Wal-Mart, communities of color, and cause-related marketing

August 1, 2008

All too often, Wal-Mart works against community interests and vision in search of profits

ACE recently received an unsolicited email from Wal-Mart commending our work. It said that "REEP is a wonderful program" and that Wal-Mart appreciates the connections REEP makes between environmental sustainability and education. It's always rewarding when REEP is recognized, but the praise from Walmart is a bit puzzling as our mission and vision contradict Wal-Mart's business practices. We believe that sustainable neighborhoods involve fair wages, local ownership of businesses, and community investment - not discrimination, political strong-arming, and anti-unionism.

All too often, Wal-Mart works against community interests and vision in search of profits, both in the U.S. and internationally. As the Roxbury community moves forward with the mayor's Dudley Vision Project, ACE has been supporting the community in advocating for local ownership, quality jobs, and the benefits of the green economy. Wal-Mart does not fit into that vision of community.

To its credit, Wal-Mart has recently made some improvements to its environmental track record. Yet even with its promotion of compact fluorescent bulbs and truck emission retrofits, it is important to look beyond Wal-Mart's corporate greenwashing and consider the environmental harms of its business model. Less than three years ago, Wal-Mart had to settle with the EPA for truck idling violations in Connecticut and Massachusetts. ACE has long fought against the detrimental health effects of diesel exhaust, and we believe that corporations shouldn't burden environmental justice communities with diesel emissions.

Whatever praise it may offer for ACE's programs, Wal-Mart has shown a fundamental opposition to ACE's belief that everyone has the right to be decision-makers in issues affecting their communities. Wal-Mart's campaign to place a Supercenter in Inglewood, California, an environmental justice community, shows just how little it values the decision-making rights of a community. In Inglewood, Walmart poured $1.5 million into a ballot initiative that would bypass local government to erect a Supercenter. Local community groups, like Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice and the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy successfully organized to oppose Wal-Mart's political strong-arming.

The fight in Inglewood was indicative of the company's prioritization of business models and profits over community visioning and empowerment. In an article from Los Angeles' Our Weekly, the Rev. Eric Lee aptly summarizes Wal-Mart's approach to communities of color:

"Although people of color today do not confront nearly the same kind of overt racism, they now must contend with a more subtle form of discrimination. Large corporations like Wal-Mart throw money at hand-picked charities in communities of color, then expect these communities to accept with gratitude the poverty-wage jobs they generate."

Groups like the NAACP have had to deal with Wal-Mart's campaigns of "throwing money." As Al Norman explains,

"Wal-Mart is a big contributor to many NAACP chapters. Such donations are what industry consultants call 'cause-related marketing.'…Wal-Mart officials have strategically embedded themselves on the boards of groups like the United Negro College Fund, and the National Urban League. But above all, Wal-Mart has been buying influence in the black community. In 2006, for example, Wal-Mart gave a $1 million grant to the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation, $1 million to the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. National Memorial Project in Washington, D.C., and donations to local NAACP chapters across the nation."

Two weeks ago at the 99th annual NAACP convention, delegates passed a resolution that challenges Wal-Mart, in part, to "work with local communities to effectively address Wal-Mart's and other retailers negative impact on issues like the environment and local businesses." ACE commends the NAACP for demanding that Wal-Mart treat communities of color in a just manner. Here in Roxbury, we will continue organizing for healthy, sustainable, locally-controlled communities. Wal-Mart, take note.