Walmart: The High Cost of Low Price

Reviewing a documentary can be a bit tricky, since it’s not always easy to divorce oneself from the subject matter of the movie and do an objective writeup.  So in the interest of full disclosure, I should probably get a few things out of the way off the bat regarding my relationship with America’s largest retailer.

Historically, my taste for Walmart has swung from nonchalance to animosity and back to somewhere between the two.  I have never had a particular affinity for the store, but there have been a few periods of time during which I stood on a rather feeble soapbox and carried out lowly one-man boycotts of it.  In college I went through a period of a few years during which I didn’t set foot into a Walmart, but now I shop there once every other week or so for a few things–as well as the local grocery store and other places too.

Had I watched this movie during my college years I would have been cheering it on for its exposé of Walmart’s shady business practices, somewhat disdainful treatment of women and minorities, shady environmental practices, and the like.  But I would have also failed to notice the movie’s decidedly one-sided treatment of these issues, and much like the director Robert Greenwald, I would have probably been first in line to condemn the Walton family for eternity.  Things are a bit different now, though…

But I’m getting ahead of myself here.  Let’s step back and look at how this movie functions as a documentary, and I must say, it handles its subject matter pretty well–up to a certain point, anyway.  Not content to focus on one aspect of Walmart, Greenwald examines myriad ways in which the retailer is not as wholesome as its smiley-faced logo would have the public believe.  His thesis (Walmart = evil) is supported by several vignettes, each of which serves to highlight a particular way in which Walmart is a abomination unto mankind.  He of course launches into the requisite run-the-small-guys-out-of-business complaint, choosing to focus on a hardware store owner whose 40+ year family business was done in by the construction of a nearby Walmart.  Charges of racism are brought to light through interviews with a management trainee who was allegedly told by her manager that she was ultimately denied the position because she was a black female.

The films climax showcases several communities that have successfully blocked Walmart from building nearby.

The film's climax showcases several communities that have successfully blocked Walmart from building nearby.

Similar accusations of malfeasance are brought forth via interviews with employees from all over the Walmart food chain (entry-level cashiers to former multi-decade managerial types) as well as people on the periphery, such as conservationist experts and even Chinese factory workers.  In fact, one of the most poignant segments involves a young Chinese girl who works in a factory making products for Walmart.  When word gets around that an inspector is going to be coming to the factory to investigate working conditions, the girl explains that she and her coworkers were taught specifically how to lie in order to cover up their deplorable work environment.  However, one of the weakest points made by Greenwald is in the area of environmental concern, where his entire argument is supported with only one interview with a public environmental worker who had a great deal of trouble getting one particular Walmart store to properly cover up some palettes of fertilizer.  Not much ammunition for the accusation that the entire company is environmentally irresponsible.

Intercut through all these individual stories, though, is footage of the company CEO, Lee Scott, specifically making claims that Walmart is *not* evil.  He states at a company meeting that Walmart is a great place to work, while Greenwald rolls interview footage with employees who decry just the opposite.  Scott claims that Walmart will work together with communities, while Greenwald shows how they specifically try to choke local businesses and build outside city boundaries in order to avoid paying taxes that would benefit the community.  It’s this type of point-counterpoint style that sets High Cost of Low Price apart from other documentaries, and serves to do a great deal in order to bolster Greenwald’s claim of Walmart’s inherent infamy.

Lee Scott, the president of Walmart.

Lee Scott, CEO of Walmart.

However, where I take issue with the film, and thus where it ultimately fails as a documentary and becomes more of a propaganda piece, is the fact that it completely ignores any argument that Walmart might *not* be evil.  Greenwald never interviews low-income families who are able to get clothes because of Walmart’s low prices.  He never talks with seniors who benefit from Walmart’s cheap generic prescription drugs.  He steers wide of any employee who does happen to enjoy his or her job at Walmart and only focuses on those who have been wronged.  It’s a classic case of the blind men and the elephant; there is much more to the story that is entirely ignored here.

A quote on the poster at the top of this article compares High Cost of Low Price to Morgan Spurlock’s famous documentary about McDonald’s, Super Size Me.  Ultimately both movies fail to be truly convincing because they ignore one crucial point:  if you don’t like something, don’t buy it.  The real indictment here should be the people who support Walmart, just as the problem with fast food isn’t entirely the fault of McDonald’s, it’s the fault of those who choose to eat at McDonald’s. While Walmart certainly could clean up their act, they do a lot of good for various communities too–and again, I’m trying hard to stay away from judging the thesis of the movie.  I just think High Cost of Low Price fails to be truly convincing, and thus fails to be effective as a documentary, because it is so one-sided and brazenly biased.


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