Is Target Really Just as Bad As Wal-Mart?
I caught some flack here recently when I expressed a very common attitude: I won't shop at Wal-Mart due to their well known labor problems, but I love to shop at Target.
Is there really any moral difference between shopping at the two big box stores? Or is it just that Isaac Mizrahi and Jovovich-Hawk blind us to the store's values?
Here is how the two stores stack up:
- Both have fought off employee unionization efforts, so far with 100 percent success in the United States. Target employees are shown an anti-union video as part of their orientation.
- Neither store pays a living wage. A 2005 newspaper article quotes the United Food and Commercial Workers, which had tried to organize some Target workers, saying that wages and health plans at the two stores are similar, but Target's plan is more restrictive. "We feel they are worse than Wal-Mart because they are masquerading as this benign employer," said Bernie Hesse, a UFCW leader, in a Fortune piece published this month.
- Both Target and Walmart use factories with poor human rights records.
- Both stores present obvious environmental problems with all the packaging used, etc. Both have initiatives to improve their record in this area; Wal-Mart's promises go farther, according to the Minneapolis Star Tribune.
- With their low prices, both stores have the effect of putting smaller, more specialized and often locally owned retailers out of business.
There are plenty of reasons in there to justify boycotting both chains. However, there are also arguments for focusing on just one store: A boycott of one store is more effective. People have to buy things someplace, and for many, especially those outside urban areas, that someplace is going to be a big box store. A boycott is an easier sell if it isn't an undue burden on those who are asked to participate.
And if just one store is chosen, Wal-Mart is the obvious choice. Although both companies have labor problems, it's Wal-Mart that has shown in legal cases to abuse its workers by coercing them to put in unpaid overtime, and its Wal-Mart that faces a class action lawsuit on discrimination against female employees (Target was found guilty in an EEOC suit on racial discrimination in Wisconsin stores).
Wal-Mart's rap sheet at Co-Op America is as long as my arm, much longer than Target's. It's true that as a larger and higher profile company, Wal-Mart has been the subject of more scrutiny, but still -- there are many more documented reasons to avoid Wal-Mart than Target.
Finally, Wal-Mart's sheer size makes it the better candidate for a boycott. It's Wal-Mart's size that is allowing it to dictate changes in the retail supply chain worldwide. It's the size, and its 1.9 million employees, that make its wage-lowering influence on the labor market so powerful and its uncared-for workers such a burden on the public health system.
This last fact, the size, is what keeps me away from Wal-Mart while still caving occasionally to Target's siren song. Even if Wal-Mart was a model of good labor practices, I would feel uncomfortable adding to this behemoth's coffers and helping it become more powerful than any world government. Personally, I feel that no company should be as big or powerful as Wal-Mart has become, and, no matter what the sins of the other retailers out there, I know for sure that I'm not adding one more cent to the Wal-Mart world domination fund.
By the way, if you are looking for a big-box retailer with a reputation as a fair employer, look no farther than Costco, where employees make more, get better health care, and see a smaller difference between their own wages and those of executives than workers at either of the two leading retail chains. Costco is far from perfect, of course -- choices that truly benefit communities, the environment, etc. don't involve big boxes at all. But in a relative world, shopping there will cause you less guilt than shopping at Wal-Mart or Target.