All good companies serve various constituencies–customers, workers, shareholders and communities–and the best manage to serve them all, balancing their competing needs. Sometimes you have to charge your customers more to give your workers a raise, for example. At Wal-Mart, as I’ve written, things got out of whack: The company became so focused on delivering cheap goods to customers that it inevitably squeezed its workers, its communities and its suppliers. This helped spark the well-financed and effective anti-Wal-Mart movement that we’re seeing today. Inside Wal-Mart, I believe, senior executives are asking themselves whether the company’s narrow, near-maniacal focus on everyday low prices is a winning strategy for the 21st century. I’d bet the company is going to change for the better in the years ahead.
Amidst all the debate about Wal-Mart, though, the company’s role as the U.S. biggest importer of goods from China has not received much serious attention. Sure, some people have taken cheap shots at Wal-Mart for buying from China, particularly because many remember founder Sam Walton’s flag-waving “Made in America” campaign in the late 1980s. But there’s a counterargument that is worth listening to–that Wal-Mart has helped create opportunity for millions of the world’s poorest people by buying so many goods from in China. As Michael Strong, who is co-founder of a pro-business, libertarian-oriented NGO called FLOW, writes of Wal-Mart:
It is unlikely that there is any single organization on the planet that alleviates poverty so effectively for so many people.
I disagree with some of what Strong has to say. He is, for example, too quick to dismiss the work being done by social enterpreneurs and microlenders in the developing world; they are doing more than alleviating poverty, they are creating enterpreneurs and improving the status of women in the global south. What’s more, most people who know anything about factory conditions in China tell me that Wal-Mart has not done nearly enough to monitor its suppliers there; companies like Gap, Nike and Timberland all do a better job of factory monitoring. Having said that, Strong’s argument deserves to be taken seriously by anyone who cares about alleviating global poverty. You can read his article here.