Christmas shopping viewed from the other aisle


It was a really eerie moment. I was shopping in a nearly empty Wal-Mart store a couple of days ago, and I got the strange feeling I was walking around inside a church. I was overcome by a sense of complete peace, surrounded by every consumer good one could ever need sprawling out in front of me.

But all I needed was a few rolls of paper towels, and as I checked out I noticed that most of the employees were people I’d never hire. Many were older, a few had big tattoos, some of the men had long hair tied back in ponytails. A few of them seemed to have handicaps. All of them were just plain folks.

So, I wondered, what could possibly be wrong with any of this picture? There I was, surrounded by super-affordable, reasonably high quality stuff served by people who otherwise couldn’t find jobs. It seemed like the most democratic setup going. Needless to say, the epiphany was quite different from my usual reflex, which is to dislike everything about Wal-Mart. So why was this trip so different?

Well, I somehow managed to change my point of view from being some kind of social critic to simply being a person who was grateful for everything available to me. And with so much of it around I felt no desire whatsoever to purchase anything at all.

In fact, the effortless abundance helped me appreciate the stuff I already owned, some of which I’ve kept for decades. Occasionally I remember that there’s a sanctity to objects that transcends the physical, like the spirit of a carpenter’s favourite hammer or a beautifully functioning chrome toaster that might work flawlessly for a quarter of a century or more with minimal care.

That evening we were sitting around after dinner and the phone rang. It was a “customer service” call from one of our banking companies. The service rep, a rather bright and assertive woman, was, from her accent, actually a telemarketer based in India, who was trying to sell me our bank’s new life insurance product. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, except we’re on the Canadian no-call list—our bank gets around this as we’re customers—and it was supper time.

What did bother me was the outsourcing of Canadian jobs by my Canadian bank. Couldn’t we Canadians do the same (annoying) work and keep the wages here? I asked myself. And of course we all know the answer: it’s cheaper to hire these workers overseas. And in a global economy, it’s all fair game, at least according to the big companies.

But what would we think if our Crown corporations such as NB Power started doing the same thing? What if they began hiring Chinese contract engineers to redesign Point Lepreau? Or contracted out to an Indian firm to operate the plant? Sure, we New Brunswickers would probably pay less for their services and be able to buy power more cheaply. But we’d all know that we’d be building a false economy.

So why is it OK for our Canadian banks and other commercial entities to do the same thing?

It was then I reconnected to my earlier Wal-Mart experience. It’s not the Wal-Mart commercial outlets or its marketing model that bothers me; it’s the offshoring of all the production that bothers me. And that’s not all Wal-Mart’s doing, it’s the producers: the television and electronics manufacturers, all the clothing and toy companies, all the makers of trinkets and housewares and tools and just about everything we buy except maybe food. And even a lot of that is imported.

Meanwhile, Peter Kent, our Canadian Minister of the Environment, just informed the media that Canada would not be renewing its commitment to the Kyoto Protocol to minimalize climate change because, and here’s the sticky detail, the developing countries such as China would get a temporary free ride while we’d have to clean up our emissions first. So, I guess he’d rather have no agreement at all, at least for the time being. Meanwhile Canada will provide $300 million in aid to help nations develop cleaner and more efficient energy technologies with a matching amount in loans to trigger private sector development. Well, it’s better than 30 pieces of silver, I suppose. But not much.

On the other hand, I doubt it’s escaped anyone that we are the ones consuming all those products produced in the “developing” countries. So, if China is completing a new coal-fired generating station every four days as is popularly noted, who’s funding them? We are, directly, every time we purchase a Made In China product. And China now uses, according to the New York Times, more coal than the United States, Europe and Japan combined, making it the world’s largest emitter of gases that are warming the planet.

So all of us, and Peter Kent too, have offloaded our climate-saving responsibilities on that nasty China, while we continue to gobble up everything the Chinese can mass-produce for us. How nice. And just in time for another Christmas.

And if you’re reading this, you’re welcome, Wal-Mart managers. But you might try buying a hell of a lot more at home.


  1. I've had a similar epiphany when it comes to Walmart. It employs a lot of people and every store in which I've shopped has a diverse staff.

    However, I also follow your line of thinking regarding where the goods for sale are produced. My brother-in-law, Bob, wants to get my dad, a vet, a sweatshirt with the marine corps insignia on it for Christmas. My dad admired one owned by a neighbor while visiting for Thanksgiving. Bob called me a day ago to complain that none of the sweatshirts in the local stores nor online were made in the U.S. He's still searching for a made in the U.S.A. shirt.

    After I got off the phone with Bob, I went through my closet and I didn't have a single item of clothing made in the U.S. All the labels were made in China, Indonesia, and India.

    25 years ago, my home state of North Carolina had a thriving textile manufacturing industry. It has all moved overseas and all that is left are empty factories and outlet stores.

    It sounds as if our countries have traveled similar paths.

    My goal is to buy American for all of my Christmas purchases this year. I need to warn everyone that there may not be any presents this year.

    As for environmental concerns, the U.S. still chooses to believe that climate change was made up by scientists to amuse themselves. Unless I've missed some very recent change, the United States has never signed the Kyoto Protocol.

    In case I've failed to mention it before, you have writing style that makes even complex subjects crystal clear.

  2. Well said. Another confounding variable is the dramatically elevated expectations of the average consumer these days. Thirty years ago everyone was down with laminate counter tops, for example, now every body expects quartz as a baseline. This includes first time home buyers. Sometimes I think it has become cool to be materialistic...

  3. Thanks, both. It's a damned sticky problem.

  4. I read something the other day in...was it The Atlantic?...that, at first, seemed like good news: Walmart, in China, is taking the lead in Green and Clean! They've made it their branded identity there. They're heroes to the Chinese people. Walmart is revered in China! Think about it.

    Meanwhile, in the US, we despise them for shoddy products and shoddy employee policies. The more I thought about it, the madder I got.

  5. What about it made you so mad, Nance?

  6. Let me count the ways Walmart has negatively impacted the top of my head: They've put scores of small, locally owned businesses out of commission with each store they open (I watched this happen again this year as a new Walmart opened in my small town). Their pay is a crying shame and their employee policies, especially toward women, are legendary. They sell crappy products made in appalling conditions in overseas sweat shops. And now they're knocking themselves out to be environmental heroes in China? Really?

  7. Wal-Mart is the classic example of the global corporate centralized model. The model includes Target, Sears, Ford, Apple, and the really big ones, Royal Dutch Shell, ExxonMobil, Wal-Mart (of course), BP, Toyota, Chevron, Total, GE and Volkswagen are the cyclones of the global production economy. These giant corporations now form fully fifty percent (50% !!!) of the world's largest economies, as I've pointed out elsewhere.

    And it encompasses far more than just producing and selling shoddy merchandise.

    Gone are the days of any kind of self-sustaining regional economies. Gone are the days of true democratic, citizen-led government as these corporations exert their influence on everything in society that sheds a buck, from the purchase of sticky notes to mortgages to infotainment to the legislation that "oversees" their activities—and ours.

    We are now living in a new age (and have been since the mid-1970s and Nixon) of corporatocracy. It is tightly wired to kleptocracy and oligarchy, and is rapidly distilling into plain old aristocracy. That's the rush in China and the new reality for America (and Canada) no matter who is on the ballot.

    You mentioned mad? I'm so beyond mad, Nance, I don't know what to say, think or feel.

    I've felt this slipping away since I was 19 (in 1969) and read Ian McHarg's excellent book "Design with Nature" which literally mapped out such design issues as disease, poverty and proximity to industrial sites and likened our activity to a planetary virus.

    Forty-two years later it's worse than I could possibly have imagined. Parts of the planet now look like the dystopian scenes on the covers of the pulp sci-fi books I was also reading at the time.

    I don't know how to slow any of this. I am, as we all are, just hanging on for the ride.


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