Archive for the ‘retail’ Category
Canadian grocery chain Loblaw has announced that it will compensate the families of victims of the factory collapse that happened in Bangladesh’s Rana Plaza this past May. The factory housed a number of garment factories, including some that made garments for the Canadian’ retailer’s “Joe Fresh” line of clothing.
Some will worry that this is a case of too little, too late. And certainly the “too late” part is correct. Compensation is always a distant second best when compared to avoiding deaths in the first place. Whether the compensation is “too little” or not is subject to debate. It’s not clear that Loblaw (or any company) bears direct responsibility for the behaviour of the companies it buys services from, though certainly the case is stronger where the buyer is a highly-capable multi-billion dollar company, and when the companies it buys from are smaller, less-capable companies operating in an under-regulated environment.
Either way, it’s hard not to admire the company for stepping up and assuming responsibility. And the money will surely be a godsend to the families of the victims. But the real benefit of the compensation scheme may well lie in its capacity to reassure Canadians (and other westerners) that the company cares, and that things are going to get better in Bangladesh, so that we can all keep buying goods made there. Because that’s what Bangladesh truly needs.
But on the other hand I continue to worry about Bangladeshi exceptionalism — that is, that all the attention being lavished on the garment industry in Bangladesh will mean little attention gets paid to parallel problems in places like Malaysia, Vietnam, Pakistan, China, and a number of African countries. There are surely factories in many, many developing countries that are ‘Rana Plazas’ just waiting to happen. It’s not clear just what is being done about those.
Finally, many will be asking what still needs to change? Two things come to mind. The first is that companies like Loblaw need to keep getting better at vetting the companies they do business with, in order to weed out the bad ones. This, of course, is much harder than it sounds. The second is that Canadians and other Westerner consumers need to change the way they think about the issue. They need to recognize that Bangladesh is not Canada, and doesn’t have the luxury of North American-style labour standards. They will surely get there, but it will be a long, slow climb.
Most important is that this tragic series of events has focused the world’s attention on an important set of issues. But the challenge lies in harnessing that attention and seeking out reasoned discussion, rather than knee-jerk reactions.
Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz has stirred up controversy by posting an open letter asking Americans not to bring firearms into the coffee chain’s stores, even where it is legal to do so.
“Few topics in America generate a more polarized and emotional debate than guns,” Schultz wrote. “In recent months, Starbucks stores and our partners (employees) who work in our stores have been thrust unwillingly into the middle of this debate. That’s why I am writing today with a respectful request that customers no longer bring firearms into our stores or outdoor seating areas.”
I think Schultz is to be commended. Not for the position he has taken, but for the way he went about taking it. His open letter lays out the problem frankly and even-handedly. Some people are in favour of openly carrying firearms. Others are made incredibly uncomfortable by the idea of armed civilians behind them in line while they order a grande, half-sweet, non-fat, no-whip mocha. And Schultz doesn’t want his employees caught in the middle, so he’s making a polite request.
But, not surprisingly, the request has generated a firestorm of opposition. Not all of that opposition was well reasoned.
Twitterers who screamed that their rights were being tread upon, for example, were doubly incorrect. First, it is important to note that Starbucks isn’t imposing a ban on firearms in their stores. They’re asking politely, and have given no indication that they’re going to do anything more than that. Asking politely doesn’t infringe anyone’s rights.
Secondly, Starbucks isn’t the government, so appealing to the Second Amendment right to bear arms is (no pun intended) off-target. The US Constitution and the amendments to it protect citizens from intrusions by government, not from (supposed) intrusions by other citizens or private institutions like Starbucks.
But this raises larger, more interesting questions. It’s easy for me to say that, hey, Starbucks is a private company and it can make whatever requests it wants. It could even outright ban firearms from its stores, if it wanted to. They certainly wouldn’t be the first to do so. The stores are private property, and Americans do have constitutionally-protected property rights. Schultz doesn’t have to allow visitors to his home to carry guns, and he doesn’t have to allow visitors to his stores to carry them either.
But there’s an important sense in which a big company like Starbucks isn’t “just a company,” and a sense in which its stores are not fully private property. Starbucks has over 13,000 stores in the US alone (and over 60,000 worldwide), making their stores the go-to spot for coffee, a soft chair, and free wifi for plenty of Americans. And Schultz’s own vision for Starbucks was to make it a ‘third place’ between work and home, a kind of quasi-public meeting place. And so there’s a sense in which Starbucks, like Google and Facebook, is effectively a part of our public infrastructure.
That’s not to say that Starbucks has the legal obligations of a government. That would be a dangerous position to take. But it suggests that the range of ethical obligations we attribute to big companies with an important role in public life are a fit subject for debate. Schultz deserves praise, I think, for taking a good first step by presenting his reasoning openly, and making it fodder for public discussion.
Workers in Bangladesh will be the beneficiaries of yet another massive effort to improve their lot. Will it work? And will it mean anything for workers in countries other than Bangladesh? It’s a welcome move, but it also raises questions.
According to a press release, an alliance of leading North American retailers has committed to a new plan, The Bangladesh Worker Safety Initiative, intended to “dramatically improving factory safety conditions in Bangladesh.” The coalition includes Walmart, Target, Canadian Tire, Gap, Hudson’s Bay Company, and a dozen other major retailers. That means, according to the press release, that the Initiative covers the “overwhelming majority of North American apparel imports.”
This new Initiative should not be confused with the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh, a labour-led agreement that was announced in May, less than a month after the collapsed the collapse of Bangladesh’s 8-story Rana Plaza collapse, a tragedy that eventually claimed 1,129 victims. Signatories to that Accord included Europe’s two biggest clothing retailers, as well as Tommy Hilfiger, H&M, and Canada’s Loblaw, but there were notable abstentions. Walmart, for instance, was criticized for declining to sign on.
The new Initiative “sets aggressive timelines and accountability for inspections, training and worker empowerment.” Of particular note: “Within one year, 100 percent of all factories that conduct work with an alliance member will be inspected,” and members of the alliance have committed to refusing to do business with any factory deemed unsafe. And, in a worthy commitment to transparency, the alliance will make semi-annual progress reports public.
There is, of course, plenty of room for skepticism. Some will see this new Initiative as a PR move, albeit a rather expensive one. Members of the alliance have already committed $42 million, though of course that number has to be put into context by comparing it to the vast profit the alliance members derive from doing business in Bangladesh. The Bangladeshi garment industry is a $19 billion-a-year industry. (Quick math: that means the size of the Alliance budget amounts to roughtly 0.2% of the size of the industry. That’s not necessarily the most relevant comparison, but it gives you a sense of scale.)
Another source of skepticism, for some, is that this is an entirely business-driven initiative, unlike the May Accord, which was driven by labour and which will be guided by a Board that includes representatives of both corporate and labour interests. The Board of the new Initiative is perhaps less clearly unbiased: the 9-member board will consist of “four retailers, four stakeholders who provide specific expertise, and an independent board chair.” Interestingly, however, the Initiative does include specific provisions not just to look after workers, in the paternalistic sense, but to empower them: it calls for members to support the election of Worker Participation Committees at all factories, along with the provision of anonymous worker hotlines to be administered by a third party.
I continue to wonder and worry that both the new The Bangladesh Worker Safety Initiative and May’s Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh represent a kind of Bangladeshi exceptionalism. Why are major retailers joining together in now two big agreements to improve conditions in Bangladesh, but in Bangladesh alone? Admittedly, Bangladesh is important — as far as the garment industry goes, it is second only to China among countries exporting Western brands. But still: it worries me that a factory collapse that could have happened in an number of developing nations has apparently drawn attention only to the fate of garment workers in one, admittedly needy, nation.
It’s easy to villainize a company like Walmart for being unwilling to sign an agreement seeking to improve safety for workers in Bangladesh. What’s harder is to assess the company’s actual motives, and its obligations.
Headlines recently blared that Walmart has refused to sign the new “Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh”, despite the fact that 24 other companies (including Europe’s two largest clothing retailers, as well as American brand Tommy Hilfiger and Canada’s Loblaw) had signed.
Other news sources avoided the Walmart-centric hysteria and pointed out that lots of retail chains have in fact opted not to sign. For its part, Walmart says says it plans to undertake its own plan to verify and improve conditions at its suppliers’ factories in Bangladesh. Supporters of the accord, however, are skeptical about the effectiveness of company’s proposed independent effort.
From the point of view of ethical responsibilities, could a well-intentioned company conscientiously decline to sign the pact?
It’s worth looking at a few reasons why a company might choose not to sign a pact designed to improve, and even save, lives. Walmart presumably believes that its own effort will be sufficient, and perhaps even superior. The company’s famous efficiency and notorious influence over suppliers lend some credibility to such a notion. Other companies have worried that signing the pact would bring new legal liabilities, which of course is precisely the point of a legally-binding document. (Gap, for instance, has said that it will sign only if language regarding arbitration is removed, a stance that effectively amounts to refusal.)
There may also be worries about governance: the accord provides for the appointment of a steering committee “with equal representation chosen by the trade union signatories and company signatories” — equal, but to be chaired by a seventh member selected by the International Labour Organization (ILO). Perhaps some worry that the ILO-appointed chair won’t really be neutral, giving unions an effective majority.
Other companies — including ones like Walmart, which is famous for its efficiency — may worry about the extra administrative burden implied by weaving this accord’s regulatory apparatus into its own systems of supply-chain oversight.
Another worry might be the fact that the accord applies only to Bangladesh, and makes that country the subject of a separate set of procedures. The accord also commits signatories to expenditures specifically on safety in Bangladesh, when from a particular company’s point of view Bangladesh might not be a priority. In the wake of the April factory collapse, it’s worth pointing out that there are other places in the world with unsafe factories and crummy working conditions. It’s not unreasonable for at least some companies to focus their efforts on places where conditions are equally bad, and that host even more of their suppliers.
None of this goes any distance toward excusing inaction. None of it condones apathy. The point is simply that while failure to sign a particular accord makes great headlines, we need to look carefully at reasons, as well as at a company’s full range of obligations, if we are to make sense of such a decision.
Contrary to what many claim to believe, the union representing workers at Zellers stores in Calgary, Alberta, believe that corporations (or businesses more generally) are in fact persons, morally and legally. At least, that’s what seems to be implied by the position they are taking.
Here’s the background, for those who don’t already know. Zellers is Canada’s second-largest chain of discout stores. The well-known American chain, Target, has acquired the leases on 189 Zellers locations (about 3/4 of the total). So, over the next couple of years, Zellers signs will be taken down, and Zellers merchandise will disappear, to be replaced by Target signs and merchandise.
But what about the employees? Not surprisingly, they will be laid off by Zellers. Target, apparently, will welcome applications from the former Zellers employees, but with no guarantee, for example, that their years of service for Zellers will count for anything. They will, in other words, be brand new employees as far as Target is concerned.
But wait, says the union representing those employees. You mean that a worker with 20 years experience could conceivably leave Zellers one day, return (to the same building) the next morning to her new job at Target, and find she’s being paid like she’s got zero experience? So much for being loyal to loyal employees!
But notice what this line of reasoning assumes. It assumes that a store — indeed, a physical location — is something that can have responsibilities. The sign can change; the merchandise can change; even the ownership can change. But the store where you’ve worked the last 20 years is still, on some level, the same store. Or so the theory goes.
And the theory is not without some basis in law. In at least some jurisdictions, union representation, for example, carries over to the new owners when a business is sold. You can’t sell your business and thereby simply void the contract with the union representing your employees. (You can imagine the alternative: two brothers could “sell” their company back and forth to each other every 6 months just to neuter the union. It’s probably in the public interest to keep that loophole closed.)
But the present case isn’t quite like that. Target isn’t buying the Zellers stores lock, stock, and barrel. They’re simply taking over the buildings. So the transfer is unlikely to fall under the principle that a pre-existing collective agreement “goes with the business.” So for the union to assert that Target has responsibilities to the employees-formerly-known-as-Zellers-employees requires an especially strong version of the corporate “personhood” thesis, according to which corporations are to be treated as individual entities, under the law, for purposes of contracting, land ownership, and so on.
I doubt the union’s argument here can be made to hold water, though I would be interested to hear if readers think differently.
My main point, here, is just to point out the presuppositions of the union’s position, especially given that it presupposes a point of view that is rejected (albeit wrong-headedly) by so many.
Controversy has arisen recently over plans to build a new Walmart in Los Angeles’s Chinatown neighbourhood. Some residents support the plan, welcoming the idea of a convenient source of low-price groceries, clothes, and electronics. Others worry about the effect on small businesses, as well as the potential impact the retail giant would have on Chinatown’s unique culture and flare.
The controversy strikes me as amusing, given certain similarities between Walmart and the stores that already typify Chinatowns in many North American cities. Maybe if Walmart displaces smaller stores it wouldn’t really be as much of a change as critics say it would.
Think of it this way. If I told you I recently bought a very cheap umbrella, made in China, from a store that was chock-full of low-price goods imported from China, and that the clerk who sold it to me was non-unionized, and that I had serious doubts about whether the “organic” apples for sale in the store really lived up to the label, where would you guess I had been shopping?
No, I wasn’t at Walmart. I was at some little nameless place in Toronto’s Chinatown, just a few blocks from where I live. But the similarity between this little hole in the wall and a massive Walmart is in many ways striking. In fact, it often occurs to me as I walk through Chinatown that the entire neighbourhood sort of “adds up” to a Walmart, in certain ways: for starters, there’s the cheap, imported merchandise at low, low prices, and not a unionized worker in sight.
Now, the comparison between Walmart and Chinatown may strike some as insulting. So I hasten to assure you that none of this is intended to criticize Chinatowns in particular. Were it not for the recent controversy in LA, we could just as easily be talking about bodegas, 7-Elevens, and the millions of little mom-and-pop shops that inhabit the nooks and crannies of our larger cities. And I realize that Chinatown consists of more than just small shops selling food and manufactured goods, but those kinds of shops are the ones most clearly in jeopardy when a Walmart comes to town.
Nor is my intention to trivialize what is great about Chinatowns, many of which are surely among the most culturally rich and varied neighbourhoods in North America. Toronto’s Chinatown, the one with which I am most familiar, is an amazing place with an energy and exuberance not found anywhere else in the city.
But still, it is instructive to note that many of the practices for which Walmart has been criticized also seem, to a casual observer at least, typical of the tiny stores that inhabit the streets and alleys of Chinatown.
Now, to be sure, there are also plenty of differences. Where Chinatown is vibrant, Walmart is sterile. Where Chinatown is zany and chaotic, Walmart is a study in top-down control. Where Chinatown is entrepreneurial, Walmart is imperialistic. But it is important to see that not all of the differences play out in Chinatown’s favour.
Indeed, the careful top-down control for which Walmart is famous brings significant benefits, from a business ethics point of view. For one major difference between Walmart and Chinatown has to do precisely with centralized accountability. If you worry about Walmart’s supply chain, for example, and about the manufacturing processes and labour practices that result in those low, low prices, you know who to talk to. If on the other hand you worry about the manufacturing processes and labour practices that result in the wares for sale in Chinatown, then, well, feel free to wonder but there is little concrete you can do about it. The wondrous diversity that typifies Chinatown also implies a problem when it comes to assessing business practices and changing them when change is required.
Another crucial difference has to do with publicity. It matters a lot that Walmart, in part because of its size, is so highly visible. Little that Walmart does goes unnoticed; bad practices and mis-steps draw fire quickly. Compare this to how little we know about the business practices of thousands of tiny, virtually anonymous retailers. It’s not much of a stretch to say that Walmart really is the devil we know.
So, what are we to think about a situation in which Walmart is about to move into a vibrant neighbourhood and, inevitably, jeopardize the future of dozens or perhaps hundreds of small businesses? Clearly, there would be some downsides. But just as clearly, there would be some upsides. But what is perhaps least obvious is that some things just wouldn’t change at all.
Is it ethically OK for a manufacturer to reduce the amount of product in a package, but to keep charging the same for it?
Here’s an interesting example. The image shown here shows three varieties of Kraft Peanut Butter — Smooth, Extra Creamy, and Whipped. Notice that all three varieties are in jars of the same size, and all three cost the same. The ingredients are also virtually the same. But notice also that the one on the right — the Whipped peanut butter — includes one special ingredient not listed on the label. That ingredient also happens to be one that is free to the manufacturer, and that takes up a lot of space in the jar. That ingredient is air.
Yes, whipping peanut butter (like whipping cream or anything other liquid or paste) adds air to it. It fluffs it up. So if you look closely you’ll see that the label on the jar of Smooth peanut butter indicates that its contents weigh 1 kilogram (1000 grams). But the label on the jar of Whipped peanut butter indicates that its contents weigh just three quarters of a kilo, or 750 grams. The result is that when you buy a jar of whipped peanut butter, you’re getting 25% less peanut butter, or a jar that is effectively 1/4 full of air.
From a manufacturer’s point of view, this is wonderful. Being able to charge just as much while reducing the amount, and cost, of ingredients by a quarter is something of a coup.
Is it fair to the consumer? Or is the consumer being ripped off, getting less peanut butter for the same price? Is the consumer getting less value?
Well, no, I don’t think the consumer is being ripped off, though I suspect some will disagree with me. The 750g jar of Whipped peanut butter contains no less value than the 1000g jar of Smooth peanut butter precisely because there’s nothing to say that 750g of the one is less valuable than 1000g of the other. They’re different products, despite having the same ingredients. The value of a thing is absolutely not determined by its ingredients; all that its ingredients (or rather their cost) determines is the lowest level at which the product could be sold without the seller suffering a loss. A thing’s ingredients no more determine its value than does the amount of labour that went into it.
Or rather, no one can say that 750g of one thing is worth less than 1000g of the other, other than the customer. What matters is how the customer values those two things. If the customer finds 750g of Whipped PB to be as useful to them as 1000g of Creamy, then charging the same price seems perfectly fair. Consumers who disagree are naturally free to object — that is, to refuse to make a purchase. But that, I’m afraid, would be akin to cutting off their noses to spite their faces.
There’s plenty in the news these days about the supposed virtues of “buying local.” Buying local usually means buying from small businesses. As I’ve argued before, in at least some cases buying local also means opting for small-scale, inefficient production processes. And in other cases, it means an unhealthy kind of insulation from the outside world.
But what about the virtues of specifically local ownership, when the ownership in question is ownership of what is otherwise a standard-issue department store, replete with goods ‘Made in China,’ as the stereotype goes?
The New York Times recently reported on an effort by a small town in upstate New York to ensure its residents have access to some sort of local department store. When the local Ames department store went out of business a few years back, residents of Saranac Lake — pop. 5,041 — took matters into their own hands. They raised the capital, at $100/share, to open their own department store.
It’s a charming story, and an interesting experiment, but we ought to exercise some caution before attaching too much significance to it.
First, it will be tempting to see this as radical re-visioning of modern capitalism. To see examples of such a temptation, see the 2004 Avi Lewis and Naomi Klein documentary, The Take, about the takeover of a defunct Argentinian factory by its former employees. Lewis and Klein portray that takeover as an example of the pursuit of a real alternative to capitalism — despite the fact that the cooperatively-run factory is still buying inputs on the open market, selling goods on the open market, and so on.
Were it not for movies like The Take, it might go without saying that innovations in ownership structure don’t eliminate the fundamental challenges of capitalism, and certainly don’t eliminate the standard ethical issues that face all businesses. The department store in Saranac Lake is — setting aside a few nods to local sourcing — just a regular department store. It’s got employees, so it will face questions about how those employees are treated. It’s smaller than your typical Walmart, but it will still face questions (or at least it should) about where its products come from, the conditions under which they’re manufactured, and so on. And its managers will still face questions about how to balance the good of the community as a whole with their obligation to be fiscally responsible. And so on.
Not that we need to be entirely cynical about the Saranac Lake experiment, and others like it. There’s at least a prima facie case to make for the significance of local ownership. Managers of a locally-owned store have at least some sense of what kinds of things shareholders would want them to do, and hence seem less likely to violate the trust placed in them. When you know your shareholders by name, you can ask them what they want, and they can tell you what obligations they feel to the community, and they can then ask you, their representative, to make good on those obligations.
In the end, I think experiments in capitalism are good. Indeed, the way it fosters experimentation is one of the great virtues of capitalism. We ought to keep a careful eye on such experiments, both for what we can learn about their particular virtues, and for what we can learn about the nature and structure of capitalism more generally.
Toronto’s city council has just told an entire category of retail stores that they must only sell second-hand goods. No, the move isn’t some ‘green’ initiative aimed at encouraging recycling. It’s an animal-welfare edict, a move to force pet stores to sell dogs and cats sourced exclusively from “shelters, rescue groups or people giving up animals for free.” In other words, no more puppy-mill puppies or kitten-mill kittens are to be sold in Toronto.
See the story here, by Carys Mills for the Globe & Mail: Toronto Council bans pet shop sale of dogs, cats, unless they come from shelters.
The motion was passed unanimously, with all councillors bravely taking a pro-puppy stand. And it’s not surprising to see unanimity, even regarding a restriction on commerce, when that restriction can plausibly claim to protect not just helpless animals, but customers (including children) too.
One interesting point about this is the focus — both legal and ethical — on retail. Regulation (in this and many other cases) has, in principle, 3 possible targets: producers, consumers, and retailers. Council has chosen to focus on retailers — rather than, say, pass rules about how dog breeders should operate. Partly that’s a matter of jurisdiction: the municipal government has some authority over how business is conducted within its territory, but no jurisdiction over production processes at puppy mills in far-flung rural locales. But it’s not just a matter of jurisdiction: enforcement can be a lot more efficient when it can focus on just a handful of retail outlets. Retailers are the intermediaries between producers and consumers, and so they’re effectively gatekeepers. That makes them a good target for regulation, but it also means that as crucial links in the flow of ‘product’ (i.e., pets, in this case), they have power — and with power comes responsibility.
The other interesting point here has to do with the public good. The sale of a pet is notoriously likely to result in ‘externalities’ — that is, to have an effect on people not party to the transaction. Poorly-socialized puppies may grow into dangerous dogs. Unwanted dogs and cats may be abandoned, turning into social nuisances, and straining municipal resources such as dog-catchers, bylaw enforcement officers, etc. Unhealthy pets may transmit communicable diseases to other people’s pets. So the policies and practices that a pet store follows affect the interests not just of customers and suppliers, but of society at large. In other words, we see here good examples of that subset of ethical issues that truly are about the social responsibilities that businesses have.
Once again, Walmart is making headlines with a business practice that will be good for its customers, and bad for its competitors. Here’s the story, by Stephanie Clifford for the NYT: Wal-Mart Says ‘Try This On’: Free Shipping
For years, Wal-Mart has used its clout as the nation’s largest retailer to squeeze competitors with rock-bottom prices in its stores. Now it is trying to throw a holiday knockout punch online.
Starting Thursday, Wal-Mart Stores plans to offer free shipping on its Web site, with no minimum purchase, on almost 60,000 gift items, including many toys and electronics. The offer will run through Dec. 20, when Wal-Mart said it might consider other free-shipping deals….
Not surprisingly, Walmart’s competitors are alarmed. Smaller on-line businesses don’t get the kinds of sweet shipping rates that Walmart gets from UPS and FedEx, and they don’t have the regional distribution centres that allow Walmart to keep its shipping costs low. It’s pretty clear that this move by Walmart is going to put serious pressure — maybe even fatal pressure — on some of its competitors.
Just 2 quick points to make:
1) It’s worth noting (for the benefit of those who don’t know) that Walmart’s profit margins are already razor-thin. Yes, the make big profits overall, but that’s due to their mind-bogglingly huge volume of sales. On a per-sale basis, their profit is very small. So the money for shipping a given product (for free) isn’t coming out of the profits on sales of that product — the profits just aren’t there. Something has to give. One possibility is that it really is a short-term gimmick, perhaps intended precisely to drive competitors out of business. That would potentially count as an instance of predatory pricing, which would be at least arguably unethical and potentially illegal — in spite of the short-term benefits to consumers.
2) Normally when we think about Walmart’s effect on competitors, we think about its effect on its very small competitors, the ‘mom & pop’ operations. But I wonder whether that’s the case here. I’m no expert on the structure of the industry, but it seems that the companies most likely to be hurt are Walmart’s large and mid-sized competitors, i.e., companies that occupy roughly the same strategy space as Walmart. It seems to me (and it’s just a hypothesis) that most small retailers will have significantly different business strategies than Walmart, and hence won’t be competing directly with Walmart in ways that would let them fall victim to this latest maneuver. If I’m right, then if Walmart really can sustain this free shipping policy (and they haven’t claimed they’ll even try to) it would be very bad for its medium-sized and large competitors. If that’s the case, will people have the same kinds objections as they tend to have when Walmart’s consumer-friendly strategies are instead bad for small businesses?