Left Coast Voices

"I would hurl words into the darkness and wait for an echo. If an echo sounded, no matter how faintly, I would send other words to tell, to march, to fight." Richard Wright, American Hunger

Archive for the tag “Walmart”

Christmas Tree Graveyard – Roger Ingalls

Driving to work today, I passed a usually vacant lot and noticed it was full of Christmas trees. I stared at it for a moment and then realized it was a temporary drop site for discarded trees that were destine for the wood chipper at the local recycling center. It was a sad sight.

xmas tree

Thirty million living trees get cut down, displayed for a few weeks and then shredded into little pieces, all with a 30 day timeframe. When you really think about it, it’s a crazy wasteful tradition. A carbon eating, oxygen producing living thing is obliterated for a commercial holiday and it happens 30 million times a year, every year!

Trees are grown just for this purpose but it still seems so destructive and wasteful. It’s an energy intensive process no matter how you look at it: fuel for the machinery to prepare the ground to plant the tree, energy to actually plant the tree, natural gas to make fertilizer to grow the tree, gas to trim and then cut the tree down, fuel to transport the tree to market, gas to get the tree home, electricity to light the tree, gas to dump the tree and finally energy to grind the tree up. Wasteful.

Maybe this isn’t a big issue but all those half brown, half green trees haphazardly thrown all over the vacant lot appeared obscenely disrespectful to life itself. Perhaps a big company in need of a public relation makeover, like Walmart, could start a new tradition where they rent out living Christmas trees that can be returned after the holidays. The trees can then be planted or reused the following year.

Or maybe I shouldn’t look around when I’m driving and just ignore the craziness.

Thanksgiving from the Mind of a Social Activist – Roger Ingalls

What are you thankful for? I’ve decided to take some liberties and put myself inside the heads of various characters, people and organizations in an attempt to say what is really on their minds. If retail giants can bastardize Thanksgiving why can’t I use it to make political statements? It’s all in good fun. Happy Thanksgiving.

Wall Street, “We’re thankful for gullible conservatives.”

Kardashians, “We’re thankful for Spanx.”

Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas, “We’re thankful for gifts from the Koch brothers.”

The Financial Industries, “We’re thankful we get to write the regulations that govern us.”

Walmart Executives, “We’re thankful Americans prefer cheap crap over worker’s rights.”

Westboro Baptist Church, “We’re thankful we’ve created God in our own image.”

Global Warming Deniers, “We’re thankful for data culling.”

California School Board, “We’re thankful kids make good propaganda tools.”

Kermit the Frog, “I’m thankful most Americans don’t eat frog legs.”

Smokey the Bear, “I’m thankful for wildwood flowers…out here in the deep forest where no one’s around, smokey has a whole different meaning.”

Prison Industry Authority (PIA), “We’re thankful incarceration is big business and criminalizing human behavior doesn’t concern us as long as we get paid.”

Pharmaceutical Industry, “We’re thankful the Feds still won’t allow people to grow their own cheap medicine otherwise we’d be obsolete.”

Republican Politicians, “We’re thankful Americans don’t understand that Military personnel are government employees otherwise they’d understand we’re responsible for the biggest increase in government spending.”

Factory Farms, “We’re thankful military explosives and chemical fertilizers are one and the same; it makes availability cheap.”

Insurance Industry, “We’re thankful people don’t understand that business practices dictated by Wall Street eliminate a free market economy.”

Banking Industry, “We’re thankful people don’t understand that business practices dictated by Wall Street eliminate a free market economy.”

Fossil Fuel Industry, “We’re thankful people don’t understand that business practices dictated by Wall Street eliminate a free market economy.”

And me, “I’m thankful for beer and cookies.”

Robbing the Next Generation – Childhood Obesity

There is a certain sense of irony writing a blog post about obesity on this day – seven-eleven – but here we go. My previous post on this topic ruffled some feathers, not least among those who are struggling with overweight and its repercussions. I know it is a sensitive topic and I have no intention of belittling anyone or their health challenges. I applaud anyone who has the strength to take steps to turn things around and am full of admiration for those I see turning up at my gym and pushing themselves daily on the cardio and other machines. 

But obesity is a growing issue in this country and we must address it. Nothing is as difficult as seeing children already walking such  a path at a young age. Parents have so much to struggle with today: the intense demands of homework, the lure of screens, the danger of letting their children out in the streets. All this in addition to the strains of a full time job and often only one parent in the picture. It is hard to find the strength to say no too often, hard to find the energy to cook a healthy meal that doesn’t resemble what children are bombarded with on TV and elsewhere by clowns.

First Lady, Michelle Obama’s campaign against childhood obesity turned 18 months earlier this week. Not quite the terrible twos yet, but the First Lady seems to know what she is up against. The skeptics have made sure she knows, claiming that the money poured into advertising and promotion by the huge multinationals that run the food and agriculture industry might make promises but won’t risk their profit margins.

But Nancy Brown, chief executive of the American Heart Association, is one of many who disagrees and claims that Mrs. Obama “has been a spark plug, raising awareness about the potential future of the U.S. as a nation of fat, unhealthy people unless the trend is reversed.” She acknowledges that Mrs. Obama has been doing it in ways that health food advocates can’t.

She has addressed law makers at every level, school groups, food producer and other constituencies, urging more bike paths and playgrounds, to serve healthier school lunches, and to produce and sell healthier food. Mrs. Obama has visited schools across the country to encourage initiatives such as  fruit and vegetable gardens, healthy options for school lunches, and participating in exercise clinics with children.

Most impressive in my opinion (and it is all impressive), is her work advocating at food manufacturers, beverage makers and stores. A little corner store you might have heard of, Walmart, pledged to reformulate thousands of its store-brand products to reduce sodium, sugar and fat, and provide incentives to its suppliers to do the same. Walmart has also pledged to cut its prices for  fresh fruit and vegetables, and develop a platform that clearly identifies healthier choices. This is a big player move. Walmart’s grocery business accounts for about 15%  of the U.S. grocery industry.

“We are seeing a fundamental shift in our national conversation about how we make and sell food,” Mrs. Obama said when she addressed Walmart executives at the beginning of the year. “That’s something that wasn’t happening just a year ago.”

People get worked up about children, whether they are their own or not. We have saddled the next generation with an enormous debt and a crashing environment. Sometimes these topics seem to massive for us to do anything about it and we feel disempowered. 

But to create a healthy diet and lifestyle for our children is something we can grasp. We can run around with them at the park instead of reaching for Netflix. We can volunteer at our local school vegetable garden, and we can think about what we serve at the dinner table. There is an advert on the radio at the moment urging us to give our children water or fruit juice rather than a can of sugar. We don’t, perhaps shouldn’t, make radical changes all at once, but the next generation’s journey begins with small first steps.

Thank you, Mrs. Obama. Now excuse me if I go and play soccer with my sons.

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Alon Shalev is the author of The Accidental Activist and A Gardener’s Tale. He is the Executive Director of the San Francisco Hillel Foundation, a non-profit that provides spiritual and social justice opportunities to Jewish students in the Bay Area. More on Alon Shalev at http://www.alonshalev.com/ and on Twitter (@alonshalevsf).

Amazon.com: Profit is not Everything

One would assume these are good days for Amazon.com. They continue to report growing profits even after massive long-term investment to sustain and propel their growth. The Kindle, already a bestseller, has repositioned to include a considerably cheaper tablet and even a challenger to the iPad at half the price. The company personifies, in many ways, how a business should be run, building on one success to fuel another.

Hot is the theme at Amazon.com these days.

What Amazon doesn’t need is to personify the negative aspects of big business. Last month, allegations spread across the Internet and into the newspapers that the workers in Amazon’s warehouses were subjected to extreme temperature conditions and mandatory overtime.

One ex-employee, Elmer Goris, who worked for ten years at the Lehigh Valley warehouse packing and shipping books, CDs and other products, quit because he had enough of the conditions.

During the heat wave this summer, the temperature rose to above 100 degrees. Workers passed out and paramedics were wheeling them out of the building.

“I never felt like passing out in a warehouse and I never felt treated like a piece of crap in any other warehouse but this one,” Goris said. “They can do that because there aren’t any jobs in the area.”

Amazon.com management clearly knew there was a problem as they parked ambulances from a local company, Cetronia Ambulance Corps, outside the plant with paramedics ready to immediately respond to workers in physical distress, with heat stress and dehydration being the most common. Many workers took a few moments to recover and returned to work. Others were sent home or to the local hospital.

Production wasn’t effected, apparently, because there was a line of people ready to take their places. In a recession-hit town, a job, even a temporary for $11-$12/hr lugging merchandize in a hot warehouse, is still a precious job. Amazon outsources their hiring to a temporary employment firm ironically called Integrity Staffing Solutions, who are quick and efficient at replacing workers.

Federal Regulators were brought in after an ER doctor reported an “unsafe environment” having seen so many patients in a short spell of time from the Amazon.com warehouse. 

Workers reported that production rate was everything and they were constantly warned that termination was the consequence of not keeping up. Such workers were escorted from the building in full view of their co-workers, a clear warning that this was no idle threat.

Amazon.com have apparently refused to have management interviewed. They issued a statement  on their website and while admitting to “multiple” temperature problems at the warehouse, which included “low temperature events” as well as “high temperature events,” they were working quickly to address the problems.

Amazon even showed how their warehouses are safer than comparable environments including car assembly plants, general warehouses and department stores, using data from the Bureau of Labor statistics.

I truly hope that Amazon.com are addressing the working conditions in their warehouses. Many of us, though too few, are turning away from companies that manufacture in third world countries where they are free of oversight and can employ child labor in sweatshop conditions. This should be a bigger and more prevalent campaign, but certainly such conditions, which can only take hold in an economic recession, cannot be tolerated.

Amazon.com should be congratulated on their economic growth, especially during a recession. Their innovation is cutting edge, and their commitment to long-term investment should be applauded. However, many of their customers, myself included, will not stay loyal just because the price is right. Jeff Bezoz might want to give the Walton family a call over at Walmart.

And while you are listening, Jeff, I wrote you a letter a while back, with what I thought was a pretty good idea.

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Alon Shalev is the author of The Accidental Activist and A Gardener’s Tale. He is the Executive Director of the San Francisco Hillel Foundation, a non-profit that provides spiritual and social justice opportunities to Jewish students in the Bay Area. More on Alon Shalev at http://www.alonshalev.com/ and on Twitter (#alonshalevsf).

Steve Jobs 2

Following on from last Friday’s post, I have been wondering how much a company can really be sustainable if it leans so heavily on its CEO. The way some people talked about Steve Jobs stepping down at Apple had me worried that my iPod and MacBook would self destruct in five seconds.

But there are certain companies where the CEO seems to take on legendary proportions. Apple is of them, but there is also Walmart, Microsoft and most recently Starbucks.  Howard Shultz wrote the book on building a company based on values and a dynamic business model. He literally wrote the book – Pour Your Heart Into It.

A Great Read.

When Howard Shultz left Starbucks the company experienced its first downfall. I’m not sure this is attributed to his departure, it is hard to spend $4 on a cup of coffee when you lose your job and your house is foreclosed, but tellingly, Shultz was lured back and Starbucks repositioned. I am sure this is all recorded in the uber-CEO’s latest book, Onward, and I will review it soon as it rises up to the top of my To Read book pile.

I  wonder if it shouldn’t be a benchmark of a good CEO that s/he brings through a line of highly trained personnel from which one could be groomed as a successor? Was it a failure of Howard Shultz that  he had to make a comeback? I wonder whether the mood within Apple was as preoccupied as it was played out in the media.

And this brings me to another top-heavy organization – the government. At the risk of endangering my desire to become a US citizen, I wonder whether there isn’t too much emphasis on the President for governance and policy. Shouldn’t there be a bigger emphasis and accountability on those who sit on the House and Senate to fix our problems and lead us forward?

Perhaps we learn from the successful company models in restructuring our governments.

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Alon Shalev is the author of The Accidental Activist (now available on Kindle) and A Gardener’s Tale. He is the Executive Director of the San Francisco Hillel Foundation, a non-profit that provides spiritual and social justice opportunities to Jewish students in the Bay Area. More on Alon Shalev at http://www.alonshalev.com/and on Twitter (#alonshalevsf).

Death and Taxes

I love Amazon.com. I realize the damage it has done to bricks and mortar stores, but I would be lying if I didn’t admit to buying most of my books here. I also sell most of my books here. I love my Kindle and…

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos - fallen hero?

I really want Amazon.om to be one of the good guys. But they are not. Amazon.com doesn’t want to collect sales tax. By avoiding this, they not only deny our country valuable resources,  but have in this instance an unfair advantage on their competitors. I believe in a free Internet, but not that free.
I’m sad, because the Seattle-based company is now acting like a multinational corporation and you know how I feel about them. It has  spent $5.25 million to help add a measure to the June 2012 ballot that repeals the law forcing online retailers to collect sales tax. Newly released campaign filings show that Amazon made a $2.25 million campaign contribution on Aug. 2010. That’s on top of $3 million the online retailer contributed to the initiative in July.
The campaign to reapeal this law is led by an organization called “More Jobs Not Taxes.” Their spokesperson, Ned Wigglesworth acknowledged Amazon’s second multimillion-dollar contribution in as many months. He claims it is needed “to cover costs associated with the first phase of the campaign.” Wigglesworth said his committee was working with a “growing coalition of taxpayer groups, consumers, small businesses” to overturn the new online sales tax law — although so far state records show Amazon to be its only contributor.
Brick-and-mortar businesses have responded by preparing to form the Alliance for Main Street Fairness, which says on its website that it is “funded by and advocates on behalf of employers who believe there must be a fair and balanced approach concerning the sales tax collection system.” Here is where it gets juicy. The group’s critics say it is simply a front for Walmart. Until (and if) Amazon’s initiative qualifies for the ballot, the Alliance for Main Street Fairness will organize a formal political committee. Since it hasn’t yet done so, we are unable to discover who make up the major financial backers.
Walmart and Amazon fighting it out – and me siding with Walmart. Now that is bizarre.

No More Heroes Anymore.

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Alon Shalev is the author of The Accidental Activist (now available on Kindle) and A Gardener’s Tale. He is the Executive Director of the San Francisco Hillel Foundation, a non-profit that provides spiritual and social justice opportunities to Jewish students in the Bay Area. More on Alon Shalev at http://www.alonshalev.com/and on Twitter (#alonshalevsf).

When Walmart Cares About Our Health More Than The FDA

Last month, Whole Foods suspended their composting program because it was too expensive. Ironically, on the same day, Walmart announced that they were beginning a composting program at most of their stores.


Michael Jacobson’s article in the New York Times caught my eye. The FDA Should Be Bolder Than Walmart tells how Walmart is using its muscle to help accelerate a number of changes including:

– taking concrete steps to reduce their carbon footprint,

– forcing their retailers and distributors to do the same,

– supporting the fight against childhood obesity by insisting on the removal of trans fats from products that they sell. Though this isn’t a stated claim, they are probably helping cut cardiovascular diseases as well.

– insisting that their suppliers across the board cut sodium levels significantly.

Jacobson says that”Wal-Mart’s plan to lower produce prices (modestly) should increase consumption and (modestly) lower the risk of heart disease and generally improve health. All told, Wal-Mart will be saving thousands of lives, something it should be very proud of.”

The First Lady agrees and has openly complimented Walmart. What would be great, as Jacobson says, would be for the First Lady to put her influence behind pushing the FDA to lead the war, instead of following behind everyone … from quite a distance.

Now before anyone wonders whether the author of The Accidental Activist (an anti-multinational corporation novel) is getting soft, let me leave you with this.

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Alon Shalev is the author of The Accidental Activist (now available on Kindle) and A Gardener’s Tale. He is the Executive Director of the San Francisco Hillel Foundation, a non-profit that provides spiritual and social justice opportunities to Jewish students in the Bay Area. More on Alon Shalev at www.alonshalev.com

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