The Long Reach of the Walmart-Walton Empire | Civil Eats

The Long Reach of the Walmart-Walton Empire

Walmart’s annual revenues are larger than the GDP of Sweden; its founding family are prolific philanthropists. Their nexus is poorly understood.

a gritty image of a produce section with dollar bills mixed in, showing the intertwined financial and food focuses of Walmart and the Walton Family

Illustration credit: Civil Eats

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.

Walanthropy: Walmart and the Waltons Wield Unprecedented Influence Over Food, Policy, and the Planet.

Read all the stories in our series:

  • Overview: The Long Reach of the Walmart-Walton Empire
    In this ongoing investigative series, we take a detailed look at Walmart and its founding family’s influence over the American food system, over the producers and policymakers who shape it, and how its would-be critics are also its bedfellows.
  • Walmart’s ‘Regenerative Foodscape’ Walmart’s efforts to redefine itself as a regenerative company are at odds with its low-cost model, and combined with the Walton family’s vast investments in regenerative agriculture, have the potential to remake the marketplace.
  • Walmart and EDF Forged an Unlikely Partnership. 17 Years Later, What’s Changed? We talk with Elizabeth Sturcken for an up-close look at the sustainability alliance between the environmental nonprofit and the retail behemoth.
  • Op-ed: Walmart’s Outsized Catch: Walmart and the Walton Family Foundation have relied on a debatable definition of “sustainable” seafood that allows it to achieve its sourcing goals without fundamentally changing its business model.
  • Diving—and Dying—for Red Gold: The Human Cost of Honduran Lobster: The Walton Family Foundation invested in a Honduran lobster fishery, targeting its sustainability and touting its success. Ten years later, thousands of workers have been injured or killed.
  • Walmart’s Pandemic Port Squeeze: While most retailers dealt with congested ports and unprecedented shipping prices, Walmart chartered its own ships, increased sales, and used its market gains to sideline competitors. Then it weighed in on shipping reform.
  • Walmart Heirs Bet Big on Journalism: A wash of Walton family funding to news media is creating echo chambers in environmental journalism, and beyond. Are editorial firewalls up to the task?

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.

Through the Walton Family Foundation alone, the Waltons’ contributions … are staggering—totaling $665 million in grants in 2021.

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.

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.

In 2021, their collective spending on charity totaled $969.8 million.

Through the Walton Family Foundation alone, the Waltons’ contributions to education, rivers and oceans, and local initiatives in Arkansas are staggering—totaling $665 million in grants in 2021, the most recent year for which figures are available.

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Yet the Waltons also control at least eight other philanthropies, including the Walmart Foundation and the charitable endeavors of individual family members: Builders Initiative, Alumbra Innovations Foundation, the Rob and Melani Walton Foundation, Zoma Foundation, Catena Foundation, and two foundations tied to Alice Walton. In 2021, their collective spending on charity totaled $969.8 million.

Their lesser-known power lies in a network of dozens of corporations, most positioned as investment and seed-capital funds focusing on everything from STEM education to seed growth, aquaculture, and farming techniques. Many of those endeavors may have implications for Walmart and its supply chain. Some are, in their own right, vast enterprises. Innovaciones Alumbra, or iAlumbra, for example, oversees at least 15 subsidiaries focused on commercial ideas to “restore and strengthen both human and natural communities.”

There is nothing secret or untoward about this network. But the fact that it is tied to the richest family in America is often overlooked, the interconnection poorly understood.

All told, the Waltons’ philanthropic largesse means they hold sway with every major conservation group in America, fund fisheries management and ocean policy in countries all over the world, and are championing schools initiatives that have changed public education across the nation. They are also advancing efforts to push water rights toward market-based systems in drought regions.

Walmart has more dominance over land use and associated climate policy than most of the non-fossil companies in the world.

Meanwhile, the Walmart corporation itself has enormous influence over world trade, global pricing for goods, and associated policies and prices for food and agriculture. Its importance is further underscored by the fact that it supports a network of lobbyists that work to advance the company’s interests. In the last 10 years, they’ve been deployed to affect agriculture policy, labor law, market competition, food safety, trade, climate solutions, and other legislation that affects Walmart’s bottom line, supply chain, and Walton family interests.

The company’s success has stunning implications for food and agriculture. Walmart has expanded its grocery business exponentially, now collecting one of every three grocery dollars spent in America, with colossal power to influence food prices for most goods, food policy, and the lives of food-producing regions, families, and towns. As a result, Walmart has more dominance over land use and associated climate policy than most of the non-fossil companies in the world.

In the seafood sector, the Waltons’ philanthropy has already shaped how the global industry defines, and how consumers understand, sustainability. Walton Family Foundation funding has been essential to the development and scaling up of Marine Stewardship Council certification, now considered the go-to label for certifying sustainably caught wild fish. In Walmart stores, the label is displayed prominently on seafood packaging and signage, increasing its credibility among shoppers.

And philanthropic efforts by Waltons to privatize fisheries around the world have had outsized consequences for coastal communities, reducing the presence of small family businesses while opening the door to private investors, hedge funds, and multinational corporations that have come to dominate many fisheries. That outcome has dramatically changed the labor dynamics of fishing and reduced the share of the industry wealth available to seafarers. It’s also deeply harmed those communities that are so closely tied to oceans they are effectively captive to those dynamics.

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Attending both the Waltons’ and Walmart’s business are the same war room public relations strategies that first powered on in 2005. They come in the form of mission-focused narratives that portend saving environments and ecosystems. And also in the form of corporate promises to support organic foods, local food from small farms, and, most recently, to transform Walmart’s supply chains to ensure a regenerative future.

Many of those environmental narratives are more complex than they otherwise appear. And many of Walmart’s corporate promises are yet unmet. But media attention to Walmart and the Waltons is elsewhere. Most is a steady drumbeat of grant awards, underwritten initiatives, associated achievements, and occasional celebrity gossip that rarely examines the Walton enterprise as a whole.

Much like Walmart began paying bloggers in 2006, the Waltons now also help fund the American press, channeling more than $8.5 million from the Walton Family Foundation to newsrooms in 2021 and $2.6 million from the same foundation to journalism trade groups and training over the last decade.

In this ongoing investigative series, Civil Eats will take a detailed look at Walmart and Walton influence over the American food system, over the producers and policymakers who shape it, and how its would-be critics are also its bedfellows. We do not accept grants and donations from the Waltons or their associated charities.

Bill Lascher contributed reporting.

Since 2009, the Civil Eats editorial team has published award-winning and groundbreaking news and commentary about the American food system, and worked to make complicated, underreported stories—on climate change, the environment, social justice, animal welfare, policy, health, nutrition, and the farm bill— more accessible to a mainstream audience. Read more >

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