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A Brothel or Walmart?

Not that I want to pick on Walmart because Walmart is as much a symbol of how business works as a business that works very well indeed, but the sight of the brand in the shopping center or on TV reminds me of a Baptist colleague who once said that he would rather be seen coming out of a brothel than a Walmart.

The occasion of his comment was a factory fire in Bangladesh that had killed 112 garment workers, and the report in the news had included the observation that addressing identified building deficiencies to protect employees was too expensive and would have diminished profits. What matters is the bottom line, not the well-being of the labor pool. We may disapprove of such practices, but what can we do? Besides, we like our cheap stuff and nothing makes cheap stuff cheap like cheap labor slaving away in places where worker protections and environmental regulations do not get in the way.

Besides, what can we do? Can you imagine what stuff would cost with a “Union Made” label attached?

Gandhi could. Among his Seven Deadly Social Sins is “Commerce without Morality” which applies to both producer and consumer. When it comes to the manufacturing of the cheap stuff we import, we may in fact be quite powerless: we hardly expect business to encumber its bottom line with a self-imposed moral code (externally-imposed is a different matter entirely) that puts persons ahead of profits (explain that to the shareholders), but as consumers, how we spend our money is very much within our control and Gandhi is absolutely right: without introducing morality into our commercial behavior, we open ourselves to this very deadly social sin.

That is what my Baptist colleague was saying, that while it might be difficult explaining his presence in a brothel to his board, it would be even worse explaining his presence in Walmart.

If only it were so.

The Seven Deadly Social Sins

Politics without Principle

Wealth without Work

Commerce without Morality

Pleasure without Conscience

Education without Character

Science without humanity

Worship without Sacrifice