The richest person I’ve met is Alice Walton, the daughter of late Walmart founder Sam Walton. It was 2004. I was curator of the Chicago Architecture Foundation at the time, and courting potential donors was part of the job. The heiress wanted a tour of our latest exhibition, about sustainable design. She was planning a green art museum in her hometown of Bentonville, Ark., and hunting for an architect.
Walton probably didn’t enjoy the tour. I rushed her from display to display, consumed by righteous indignation: Could this woman possibly be thinking that her pet project would make up for Walmart’s unconscionable business model?
Like a drug dealer, Walmart traps its customers in a vicious cycle of dependency: People understandably love its famous “Every Day Low Prices.” But those low prices force other retailers out of business and force U.S. suppliers to rely on cheap overseas manufacturing. So more Americans join the growing ranks of the unemployed, and then they spend even more of their shrinking income at Walmart, because it’s the only place where they can afford to shop.
In 2007, at the beginning of the Great Recession, chief financial officer Tom Schoewe admitted, “Tough times are actually a good time for Wal-Mart.”
Walmart likes to boast that its new stores create jobs, but its average full-time hourly wage falls below the federal poverty level for a family of four. In 2010, the company’s healthcare plan failed to cover nearly 700,000 out of a workforce of 1.4 million. And then there’s Walmart’s treatment of its women employees, 1.5 million of whom are trying to bring a class-action suit against the company. Alice Walton isn’t among them—her net worth exceeds $20 billion.
On the tour, I wanted to say to Walton, “Skip the museum, and build a better Walmart.” I’m a real chicken, so I resorted to passive aggression instead. The show didn’t include any big-box stores, but I spent lots of time on projects such as Ford’s River Rouge plant in Detroit, with its enormous green roof. If Walton saw a connection between the Ford factory and Walmart’s box-in-a-parking-lot building formula, she certainly didn’t let on. She certainly didn’t send me a thank-you note, either.
In the years since that brief encounter, Walmart has hired California-based architecture firm LPA to design green supercenters in Aurora, Colo., and McKinney, Texas. It has also established social and environmental standards for the companies in its vast supply chain, and lent its support to Michelle Obama’s anti-obesity campaign.
Is the world’s largest corporation going green, or is it just greenwashing? Only time will tell if Walmart’s heart is truly in the right place. Consumers certainly can’t tell. In a 2009 poll conducted by marketing agency BBMG, Walmart ranked as both the most and the least socially and environmentally responsible company that respondents could think of.
I suspect there’s an ulterior motive for their new green agenda. The boys from Bentonville have maxed out their rural and suburban base—90 percent of Americans live within 15 miles of a Walmart—so they’ve set their sights on the one remaining growth opportunity in the U.S.: cities, where fewer consumers buy Walmart’s faux-folksy brand image. Almost every article written about Walmart and the first lady’s anti-obesity campaign mentions the company’s promise (threat?) to open more stores in urban “food deserts,” where the poor have limited access to healthy food (see our March feature, “ We’re Number One!”). Walmart, the Robin Hood of the ghetto.
The company is so keen on urban expansion, in fact, that it’s even willing to forgo its horrific box-in-a-parking-lot building formula to appease the NIMBY crowd. “It would shrink its stores to as small as 8,000 square feet, about 4 percent of the size of an average supercenter,” The New York Times reported last summer. But until Walmart starts paying its employees a living wage and weans Americans off artificially cheap goods, better store designs are just window dressing.
Meanwhile, construction is under way in Bentonville on the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art. Moshe Safdie, FAIA, got the job, and his design looks quite good. Walton has been buying major artworks to hang on the walls, including Norman Rockwell’s Rosie the Riveter, John Singer Sargent’s Robert Louis Stevenson and His Wife, and Asher Brown Durand’s Kindred Spirits.
According to a 2006 article in The Nation with the fantastic title “Alice Walton’s Fig Leaf,” in buying the Durand, “she got the state of Arkansas to pass legislation specifically to save her taxes—in this case, about $3 million on a purchase price of $35 million.” Nice, really nice, and not at all surprising: It’s the Walmart way.
“Art patronage has always been a kind of money-laundering, a pretty public face for fortunes made in uglier ways,” The Nation article says. “[T]he Crystal Bridges Museum seems like a false front for Wal-Mart, a made-in-America handicrafted artifact of idealism for a corporation that is none of the above.”
Bill Gates has devoted 48 percent of his fortune to philanthropic causes, and Warren Buffet 78 percent. And the Waltons? About 2 percent. That’s the Walmart way. Here’s my way: I don’t shop at Walmart.