In 2005, Walmart needed a war room. Under fire by union-organized critics of its wages, health insurance, and working conditions, the company recruited former presidential advisors to a public relations headquarters in Bentonville, Arkansas. Theirs was a battle plan to fortify a wounded image.
The objects of the campaign were consumers then torn between American ideals and the lowest of low prices. Those whose position was still malleable were centered in the crosshairs of new messaging. They were the coveted middle of the market—the undecided shopper—and the objective was to turn them away from a marketplace of alternatives back to a Walmart. The odds were long. Every day opponents were gaining ground in casting Walmart as a small-business-wrecking behemoth whose day-to-day operations were antithetical to a pro-labor ethos.
Through the Walton Family Foundation alone, the Waltons’ contributions … are staggering—totaling $665 million in grants in 2021.
Thus began a relationship with the public and the press that Walmart and its founding family, the Waltons, have continued to unfurl over nearly two decades. Today, Walmart’s public relations efforts combine with the activities of Walton charities and investments in a sprawling buffet of corporate promising, donations, and seed capital directed at a range of social and environmental issues affected by the largest retailer in the world.
The results have vast implications for the American food system, government, schools, the oceans, environment, and the press. In some ways, those implications have been positive, raising the bar on renewable energy and making substantial gains in recycling, the accessibility of organic food and reduced dependence on pesticides.
But Walmart has also grown so powerful that the company can retool the definition of good practice just by setting the lowest bar for it, such as setting a less ambitious standard for organic. And while that may give customers access to cheaper food, its employees may not be able to afford it. A 2020 federal inquiry spanning 11 states, for example, found that more Walmart employees received SNAP and Medicaid assistance than any other company. Thus, Walmart’s impact is complicated and nuanced, even as its corporate image is often less so.
Long retired from its battlefield heyday, Walmart’s public relations team is now no less mighty, even as the corporation itself has faded into the cinderblock indistinction of the viral 2020s; its usual headlines more typical of a big-box narrative. Plans to shutter stores in 2023, for example, along with other retail chains like Bed Bath & Beyond and The Gap, would cast it as marching, in some ways, along a path to obscurity.
But Walmart is far from obscure and its influence has not waned, even in a landscape of devolving brick-and-mortar. In fact, Walmart is stronger than ever: At the close of its 2022 fiscal year, Walmart reported its largest-ever quarterly revenues and employed 2.3 million people. It is also a rare success story in having launched an e-commerce strategy that can compete effectively with Amazon.
At $611.3 billion, Walmart’s annual revenues are larger than the GDP of Sweden, having shown staggering and continuous growth since the year Walmart went public with $44 million in annual sales in 1970.
In 2021, their collective spending on charity totaled $969.8 million.
That extraordinary power and wealth is inextricably tied to the Waltons, who collectively retain control of about half the shares of Walmart and whose philanthropic impact is boundless. Though practiced at flying beneath the radar, the heirs of Walmart founders Sam and Rob Walton are the richest family in America. As a group, they are richer than Bill Gates, richer than Elon Musk or Mark Zuckerberg, with a commanding combined fortune of $224.5 billion.
Thus, they are prolific philanthropists who preside over an expansive network of nonprofit businesses, family office funds, trusts, and smaller corporations. Many of those enterprises quaintly understate their ties to the ultra-rich and the ultra-connected and the extraordinary power the Waltons have over public life and public resources.
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Author: The Civil Eats Editors