Today's Opinions, Tomorrow's Reality 

Not Quite Cruelty Free

By David G. Young

Washington, DC, September 17, 2013 --  

Walmart has won a political victory in Washington. Business success may not be so easy.

The Holistic Science Company's cosmetics stand at San Diego's Hillcrest Farmers' market proudly proclaims its products to be be GMO free. And PABA free. And paraffin free. And gluten and cruelty free to boot. These claims are hardly unusual at the market, located in the main gay neighborhood of an otherwise conservative city. The market is great fun for both the cool products and the people watching. But the plethora of vendors selling various sprouts, organic vegetables, and holistic juice leave no doubt that you are among the California loonies.

Similar shopping experiences can now be found at hundreds of markets up and down both coasts and in major cities across the country. Here in Washington DC, a branch of the Brooklyn flea market opened up on the weekend1, with vendors like "Ravioli Revolution" and "Milk Cult" selling artisan foods in the hipster U Street neighborhood. It joins well established farmers' markets in the city's Capitol Hill and Dupont Circle neighborhoods, which also sell their fair share of locally-sourced, organic and cruelty-free products.

With the nation's capital gentrifying at breakneck speed, it's no surprise to see new retailers targeting the yuppie dollar. What has raised an eyebrow, however, is the bitter opposition of DC's liberal-minded residents to the planned arrival of low-brow retailer Walmart to the city. Unlike the products at farmers' markets, this debate has been not quite cruelty free.

Last week, Washington's mayor vetoed a city council bill that would have forced Walmart to pay workers $12.50 per hour instead of the city's regular $8.25 per hour minimum wage.2 The veto follows months of contentious debate in the city, where urban professionals have teamed with unions and left-wing activists in an attempt to beat the mega-retailer over the head with the law. And they almost had their way -- before the veto, Walmart threatened to cancel plans for three of the six stores planned for the city.3

DC's better-heeled residents hate Walmart for the same reasons they love farmers' markets. Walmart carries little to none of of the artisanal, organic, GMO-free, fair trade, locally-sourced and sustainable products that can be found at market stalls. Instead, it stocks mass produced items that are made as inexpensively as possible (often imported from China) with little regard to their environmental impact. Rather than a family business, it's a huge multinational corporation that pays its employees as little as it the law and labor markets allow, and often keeps them at part-time status to avoid providing benefits.

Nevertheless, disdain for Walmart is not universally shared. The company did not get to be the largest retailer in the world, with over 5,500 stores4, because everybody hates them. Hundreds of millions of people shop at Walmart because they like getting low prices. And these customers include many of the less affluent residents of Washington, DC. Two of the six stores are planned for predominantly black neighborhoods east of the Anacostia River, where retail stores and jobs are both scarce. This area also happens to be the home of Mayor Vincent Gray and many of the constituents he represented as a city councilman.

This debate highlights a growing divide in how America's educated urban elite shops compared with the rest of the country. Black Washington has much more in common with Walmart's middle American core than the growing population of snobbish, predominantly-white yuppies who want to shun Walmart for the farmers' market stalls. The $5 per pound organic heirloom tomatoes and $16 per pound artisanal goat cheese sold at the city's Eastern Market are delicious, but not everybody can afford them. Rather than trying to stop Walmart from coming, those who dislike the mass retailer should simply not shop there.

In the long run, this may be the bigger problem for Walmart than the minimum wage law. The city lost its white working class in the 1950s and 60s, then lost its black majority two summers ago.5 How on earth will a prosperous city increasingly dominated by well-to-do professionals support six Walmart stores? Clearly, the world's largest mass retailer cannot fill its shelves with niche artisanal products. Rather than fighting the elites, Walmart had better figure out a way to sell to them.


1. Washington Post, Brooklyn Flea Market Finds a Like-Minded Spot for a D.C. Outpost, September 15, 2013

2. Ibid., D.C. Mayor Gray Vetoes ‘Living Wage’ Bill Aimed at Wal-Mart, Setting Up Decisive Council Vote, September 12, 2013

3. Washington City Paper, Walmart Will Cancel Three D.C. Stores, Reconsider Others if Wage Bill Becomes Law, July 9, 2013

4. Walmart, Our Story / Walmart International, as posted, September 17, 2013

5. New York Times, A Population Changes, Uneasily, July 17, 2013