. There’s already the Wal-Mart here and another [supercenter] 10 minutes away in Avon,” George Shannon said. He works at Long John Silver’s and Rally’s — both a short bike ride away from the $400-a-month trailer he rents with a roommate. “It doesn’t make sense.”
But Wal-Mart’s decisions aren’t supposed to make sense — especially for people like the Frenettes or Shannon. Wal-Mart’s decisions are supposed to make money, lots of money.
“Enough is enough” Plainfield is just one prong in Wal-Mart’s current advance on the Indianapolis area. In recent months, better-organized and wealthier neighborhood groups stopped sprawling supercenters from coming to congested areas in Westfield and Greenwood. Another proposed store in Fishers is meeting resistance.
But other Wal-Mart supercenters and smaller, food-only “neighborhood grocery stores” will be opening soon in Beech Grove and other locations around the city. With 3,500 stores across the country — 87 in Indiana — Wal-Mart, which made $250 billion in 2003, plans to open hundreds of new stores across the country this year. On May 19, the day a supercenter opened in Martinsville, Wal-Mart opened 28 other stores around America.
Attorney Lynn Gray successfully led the Greenwood residents’ fight against Wal-Mart opening there, forcing the company to buckle and drop plans to build a supercenter along a two-lane portion of State Road 135 just south of a Super Target and Meijer superstore. Unlike Plainfield, where commercial zoning was already in place, Wal-Mart needed a zoning change to build near several Greenwood neighborhoods. After months of meetings, the City Council seemed ready to vote against Wal-Mart’s plan on June 7. But the company’s lawyer, pointing to Wal-Mart’s determination to be a “good community neighbor,” announced that the company was giving up before any vote was cast.
People who packed the meeting hall exploded in applause. Later, they talked about the victory as they stood outside City Hall. “We thought maybe Wal-Mart, with all of its muscle, would be able to push its way in,” said JoAnn Mills, who showed up at 5 p.m. for the 7 p.m. meeting, just to make sure she and her husband, Donald, would get a seat. They both said they didn’t see why Wal-Mart needed to come to Greenwood. “Enough is enough,” Donald said.
Gray, who lives near where Wal-Mart wanted to build, didn’t feel strongly, either way, about the retail giant before she took this case. That’s different now: “Over the course of representing the folks, I learned a lot of things. Their wages are low, that’s not the type of jobs you want in your community,” she said. “The way that they saturate a market has an adverse effect on the other retailers, on the small business people. So, philosophically, the economics of a Wal-Mart is not a smart thing in a community that is already served.”
Gray said Wal-Mart doesn’t move into a saturated area like Greenwood because of consumer demand. Instead, it hopes to take business away from existing retailers — and eventually drive them out of business — by undercutting prices. “Wal-Mart will sell products for less than other business folks can buy them,” she said. “The small hardware store, the small grocery store, the small florists that have been in business for a long time, they’re going to eliminate them.”
And, along the way, the quality of life is destroyed in a variety of ways. “The consequences of big-box stores include water pollution caused by run-off from parking lots, increased vehicle traffic, air quality issues, safety issues and light pollution that can effect the behavioral patterns of nearby wildlife,” said Tim Maloney of the Hoosier Environmental Council, noting that communities need to plan better to avoid the problems of urban sprawl. “A lot of people like Wal-Mart for its low prices. But at what expense do you get those prices?”
This is a question more and more people are beginning to ask. “When you see a large, broad-based group of people who all are opposed to something, you start thinking, ‘Well, maybe there is some merit,’” Gray said. “It’s not like the environmentalists are the only ones opposed to it. It’s happening in a lot of places.”
Like Beech Grove. That city’s Republican, pro-business mayor, Joe Wright, unseated a 12-year incumbent when he took office in January. Shortly before Wright became mayor, Wal-Mart steamrolled a supercenter into Beech Grove — something Wright isn’t pleased about, and something he feels will have long-term negative effects on his community.
“Wal-Mart simply does not bring positive economic development,” Wright said. “It’s a misnomer to say that Wal-Mart improves your tax revenue. It costs more than it produces. And any economist will tell you that Wal-Mart does not bring the types of jobs needed for growth.”
Reggie Harrison, director of economic development with the Indiana Chamber of Commerce, sees big-box retailers like Wal-Mart as “double-edged” swords. He said, when a community has very little retail, a Wal-Mart can be a boon. But when one moves into a saturated market, it can hurt business and eventually cost as many jobs as it creates.
“A lot of communities do have problems with Wal-Mart. They’ve eroded the downtowns and have had a lot of negative impact to small retailers,” Harrison said. “Some communities in Indiana might say, ‘This is not good because we do have a variety of options and what this will actually do is diminish those options.’ This one store could come in and wipe out as many as 10 to 15 small businesses.”
The case against consumerism Unlike the local stores it undercuts and forces to “eat its dust” — as founder Sam Walton once bragged he enjoyed doing to local businesses — Wal-Mart takes the billions it makes and sends the money back to its headquarters in Arkansas. “When big businesses come in and use suppliers from far away, that has a negative effect on the local economy,” Maloney said. “Shouldn’t companies use local suppliers to the maximum extent? That would maximize the benefits to the local economy.”
But anti-Wal-Mart activist Al Norman said it wants to eliminate all competition — local or otherwise. So consumers must think of their shopping dollars as investments in keeping local stores alive. “Who are you investing in? If you give your money to the Walton family, you are giving your money to five people who are among the richest humans to ever walk the Earth. They certainly don’t need it,” Norman said. “So maybe you’d want to invest that money locally and have it recycle five or six times more than if you send it to the Walton family in Arkansas. We’re asking people to think about something beyond just the cheapest bargain and consider who has been exploited to get them that cheap underwear.”
It’s about consumers taking the time to follow the money, Norman said. “Some Wal-Mart shoppers have a sense of community no bigger than the dimensions of their shopping cart. I’m trying to get them to think of something besides their own personal consumption,” he said. “I’m asking somebody on a limited budget a lot to think about the broader good of their community.”
Wright agreed. “Consumers enjoy low prices,” he said. “But there should also be consumers who think supporting the local business community is just as important when they can afford it.”
Ultimately, Norman’s cause isn’t exclusively anti-Wal-Mart. It is about getting people to snap out of a sheep-like attitude toward consumption. “I do lay this at the shoppers’ feet because it can be argued that Wal-Mart is just exploiting people and it would all stop if we could win the battle in the aisles,” he said. “I’m saying to people, ‘Stay out of the aisles and find some other place to shop. A lot of this junk you don’t need anyway.’”
Like Gray who defended the Greenwood residents, Norman was neutral in his feelings about Wal-Mart when one tried to enter his hometown 11 years ago. He’s been fighting Wal-Mart ever since, consulting with groups around the country, including the one in Greenwood, to help stem the tide. But he also does his part, as a consumer, by staying out of the big box stores. “I’ve dramatically cut down on what I consume over the years. I’ve come to see shopping as an investment and it’s so difficult to make a good investment,” he said. It’s possible, he said, to cut back by half each month and eventually avoid the big-box stores altogether. He calls this his “Megastore Diet.” And it starts with being less wasteful and eliminating unnecessary shopping.
“Americans are just completely consumption stuffed. We are consuming far too much. It’s sort of like the emptier our lives get to be spiritually and emotionally the more we fill up our shelves with goods,” Norman said. “My attitude would be you might want to shop carefully for what you buy and look at trying to get better quality even though it might cost a little more. The product is going to last longer anyway.
“A lot of Wal-Mart products are simply Chinese knockoffs of products that used to be made in the U.S. You can buy a $16 pair of Levi Strauss jeans at Wal-Mart. But they aren’t made in the U.S. anymore. I don’t doubt that they’re inferior quality — lighter weight, not made to last as long. So, the old adage of getting what you pay for is unfortunately true.”
What you can do Manufacturing jobs have left this country in droves, in part, because American consumers don’t consider the true cost of saving a couple of bucks on a pair of jeans.
In order to feed an obsession with low retail prices, manufacturers must cut expenses. That’s why most companies now assemble their wares in overseas sweatshops where workers make pennies an hour. That’s why much of what’s sold at Wal-Mart is made in China. It imported $12 billion in merchandise from China in 2002, tallying nearly 10 percent of Chinese exports to the United States that year.
In supporting this corporate cost-saving strategy, big-box shoppers back the exploitation of Third World workers and — closer to home — destroy the livelihood of this nation’s working class. People who made TVs or sewed shirts here in Indiana are now stocking shelves at Wal-Mart for half of what they once earned.
Many companies have noticed that an increasing number of progressive-minded consumers are ready to spend a little more for non-sweatshop and American-made products.
Good Earth, at 6350 N. Guilford in Broad Ripple, sells T-shirts and socks made by American Apparel and Maggie’s Functional Organics. Both companies use sweatshop-free production methods. American Apparel, based in Los Angeles, makes its reasonably priced T-shirts from start to finish in this country. Maggie’s uses all organic cotton, which is better for the environment, and imports products from South American workers paid a living wage.
Don Charney, American Apparel’s founder, believes making goods in America is both socially responsible and a smart business decision. “I want to create a new platform for the future. It’s less about sweatshop-free because that sounds like charity,” he said in an interview posted on the company’s Web site. “It’s more about a program of efficiency that dwarfs full capitalism and creates a new form of capitalism.
“I’m going to beat Hanes and Fruit of the Loom because I make better products. Either I’m delusional or we’re going to change America.”
Bena Burda, president of Michigan-based Maggie’s Organics, has seen a huge surge in the organic sock business in the last 18 months. She’s happy that more consumers are asking questions about how and where products are made. “My parents raised me to question authority. People who do that are going to want to get behind those ‘Just do it’ ads,” she said in a telephone interview.
Tim Dorsey works at Good Earth — a locally owned health-food store that strives to sell local products. He is frustrated that people who can obviously afford to support organic and sweatshop-free products don’t. “They say they don’t have the money but they still have two or three cars,” Dorsey said. “If people who could afford it would buy these things, that would bring down the price for everybody else.”
Losing the PR battle Wal-Mart’s level of bad press has gotten so intense that it recently turned to underwriting programs on National Public Radio. Norman finds this amusing. “They’re going on the radio from sponsoring right-wing journalism like Paul Harvey to left-wing shows like NPR,” he said. “Very clearly, it’s designed to get into the world of people who may be influencing decision making and who don’t go to Wal-Mart, who don’t shop there. I’m delighted that Wal-Mart is giving NPR more money.”
This year’s Wal-Mart annual report dedicates 10 pages to bragging on its community involvement, its political correctness and its quality treatment of its employees. One, Carmen Garcia, is quoted as saying, “There is just something special about Wal-Mart and everything Wal-Mart stands for.”
Norman sees all of this “specialness” as a move by a company desperate to sweeten the sour taste it has left in many mouths in recent years. “The cracks in the empire are starting to get larger. That’s why they spend approximately $2 million a day on advertising nationally. They’re spending a lot of time pruning their image as a good employer and good member of the community. They’re not hawking cheap swim shorts. They’re spending their time talking about what a nice employer they are — with good reason. They’ve been hammered on that,” Norman said. “The public is starting to perceive that all is not well inside the Wal-Mart employee lounge.
“The great Wal-Mart irony is that they were the No. 1 rated retailer in a survey of Wall Street executives. But in a survey of employees nationally, Wal-Mart wasn’t even in the top 100 best places to work.”
Wal-Mart got more bad press last week when a federal judge approved a class-action sex-discrimination suit against it. As many as 1.6 million former female Wal-Mart employees are represented in the suit, alleging that Wal-Mart pays women less and skips over them for promotions. The lawsuit is the biggest of its kind in U.S. history. This is one of thousands of lawsuits pending against Wal-Mart around the world.
Closer to home, the battles in Greenwood and Westfield — as well as the destruction of the mobile home park in Plainfield — certainly could color the perception of Wal-Mart. “For someone like me, and I know I’m in the minority, this is the kind of thing that pushes me to hold a grudge for the rest of my life,” said Plainfield resident Mickey Kinder. “If I have to, I’ll go 20 minutes out of my way to get something instead of going to a Wal-Mart.”
Pete Cavanaugh, the young Plainfield filmmaker, isn’t optimistic about many others in his hometown following Kinder’s lead to start thinking outside the big box. “Here, nobody has really batted an eye at this issue. They just don’t care. That’s probably not going to change,” he said. “But in Greenwood, they turned Wal-Mart out. So I guess it is possible.”
Wal-Mart founder Sam WaltonWal-Mart and the media In the early stages of working on this story, this writer left a message for Wal-Mart’s regional spokesman, Keith Morris. At that time, the direction of this story was unclear. And Wal-Mart hadn’t lost its battles in Westfield and in Greenwood. Morris returned one call, leaving a voicemail message. After this writer later returned Morris’ call — leaving a message with the specific questions this story would examine — Morris did not call back. A dozen more messages left for Morris were not returned. No local Wal-Mart representative agreed to comment for this story. The company has a reputation for spoon-feeding small-town media outlets (who often repeat Wal-Mart’s press releases verbatim) while avoiding interviews with more skeptical reporters. Wal-Mart on the Web Visit a variety of Internet resources on the issue: Wal-Mart’s own site at www.walmart.com, Al Norman’s site at www.sprawl-busters.com, other anti-Wal-Mart sites at forum.walmartsucks.com, www.walmartwatch.com and www.againstthewal.com. Buying outside of the box American-made and sweatshop-free products can be purchased on the Internet. Check out: American Apparel (T-shirts and underwear) at www.americanapparel.net, No Sweat (100 percent union made clothing and shoes) at www.nosweatapparel.com, Maggie’s Functional Organics (T-shirts, socks, fabrics) at www.organicclothes.com and Union Jean & Apparel (100 percent union made in America jeans and shirts) www.unionjeancompany.com.