About once a month, I usually find my cupboards empty, the cat food on it’s last cup and the toilet paper on its last roll. When the shampoo is all gone and every sock is missing its pair, I start preparing for WW3 – War on Walmart in less than 30 minutes.
I head out, armed with a shopping list and a determined attitude to get in and get out of the zoo as quick as humanly possible (a lofty goal, I might add). While the shopping experience at Wal-Mart leaves much to be desired (especially at the cheaply renovated Superstore Wal-Mart’s like the one on Dougall Ave), I’ll be the first to say it: I am a feminist, and I shop at Wal-Mart.
The contemporary fight against Wal-Mart is a rightful and necessary form of resistance. The concerns and issues surrounding Wal-Mart’s practices are long and dreary, ranging from discriminatory labour practices, exploitation of child labour, nasty globalization consequences (maquiladoras) and negative impacts on local economies (along with many others). Even Wikipedia had to create a new page on the problems of Wal-Mart. It’s safe to say, Wal-Mart is possibly our contemporary world’s most evil corporate enterprise. That’s all well and good – but I get a little tired of hearing feminists say they “don’t shop at Wal-Mart” and look to me for approval.
OK – I care about the issues listed above. I know that as a consumer, I do have the choice to not shop at Wal-Mart. I can boycott it until my face goes blue, but in the end, my financial situation dictates where I shop and what I buy. Being a poor student narrows my shopping choices dramatically. Even though I consider myself to be a more privileged student based on my upper-middle class upbringing, I still have to navigate a less-than substantial loan each new school year and have to figure out how to make ends meet for ten months. I’m not exactly poor, but I don’t have money to throw around, buying all organic products or fair trade items every time I need a roll of paper towels.
Feminists shouldn’t look down on every person who shops at Wal-Mart or participates in such cultural practices that seem to perpetuate larger gender, race or class inequalities, especially when it is those very systems of oppression that force many people to shop at low-price stores like Wal-Mart. It is a privilege for those who can afford to shop at stores that practice a more humane version of capitalism, but even then, can we ever be absolutely sure that a store does what it promises to do (fair trade, equal pay, green initiatives)?
Yes, it’s important to be critical of such stores and consumer practices, but I also think we tend to dismiss the larger external social/economic system that corporations like Wal-Mart participate in. We are in an era where we expect to pay the lowest possible prices with complete disregard for where our products came from and how they got there. But this is only half the problem. We exist in a cyclical pattern of consumerism, where we believe our life experiences can be translated through the act of buying. Places like Wal-Mart thrive off their ability to provide items to the masses without incurring penalties for their inhumane means of production. So to me, it seems as if the choice to shop or not shop at Wal-Mart is only one side of the coin. When we are critical about Wal-Mart, we have to also turn a critical eye on the larger social system that allows such a corporation to thrive off the exploitation of certain persons.
So, part of me wants to say to the non-Wal-Mart shoppers: back off. For people of low-income, it’s a matter of constrained choice, not ignorance. What happens when you want to resist, but you can’t? How can we activate for change when we ourselves are party to the deal, as de Beauvoir would say?