By Laura Elliot
US retail giant Walmart has shocked many with the announcement that from next spring, the company will begin selling handcrafted products made my women in developing countries. To begin with, the items will only be available to buy online, but by 2016 the retailer plans to offer up to 500 items made by more than 20,000 female artisans across two dozen countries. The move will certainly please urban liberals, who are uncomfortable with the company’s current business practices. Among the handmade offerings available to be bought on Walmart.com, there will be dresses from Kenya, and jewellery from Guatemala and Thailand. Although many will see this new proposal as a good thing, Walmart’s announcement has been met with concern by importers and retailers, who say that they follow the precepts of fair trade.
“It certainly does seem in sharp contrast to Wal-Mart’s typical business model,” said Michele Loeper, a spokeswoman at the Akron, Pa. headquarters for Ten Thousand Villages, the Nation’s oldest and largest fair trade retailer.
“I’m not sure what their model will be,” Loeper said. “From our point of view we work with the artisans to identify a fair income, one that will benefit them and be sustainable. We’re the anti-Wal-Mart, a nonprofit company dedicated to providing sustainable income opportunities to artisans in developing countries — I doubt that’s what Wal-Mart is doing here.”
At the moment, the supermarket giant plans to acquire a number of products from Ethical Fashion Africa and Full Circle Exchange, a programme that is part of the International Trade Centre. The ITC is an agency which was grown from a partnership between the United Nations and the World Trade Organisation.
Leslie Dach, Executive Vice-President of Corporate Affairs at Walmart, said in a statement that their website is an “ideal venue” for artisans, who “may not have the size or scale to sell in our brick-and-mortar stores”. She went on to say that the new scheme gives them “the benefit of the company’s knowledge about customers, packaging and promotions”.
However, History Professor and author of “The Retail Revolution: How Wal-mart Created a Brave New World of Business”, Nelson Lichtenstein, has questioned the retailer’s motives.
He said in a statement that the US company would “make some money with this, but I suspect that’s not the main point — it’s public relations to soften its image among urban liberals.”
It is well know that this segment of the consumer market embraces an agenda that includes environmental issues, microfinance and the empowerment of women, Professor Lichtenstein went on to say. Reaching their hearts and their pocketbooks could mean making significant inroads for Walmart into some very desirable urban markets.
“Wal-Mart has been desperately trying to get into San Francisco, Boston and New York,” Lichtenstein commented, and it is well known that The Bentonville, Ark.-based retailer only recently entered Chicago after a series of long battles with organised labour and political leaders.
Handcrafted items typically appeal to higher income shoppers, and this is a demographic that, according to Lichtenstein, Walmart is hoping to attract. However, the Professor of History said that he wonders whether Walmart – which has a reputation for “squeezing” suppliers – may ultimately end up pressuring artisans to step-up production, thereby “eroding the handmade aspect” of their scheme.
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