Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Walmart – Civilizing the Chinese?

Your first reaction to reading this title may well be one of bafflement (what does Walmart have to do with civilizing anything?!), or if you happen to be Chinese, of likely indignation (how can a fifty year old American retail megastore contribute anything to our august, thousand year old civilization?!). But – as preposterous as it may seem – there is indeed a kernel of truth in this proposition. Let me explain.

The word “civilize” has its etymological roots in the French word “civilitĂ©”, which initially denoted the refined manners and decorum at French aristocratic courts. With repeated initiatives to – yes, “civilize” – the Chinese (as in their “no spitting on the street” campaign), the Chinese leadership is keen at molding the behavior of its citizens for the better. Recent outrage involving food manufacturers deliberately fortifying food with poisonous substances in order to cut costs, with employee unrest and even suicides (such as at Foxconn) in response to poor working conditions, as well as the omnipresent environmental pollution scandals, has the Chinese regime become increasingly edgy and aware that things need to change.

Enter Walmart.

Much as the Chinese regime, Walmart has seen itself confronted by a customer base ever more bent on better quality food, disgruntled employees (as with a high publicity class-action suit by female employees) and a questionable environmental record driven by aggressive rock bottom pricing on many of its throw-away products. So starting in 2004, Walmart’s then CEO Lee Scott proactively contacted environmentalist NGOs such as the Rocky Mountain Institute and the Environmental Defense Fund for assistance as to how to better manage its environmental track record.

What resulted is no less than remarkable. Wall-Mart has, since its entry to the Chinese market in 1996, become the leader in China as pertains to food quality, implementing rigorous food quality standards for its suppliers and launching an ambitious – and well received – organic food initiative. Moreover, the company has significantly reduced its packaging material volume and pressured its suppliers to cut energy consumption and pollution. The Chinese suppliers, while at first skeptical, are now keen to advertise their environmental objectives and successes. The Chinese shoppers, for their part, are delighted to get better quality food and organic produce, trusting a big company like Walmart more than smaller shops which are – in their eyes – more prone to cheat them and offer inferior quality products. And the Chinese regime is pleased to have such a potent partner in addressing these pressing problems and “civilizing” its companies and citizens. In sum, we have an excellent example of numerous stakeholders working in sync to achieve a win-win situation for all.

So all is good that ends well? Well, it may be too soon to bring out all the trumpets. While Walmart in China serves de facto as an extension of the Chinese government’s regulatory efforts and as a “civilizing” factor for its citizens, it is legitimate to question the long-term sustainability of such an in the end effect still purely instrumental objective. Nonetheless, there is reasonable hope that at least parts of it may be sustainable due to an interesting insight that the sociologist Norbert Elias outlined as part of any civilizing process. Therein, he posits that to become “civilized” entails individuals to restrain their drives and affects. In a first phase, this is achieved through a permanent outside authority and on pain of punishment. With time, however, in a second stage, there arises a moral code that is upheld by individuals even in absence of the threat of punishment, driven by people suffering from a bad conscience in light of failure to adhere to these mores. In the last phase, then, even such self-constraints dissipate, and individuals are intrinsically motivated in a very natural manner to adhere to the involved normative standards.

This is, in essence, what is beginning to occur in China in part with the help of Walmart (and also other parts of the world in other contexts), where social and environmental responsibility by corporations and individuals is becoming ever more part of the discussion, part of the regulatory and legal fabric and as well as public awareness in form of a normative “should”. Normative change, while it may initially have to be forced upon individuals and corporations, may in due time become second nature to them. We as a global civilization, as is apparent also in China, seem to be “primed” for a major normative paradigm change towards greater social and environmental responsibility. And, as we have seen, even a major multinational corporation such as Walmart can play a significant role in this “civilizing” process, if the necessary extrinsic motivation is there and a society is ready to reward such a change.

Manuel Heer Dawson

 For a fascinating and detailed account of Walmart’s social and environmental impact in China, read the “How Walmart is Changing China”, by Orville Schell in The Atlantic:

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