Thursday, September 28, 2006

No, Seriously. Always.

Just to balance out my coverage of low-brow political rags, I thought I'd mention that this kind of criticism of Wal-Mart is misplaced.
The Cornucopia Institute, a progressive group that advocates for family-scale farming, released a report today showing that an "organic Wal-Mart" may indeed be more Mean than Green.

According to the report, the company has a contract to source milk from Aurora Organic Dairy, which is one of the worst industrial organic offenders -- using cattle confined in feedlots, with little if any access to pasture. Aurora is also being investigated for a number of other violations of the organic standards. While there are plenty of problems with milk sold by Horizon (also available at Wal-Mart) at least Horizon gets about half of its milk from family-scale farms; Aurora's is 100% factory farm.
Look, very few people, especially among those who shop at Wal-Mart, actually care strongly about whether their food is organic. When people buy "organic", what they're after is much more likely to be the satisfaction they get from the uncritical assumption that by doing so they are being more responsible shoppers. Most people don't even know what "organic" means (to the extent that the word has a standard meaning in the first place.) It seems implausible, to say the least, that many people would be willing to pay noticeably more for such a nebulous benefit.

Wal-Mart's appeal - and, really, its only redeeming characteristic - is its ability to deliver goods to consumers at low prices. The Nation getting bent out of shape because Wal-Mart isn't willing to forgo its wildly successful business model to further the interests a relatively small number of organic advocates demonstrates equal parts naivete and liberal dogmatism. What did they think was going to happen? It's right there in the slogan! "Always Low Prices. Always." They even underline it.

The issue, in other words, is public opinion. Not Wal-Mart.

And there's this:
Cornucopia also reports that Wal-Mart is indeed, as many observers predicted, sourcing some of its organic products from China -- canned chick peas and other beans, for example. This could certainly be good for the Chinese, as the demand may cause many acres of conventional farmland to go organic, cleaning up the surrounding groundwater and soil. But it's also troubling because shipping products such a distance, when they could be grown locally, is a waste of energy, and exacts a formidable toll on the ozone layer; such a practice hardly meets the ideal of sustainability that many customers are seeking when they look for that organic label.
No mention of the potential economic benefits to the Chinese - probably because what we have on our hands is a serious disability to sympathize with the economic plight of the Chinese. Sure, maybe Wal-Mart could encourage more environmentally-friendly farming in China, but why don't the Chinese just do it themselves? Well, because they're too poor, and the organic way of life is a luxurious option not available to people without an abundance of wealth. If you really want the Chinese to farm less efficiently, you're going to have to, in effect, subsidize their farms.

I worry that environmentalism will become the last refuge of the economic isolationist scoundrel.

Update: OK, I think maybe I wasn't clear. Well, I think the part about China stands up fine, but the first bit's a little obscure.

My objection to the Nation, here, is that they fail to realize that they care way more about what "organic" means than most people do. On some level, the Nation, or, more exactly, Liza Featherstone, seems to recognize this, because Featherstone never actually comes out and says she thinks Wal-Mart's lying about its organic products. Instead, she does at least one of two things (I can't tell exactly), both of which are objectionable.

First, she seems to imply that Wal-Mart isn't meeting organic standards by alluding to the possibility that Wal-Mart's producers won't pass muster upon closer examination. That, however, isn't a problem with Wal-Mart, it's a problem with Wal-Mart's producers and the bodies that oversee them.

Second, she seems to suggest that even if Wal-Mart is technically selling organic products, they're not organic enough. Again, that's not fair to Wal-Mart; if Featherstone thinks the criteria for organic food are excessively loose, that's fine, but it's hardly Wal-Mart's job to define "organic" more strictly.

Again, nowhere is the claim explicitly made that Wal-Mart is actively deceiving its customers - because to all outward appearances, they're not. Her frustration is therefore misguided - the problem is with the organic community, as far as I can tell. Wal-Mart seems, by and large, to be playing by their rules.

See this comment for a little bit more.


Rebecca C. Brown said...

I have so many arguments to pose against this post that I don't have time to write any of them yet.

Aaron said...

On the one hand, I think that extremely large chains like WalMart do carry a great deal of social responsibility along with the success that they've earned and that they shouldn't always follow the bottom line simply because it's been "wildly successful" in the past. We should hold corporations of their size to some resonable standard of employee and consumer rights, etc.

On the other hand, I definitely agree that "organic" is an extremely fuzzy term -- it sometimes provides an extremely useful semantic cover for large corporate farms that are only "organic" in the vaguest of senses, like Aurora. did an expose on this a few months back vis a vis Whole Foods.

This all said, I should disclose my personal prejudice against "organic" foods -- for whatever reason, most tend to upset my stomach much more frequently than non-organic counterparts.

Paul said...

Well, organic foods are, nutritionally speaking, nutritionally no better, and in many respects worse, than their non-organic counterparts, all while costing more. I don't blame your stomach.

In all seriousness, though, if I had to make a wager based on nothing more than informed speculation, I'd wonder if your upset stomach was the result of the natural, largely internal, pesticides that have to be produced by the plant in the absence of synthetic, and easily washed-off, pesticides.

As for Wal-Mart's social responsibilities, would the Nation have written a similar post complaining that Wal-Mart wasn't carrying organic foods at all? I think they're really worked up over what they perceive as a trick. If they're demanding that a store like Wal-Mart be required to carry organic food, that would, as far as I can tell, be a fairly extreme position to take.

Tommaso Sciortino said...

I don't understand your position, Paul. To me it seems simple. Certain people want to purchase organic products. WalMart is tricking them into thinking they are getting organic when really they aren't. The fact that you personally don't see a difference doesn't seem to have any bearing on the difference. After all, you probably you don't believe kosher is a useful dietary standard. But would that lead you to believe that WalMart is justified in selling non-kosher food as Kosher?

In fact, I'm almost certain I do not understand you correctly so why don't you elaborate.

Paul said...

What it comes down to for me is that I don't think Wal-Mart is really tricking many people at all.

Like Aaron and I were saying, "organic" doesn't have a clear meaning. In my view, that means that Wal-Mart should not be held accountable for not adhering to one, particular definition of the term.

It's not at all clear that people at Wal-Mart aren't getting organic products. The people at the Nation just have a stricter definition of the term than is typical.

Heck, the Nation doesn't even come out and say that Wal-Mart's products aren't organic. They just gripe that Wal-Mart's selling products that are from producers "being investigated for a number of...violations of the organic standards" or that contain "synthetic additives that have not yet been reviewed by the National Organic Standards Board".

The problem, in other words, is with the organic movement, which has failed to adequately define the term.

"Organic" just isn't as well-defined as "kosher".