The Wal-Mart enigma.

I work for a City, and I serve on some civic committees and volunteer for a few not-for-profits, so I go to a lot of meetings.

Yes, some of those meetings can be crushingly dull, but most are interesting and informative and productive (otherwise, I don’t stick with the organization too long – I bore easily). Occasionally, there are great moments that could not be repeated in any other setting.

An example happened a few days ago, and I will spare the who-what-where details to protect the innocent. There was a consultant talking on some arcane (but pertinent to the meeting) operation of the free market to a (in her perception) less-informed member of the committee. Everything below is paraphrased from my memory:

Consultant: “Let me give you an example- you shop at Wal-Mart, right?”

Citizen: “No. I don’t”

Consultant (after brief pause to re-group, addresses crowd of ~20): “How many people here shop at Wal-Mart?”

Crowd:      [crickets]
       [one hand goes up]

Consultant (long pregnant pause): “Ok, people shop at Wal-Mart, right, and…”

It was funny because the consultant clearly didn’t know the crowd.

This was a group of hyper-engaged citizens, most of them (like the person who said “No, I don’t”) were taking time out of their busy day to take part in a public consultation for no reward, just to take a small role in making the City a better place. Some actually had to book time off work and (in my case) re-schedule some deferred time off to take part. We were not there because we were paid, or even for the free cookies. We were there because we give a shit about our community.

Now I recognize that many people shop at Wal-Mart, and this is not about judging them. The majority of the population may, I really don’t care to know the statistics. But in that room full of people who value their community enough that they invest their “free” time and their income into making it a better place? Wal-Mart is for the most part not part of that equation. Frankly, we would rather pay a few pennies more for (or buy a few fewer) socks or bags of nails or lawn furniture knowing that the marginal difference is more likely to be re-invested in our local community, through better wages, local sourcing, or non-predatory pricing policies.

Of course, if she said “Costco”, she might have got a different result. I don’t shop there, but it seems that Costco unfairly avoids the local-retail-crushing non-sustainable-consumption community-killing reputation that Wal-Mart carries. And apparently Target will also avoid that fate, based on the conversations I have heard in reference to potential Uptown tenants. I wonder why that is.

Even a dull meeting can bring moments of insight, and new questions to ask.

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