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Dilemma – Is it Ethical to Shop at Walmart Now That We Have One?

Feed Me, Ottawa Graffiti, Spring 2011

We attract supermarkets.

When we first came to live in the neighbourhood, there was only a Loblaws. Then came Food Basic and Shoppers Drug Mart, right across the road from Loblaws. And when we came back from travelling this winter, we discovered that a huge Walmart had popped up on the other side of the road. We now have three supermarkets within a 20-minute walk.

And then came the dilemma. Oh, it’s a first-world dilemma, I know. I feel bad about it. But the question remains—where should we shop?

For non-Canadians (or non-Ontarians), this is how it goes. Loblaws is a bit of a fancy supermarket and is more expensive than Food Basics, a no-frill superstore. You can easily see why Food Basics is cheaper—the store is not as clean, the decor is kept to a minimum and there are fewer employees (and longer line-ups at the cash register). As for Walmart… well, everybody knows Walmart or at least has heard of it—the largest grocery retailer in the United States is often criticized for predatory pricing, drawing customers away from other smaller businesses and bad employee and labour relations (including low wages, poor working conditions, gender discrimination and strong anti-union policies). Oh, and let’s not forget about the famous peculiar side of the store, the people of Wal-Mart!

Basically, shopping at Walmart goes against all my beliefs. It’s a no-brainer. There is a cost to pay for these low prices.

So the first time I went on a scout mission to the new Wal-Mart, I was dead-set on not buying anything. You know, I ain’t supporting the evil empire.

Except I quickly realized the obvious—Walmart is cheap, much cheaper than my fancy Loblaws across the road. A can of lemon and pepper seasoned tuna is 97 cents at Walmart and $1.47 at Loblaws. It’s the exact same can: same brand, same everything. I grabbed a couple of cans and surreptitiously put them in my basket. I still ain’t supporting the evil empire, I’m just… you know, taking advantage of a deal. Rice, crackers, bread, semolina and yogurt were also cheaper and ended up in my basket as well.

And suddenly, I realized I had become one of them. A Walmart customer. Shame on me.

Alright. I’m not buying my clothes at Wal-Mart, I don’t browse around the store eating a double-cheese burger bought at the MacDonald’s conveniently located at the entrance of the store and I don’t drink cans of beer outside the store at 9 a.m. That makes me feel marginally better.

Still, I feel terrible for shopping at Walmart. But at the same time, I feel like an idiot spending more money on the exact same products at Loblaws, just to make a point. And it’s not like Loblaws is a workers’ heaven either. In fact, I strongly suspect the chain is not much more ethical than Walmart.

Grocery shopping is tricky. Even though I’m lucky enough not to live paycheck to paycheck, I don’t want to spend too much on food. I cook pretty much all of my meals and brown-bag to work so I mostly need staples such as vegetables, bread, dairy products, rice, pasta etc. I’m not a vegetarian but I eat very little meat. I wish I could only eat local, natural organic “green” and ethically-produced food but frankly, specialty shops like Herbs and Spice are simply too expensive.

What I should do is to take advantage of farmer markets more. Contrary to popular belief, summer does exist in Canada and as soon as there is no more snow on the ground (i.e. May), markets pop up across the city—the Byward Market, Little Italy, Landsdown Park, Parkdale… It’s a good chance to stock up on fruits, vegetables, cheese and other local products such as maple syrup and honey. For that, I don’t mind paying a little bit more if I know quality is good.

How about you? Where do you shop? What’s more important to you, quality, low prices…?


French woman in English Canada.

Exploring the world with my camera since 1999, translating sentences for a living, writing stories that may or may not get attention.

Firm believer that nobody is normal... and it’s better this way.

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