It's a gray world

I've been very interested by the announcement last week and subsequent reactions (including this one by Anna Lappe, at Civil Eats) to Walmart's avowal to boost its sales of fresh produce and to work with suppliers to reduce levels of sodium, trans fats, and refined sugar in its products.

To me, it is evokes the reaction a few years ago when Adam Werbach, former wunderkind of the environmental movement, began advising Walmart on its green initiatives. He was excoriated by, which is to say practically excommunicated from, the movement for aligning with the enemy.

His rejoinder was that Walmart, by virtue of its market dominance, was better situated to effect change than a bunch of do-gooders choosing paper instead of plastic. (My words, not his.) Think of the broad effect if, say, Walmart were to tell its suppliers to stop packaging in plastic. Companies that previously had taken no steps in that direction would instantly have strong financial motivation to do so.

Regarding last week's announcement, Lappe, echoing Marion Nestle, says "that Walmart’s promise to develop its own front-of-package seal is a clever preemption of work underway at the Institutes of Medicine and FDA to 'establish research-based criteria' for such packaging and create regulations for the entire industry, with real oversight."

After stipulating that I'm a fan and supporter of both writers, I'm not convinced this is the right take. To say that it is a "clever preemption" presupposes that the goal was to be clever and to preempt, rather than to accomplish any good.

Based on the Werbach/Walmart experience, I'm not sure that's supported. I grant that it could be cynical manipulation, because there is certainly a surplus of that in corporate America, but it's not the only possibility. 

Lappe brings in Walmart's low-wage, low-benefits treatment of workers, pointing out that it could make fresh produce more economically available if it paid better, and that's fair. Walmart has blemishes, for sure.

But it is also positioned to effect changes in the marketplace that perhaps no other entity is; those companies that accede to Walmart's mandates to reduce sodium, refined sugar, and trans fats will be selling their products everywhere, not just at Walmart.

Will Walmart's standards be all that health and health advocates want? Probably not. Will they be better than what we're getting now? Probably so. Is it annoying that we live in a world where Walmart, a corporate behemoth, can get us closer to where we want to be than justice can? My answer would be yes, but it wouldn't change the world we live in.

Am I sure that applauding partial, potential progress is better than waiting for what we really ought to have? No, but for today, anyway, that's where I'm coming to pause, to see what happens next.