May 8, 2008 —
The public relations war waged by groups like Wal-Mart Watch and Wake Up Wal-Mart on the country's largest employer—and for a long time, biggest corporate villain—appears to be entering détente. Nearly half of the staffers at the two organizations have been let go, and Wal-Mart has in turn, scaled back its public relations efforts—which were ramped up several years ago to engender good will in the face of heavy criticism.
The cooling represents a major coup for Wal-Mart. Consumer advocacy groups, who were able to capture public attention throughout the last decade as resentment built over Wal-Mart's role in outsourcing and forcing its smaller competitors out of business, are now left to reconcile their goals with a departure from the spotlight.
Much of the draw down stems from the major steps Wal-Mart has taken to repair its image in the U.S., with efforts to green its supply chain, and modest improvements to labor conditions and compensation in the stores themselves. As The New York Times  reported several weeks ago, Wal-Mart is circulating a memo written by Emory University Professor Kenneth E. Thorpe, proposing sweeping health care reforms. This memo was originally commissioned by Wal-Mart Watch and given to the company in an apparent show of good faith. It’s hard to imagine this sort of cohesiveness happening in the past. It's also important to point out that the workers in China who manufacture Wal-Mart's cheap goods are still waiting for their share of this newly discovered benevolence.
Critiques have necessarily become more nuanced as anti-Wal-Mart sentiment becomes less common in the media. How do consumer advocacy groups maintain their prominence over the long term? Many seem to have decided to take a seat at a bargaining table that wouldn't exist if not for their dedication over the years.