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.

By The Civil Eats Editors

November 1, 2023

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

a case of meat at a walmart store with some products replaced with dollar bills

Walmart’s ‘Regenerative Foodscape’

old newspapers paired with rolls of dollar bills to convey the idea of money being invested in journalism

Walmart Heirs Bet Big on Journalism

Aerial view of cargo containers, semi trailers, industrial warehouse, storage building and loading docks, renewable energy plants, Bavaria, Germany

Walmart and EDF Forged an Unlikely Partnership. 17 Years Later, What’s Changed?

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. MORE