Sunday, October 9, 2011

The People of Walmart

Allow me to be upfront before you read any further.

This is not a post about the infamous website in which jabs and mocking fun are poked at the shoppers and consumers of Walmart. If you clicked on this piece in hopes of viewing ridiculous images or haughty commentary highlighting the very special breed of folks who are often found wandering the aisles in the middle of the night at their local Walmart, you will be sadly let down.

Having gotten that out of the way, I wanted to point out some interesting news I read yesterday. It appears, that come next spring, Walmart will begin selling crafts and items created by third world country female artisans.

Right. I said Walmart.

So, what's the big deal, you ask? Well, beyond the logic that the Walmart business model seems to be in direct opposition to organizations premised on Fair Trade tenets, what does this potentially mean for the American artisan/handicraft designer/artistic entrepreneur? What about the thousands of jobless Americans who struggle daily in this nightmare of an economy? Why hasn't Walmart tapped into the the local circuit of artistic talent that prevails in the United States...people who would likely benefit from having some of their creations sold?

Oh right; that would probably be less cost-effective than say, reaching into the highlands of Guatemala to snap up goods labored by a poverty-stricken villager who has no grasp of the connection between capitalism and globalization that drives Corporate America today.

Let's not even get me started about the history of Walmart and its poor reputation regarding the treatment of its employees. Or the fact that pretty much all of the goods sold there are already made in third world countries by folks who are socially and economically deprived.

And for the record, I don't condemn those who shop at Walmart or who might even be employed in their stores. Hell, the way things are in this country, it just seems more practical to try and save money where one can. And if you work at Walmart? Bless you for having a job.

What frightens me about the Walmartization of craftsmanship is twofold:

  1. Will the artisans of these far-away lands be taken advantage of by the corporate machine that is Walmart? Will they truly be treated fairly and paid appropriately for what they produce? Will their items become mass-produced just like every other product sold in places like Walmart (and other large, chain markets)?
  2. What does this imply for those in "first world" countries who already try to make their living by creating one-of-a-kind art, jewelery, clothing, etc.? I'm talking about the people who work hard to promote their products as original pieces that would *never* be found a corporate chain store. How does something like what Walmart is arranging impact them?
Think about it. If the newest, coolest, trendy item can be purchased for a couple of bucks at Walmart, what happens to artisans who are independently trying to sell their wares at higher costs? I brought this thought to the business forum on Etsy and there was a LOT of discussion that ensued. Some of it was positive and hopeful, but much of it was rather negative, and rightfully so for the most part.

Oh, and speaking of Etsy? You know, that vast online venue that seeks "to empower people to make a living making things"? (said Etsy founder and father, Rob Kalin, who by the way, ceded his CEO position at Etsy in 2008). So it turns out that as we live and breathe, one of Etsy's current board members, Mr. Jim Breyer, also happens to sit on the Board of Directors for Walmart.


Coincidence? Irrelevant? Neat bit of trivia?

You tell me.

That last tidbit may or may not be news to some, as Breyer has been involved with Etsy since at least 2008, but I thought it was worth throwing into the pot and stirring it around a few times. You know, because I like to rabble-rouse and shit. ;)

What are your thoughts on all of this? If you are currently a "seller" on Etsy, how does this make you feel? Are you surprised to know that there is an Etsy-Walmart connection? Do you think that Walmart's intentions with third world artisans are noble, or is this strategy little more than a PR move, with the potential to shift the discourse on what it means to be an artisan or entrepreneur?

Sound off below, if you dare!

{image above originally found on Technorati article titled "Walmart is Watching You"}


  1. I think Walmart will treat the artists from different countries as the corporation treats its employees (and I don't mean its business partners. I mean its employees).

    Of course, since I neither work nor shop at Walmart, I am speaking from ignorance.

  2. I avoid shopping at Walmart if at all possible for many reasons. Primarily, I don't find the cost to be much better than a store that specializes in what its selling as opposed to a discount retailer. There is also the lack of employee recognition, the dead peasant insurance policies they take out on their "associates," and many other reasons. When it comes to this bit of news, my reaction is that it won't last very long. Walmart tried tapping into a number of small New England based businesses many years ago. The simple fact of the matter is that even a small corporation has difficulty providing the company with enough product to fill its shelves. I find it hard to believe that a group of women in a 3rd world country will be able to supply the giant with what it needs to keep its shelves full. And you KNOW that "fair" payment for their services will just be enough to make the craftspeople happy, but won't really be respectable in American terms.

  3. I believe it's a ploy to make them look "caring." I'm sure they'll bully these unfortunate women into taking the lowest price for their products. Although I'm not a seller on ETSY I HAD wanted to be, re thinking that now. There is a real outlet for third world country artisans paid a fair price for their goods called Ten Thousand Villages. It's an outreach of the Mennonite Central Committee, an organization that does a lot of good in this world. I have no idea if they try to convert people but I don't believe so. I live in an area that has a large Mennonite population and purchase from the store in my area. They also can meat to send to countries stricken by disaster, fill school bags to send to children in poverty stricken places (not just overseas) and provide jobs and housing in our area. Walmart needs to realize that we know what they're up to, and trying to change their image this way won't work.

  4. Hmm, I have many thoughts on this.
    First as an Etsy seller I'm not worried. The products that Walmart will bring into their stores isn't in direct competiton to me. I've seen stores like Costco sell things from 3rd World countries and unless sellers have similar items I don't think that they need to worry.
    Second I think that Etsy will still go strong. There are going to be many people out there who are suspect of Walmarts motives and stay away.
    Finally I think this is an ill gotten attempt for them to repair their poor reputation while still staying with their current business practices. My grandfather use to say if it walks like a duck, talks like a duck, than it might just be a duck. Walmart isn't doing this out of the kindness of their heart and I highly doubt that they care about fair trade. After all this is the company who has put American companies (ex Rubbermaid) out of business and forced them to sell out to overseas owners so that Walmart can get better prices.
    I'm curious to see how this plays out. By any chance do you know when they will roll this out to stores?

  5. @LizzClements: You bring up an interesting point. Will the third world artisans be able to satisfy and supply the corporate machine that is Walmart? Particularly at the rate that mass production is glorified in these mega-stores? My instincts say its doubtful.

    @April: My first response to hearing about this whole shenanigan was that it was a total PR move. I still think that's largely motivating this arrangement. And I LOVE Ten Thousand Villages--there's a shop near where I work and I adore purchasing from there. I love what it stands for and I feel good when I am able to support their cause.

    @Samantha: I too, think Etsy will not likely take a huge hit from the Walmartization of crafted goods. I believe the plan was to start marketing the wares from third world artisans is beginning in Spring, 2012.

    Thank you all for your thoughtful comments. I will be keeping an eye on this as more develops.

  6. I don't care for Walmart at all and try to shop anywhere else except there! Great post!