Saturday, May 13, 2006

Wal-Mart goes organic?

Following on the subject of food and energy efficiency, some of you may have seen the article in Friday’s NY Times about Wal-Mart’s move into the organic food market. It raises a lot of interesting issues and conflicts.

First, even Wal-Mart’s biggest detractors must concede one important point. The retailer has such a huge share of the market in, well, everything, that the organic decision could have a huge influence on the food industry. If Wal-Mart decides it wants to sell organic breakfast cereals, then Kellogg will find a way to produce some green Rice Krispies (I mean that figuratively, though I wouldn’t put past them to release a St. Patty’s special cereal). That will make organic food products cheaper to produce and more affordable for the consumer. In that sense, it could be good news for the environment and for consumers

I’ll give you what I think is an even bigger example. As part of this effort to be more environmentally friendly and reverse the company’s image, Wal-Mart may start pushing the sale of energy efficient products. Word is if Wal-Mart really moves into the sale of energy efficient light-bulbs, the US lighting market will complete change and, as a result, significantly increase household energy efficiency and reduce US greenhouse gas emissions.

A second issue is whether Wal-Mart’s decision will change the meaning of “organic”. Many consumers wrongly assume organic food is raised only on small farms (not necessarily) where animals graze on open meadows (not necessarily) and no chemicals or fertilizers are used (more or less). Well, one of three ain’t bad. Many experts worry that with the big companies moving into organic food, the definition of organic will be compromised more to accomodate more industrialized production. The disconnect between what agricultural practices organic food consumers think they are supporting and the reality will grow even more. On a related note, others wonder if large-scale production, where food is raised organically but still travels thousands of miles to reach your plate, is even a desirable objective.

The final concern is that none of this changes the fact that Wal-Mart has a de-facto monopoly on most retail goods, often does not pay workers a living wage, drives out the small or even moderately-sized retailers, and contributes to the spread of drive-only suburbia and exurbia. Are we willing to make a deal with the seller of the dust-devil?

7 comments:

Gatsby said...

Excellent post. There was an article in Slate making similar points to these. It contrasted Walmart's Organic philosophy with that of Whole Foods, which sometimes encourages organic food from abroad over local stuff.
It made the point that high-priced fru fru organic food is entirely the opposite of what was originally intended for the movement. In general, I think it is a good thing for Walmart to do, particularly the emphasis on energy efficiency. But, I also agree we have to keep a close watch on the definition of organic.

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