Walmart's Buying American. So where's my Walmart smiley face?

Posted by mmcmullan on 02/14/2014

Retail behemoth Walmart (that’s an Associated Press term) recently unveiled a few commercials during NBC’s coverage of the Olympic Games. But they aren’t of the same old smiley face, zooming around the store, slashing prices. Oh no. The content of these is different.

In one, Rush’s Working Man plays along with welding torches, active assembly lines and smiling workers (nevermind that the song selection is roughly equivalent to Reagan trying to co-opt Born in the USA). In another, stock character dreamboat Mike Rowe, most famous as host of the Discovery Channel’s Dirty Jobs, intones in his warm baritone that “it’s time to get back to what America does best.” Wide-angle shots of empty factory floors give way to a man in coveralls pull-starting heavy machinery:

It would seem that Thanksgiving protests don’t provide the visuals that America’s largest private employer wants; but warm, evocative images of blue-collar manufacturing work do. And so Walmart has spent the last year casting itself as a champion of American industry.

Here are the highlights of its campaign.

Around this time last year, the company announced it would purchase an extra $50 billion worth of American-made goods over the next decade. That breaks down to $5 billion per year, or about a quarter of the annual increase in Walmart’s cost of sales, which totaled $352 billion in 2013. In Walmart speak, $5 billion is nothing.

Still, money talks. And so, in August, Walmart hosted a conference devoted to the improvement of American manufacturing. To start “connecting the dots.” In attendance were GE’s Jeffrey Immelt, Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker, eight governors, and roughly 500 manufacturers, all of whom were eager for more Walmart shelf space. “Is the revival of U.S. manufacturing a reality?” pondered a reporter for Forbes Magazine.

At another conference in October, this one hosted by the Commerce Department, CEO Bill Simon displayed three American suppliers, recipients of Walmart contracts, who announced the creation of roughly 400 jobs. A corresponding press release also suggested 1,600 new manufacturing jobs to date were borne from the company’s U.S. manufacturing program. Those were among the only 46,000 such jobs created nationwide by that point in 2013.

And then, in January 2014, the company announced it had created a $10 million fund which will “identify and award innovators in the manufacturing sector.” It was also around this time the company began suggesting its original $50 billion commitment over ten years would actually most likely encourage $250 billion worth of American-made procurement. The Boston Consulting Group, purveyors of convenient myth whose senior executive moonlights as a Walmart consultant, calculated the company’s new number would create 1 million new jobs over the next decade.

I’ll check back in then – by God I will – but excuse me if I remain skeptical in the meantime.

Shouldn’t this be something we can all get behind? Mike Rowe asked as much when Walmart’s customers and critics directed their frustration at him, cable television’s champion of working people, and he sprang to the company’s defense on Facebook.

Well, since Mike Rowe asked: No. I can’t, at least, and here’s why:

Despite decades of chasing always low prices – always – to the doors of the cheapest suppliers possible, Walmart knows full well that poll after poll show widespread public support for American manufacturing. A Buy American campaign is easy and cheap PR and Walmart, of all companies, knows a bargain when it sees one.

It’s known as much for years, actually, as this isn’t the first time it’s waved the stars and bars. Walmart ran a nearly identical campaign in the 1980s and 90s, though the amount it spent on Asian procurement rose steadily during that time, and the program came to an ignominious end when Dateline confronted then-CEO David Glass with clothing Walmart was hawking as American-made that was in fact made by Bangladeshi children.

That's why it's worth checking the labels when you see a display like this:

But wait! There's more:

Walmart’s defenders point out that $50 billion – or, heck, why not, $250 billion is a lot of money, no matter how it’s sliced. And there’s certainly no denying that. Walmart is a trend setter, king of the retail campground, whose ankle-biting competitors will follow suit in an effort to sponge up its patriotism-fueled success, and … yeah, I got it. That’s not the point of contention: Rather, the point is it’s deeply bothersome that a company so singularly responsible for America’s ravenous consumption of cheap imports doesn’t think the ax swings both ways.

So: Is it a good thing that Walmart is buying more American-made stuff? Yes. America needs more manufacturing jobs, and the retail behemoth’s latest self-serving procurement policy will help. But Walmart – whose procurement policies accounted for 11 percent of America’s trade deficit between 2001 and 2006, a time period when American manufacturing lost approximately 3 million jobs – shouldn’t be allowed to soak up that good feeling manufacturing generates without acknowledging its huge role in harming it.

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