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Big businesses have become a large factor in bringing goods and services to American homes.  However, the increasing size and influence of these companies proportionately rob from the social values and public environmental services integral to the same American quality of life.  Retail-giant Walmart and the coal industry are two establishments that overlap in business practices.  According to Mother Jones, 330 people buy something from a Walmart every second in the almost-9000 stores worldwide.  First similarity:  conservatives love them both!  In addition, the two businesses have a long history of degrading the environment, tearing away at labor benefits (or as I call them, labor rights), and destroying communities.

Walmart counts for 10% of all retail sales in the country and is the largest employer in the world.  The workers, though, are paid below the poverty line in both the United States and abroad. Walmart workers could receive a 30% raise and still be profitable, not including the fact that more people would appreciate their business.  Until recently, around half of our electricity usage involved coal, and the number is currently well above the next closest fuel, natural gas.  Since the 1960’s though, production of coal has doubled and the miner employment has almost been halved.  Malevolent employment policies burden both the workers and taxpayers alike.  Walmart reserves the right to eliminate health care coverage, should the employee work less than 30 hours a week.  Not coincidentally, new hires are now working 24 hours a week or even less.  According to the New York Times, Walmart insures less than half of its employees. Many of the shoddy employment tactics are allowable only because of lack of union involvement.

Walmart has not allowed union organization, so independent unions are arising in protest.  For the coal industry, busting up unions was prevalent in the early stages of business up to modern times.  The Battle of Blair Mountain arose from workers trying to organize unions, which often lead to deadly consequences in a mine or from the barrel of a gun.  Don Blankenship, former CEO of Massey Energy, predatorily tried to “drive union coal operations out of business” by/for the purpose of lowering the price of coal.  These poor practices wreak havoc on the local communities.

William Nordhaus, a Yale environmental economist, determined that the social costs of coal alone are higher than the market costs.  For mining, residents close to the mines are actually less likely to get jobs, and their chance of dying from cancer increases by 50 percent.  Unfortunately for Walmart and its employees, a factory supplier caught fire and took the lives of 117 people.  They were told the alarm was simple routine, and they were literally forced to remain at their work stations.  Stephan J. Goetz and Anil Rupasingha published a descriptive report on how the quality of life and “social capital” diminish with the introduction of a Walmart into a town.  Voting participation declines, small companies go out of business, and even church attendance is altered.  Out of the over 400 large coal plants in the United States, over 80 percent are in counties with lower than average per capita income.  To further drive out business competition, both Walmart and coal companies have issued company scrip in lieu of actual payment.  As expected, the disregard for social benefit

Expansive asphalt parking lots and abandoned stockrooms mimic the expansive destruction of mountaintop removal mining site.  In 2005, Walmart executives in Mexico were caught bribing local officials to change zoning laws and reduce environmental impact fees.  Similarly, coal companies and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers illegally obtained mountaintop removal mining permits, causing great harm to the environment and surrounding residents.  The local destruction also has global consequences.  Even disregarding the supply chain, Walmart employs as many workers as the combined 50 smallest countries, but also emits more carbon dioxide than the 50 lowest-emitting countries.  Similarly, “coal- whether it’s converted to liquids or burned in conventional power plants- is likely to… hasten the onset of dangerous climate change, (Klare, The Race for What’s Left, Location 2097 of 6515).  Instead of building a distributed generation grid as Thomas Edison intended, the coal generation relies on large 650MW plants.  Distributed solar, on the other hand, is more democratic and versatile in ownership.   Greater emphasis on small farms and renewable energy solutions would go a long way to improve the industries’ image.

Lastly, as a moment of praise, both companies have enough market penetration to be a catalyst for influential policy.  Linda Greer, a NRDC scientist working with Walmart, stated, “They have the potential to change the world.”  The same is true for coal– a push for clean coal and greening the supply chain will encourage (and force) smaller companies to follow suit.  Various environmental groups are becoming more involved in Walmart’s business operations and product choices.  Adam Werbach, as the youngest president of the Sierra Club, quit his position to become an extremely influential sustainability consultant for Walmart.  Coal is by far the leading fuel used in our electricity mix, and carbon sequestration is almost absolutely necessary to achieve worldwide emission reduction targets.  Now all we need is someone to step up for clean coal.

So, it seems quite contradictory to accuse Walmart of coal business tactics when they are the largest corporate user of solar energy.  Despite the 65 megawatts of solar capacity, the initiative merely masks their overall similarity to the more polluting energy businesses.  Touting low prices while disregarding workers’ concerns runs to the core of both business models.  Of course, many other companies have overlapping business practices, some more malicious than others- point being that these social and environmental problems are part of a broader discourse of companies getting rich off the backs of workers and other citizens.  As more world citizens realize the negative effects of these businesses, they will either have to drastically change their business models or find a new line of work.

[Blog was updated in November 2012]

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