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Books take a close look at Walmart, the world’s biggest retailer

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Reading books about Walmart is a true whiplash experience. It’s had such bad press you’re set to hate it. Then you learn it’s the world’s biggest seller of organic milk and cotton, sustaining thousands of forward-thinking farmers. So you grudgingly admire it, and then you find it pays such pitiful wages that many employees actually qualify for welfare. In the good-guy column: Walmart saves the average American household $2,300 a year and singularly shone during Hurricane Katrina, handing out food and supplies for free. In the bad: It divebombs local economies, and recently was accused of sex discrimination in the biggest class action suit in history (which got thrown out for technical reasons, but still).

The chain stirs up such a stormy response, various New England communities have fought openings of stores. Take, for instance, Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino’s opposition this summer to Walmart nosing around a location in Roxbury.

To crick your neck even more, there’s the company’s mind-messing size. Nothing else compares. One-third of the US population, that’s 100 million people, visits a Walmart each week. If you rank by revenue, it’s the largest public corporation in the world, plus retailer, plus private employer, with more than 2 million “associates’’ (employees, in Walmart-speak). The company took in $421.8 billion last year. If it were a country - Walmartia? Walmartistan? - by some lights it would rank 25th, a shade ahead of Norway, with its li’l GDP of $414 billion.

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Even so, who knew that something this big and controversial has also sparked a big and controversial book genre? But there you are, with titles ranging from puffery, like “The Walmart Way: The Inside Story of the Success of the World’s Largest Company’’ (Thomas Nelson, 2005) to slash-and-burn: “How Walmart Is Destroying America (and the World): And What You Can Do About It’’ (Ten Speed Press, 2005).

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There’s even the grossly offensive: “People of Walmart: Shop and Awe’’ (Sourcebooks, 2010), a photography book making fun of Walmart shoppers. Class, of course, is the backbeat to all the commentary; nobody gets in a lather over Target. Many of Walmart’s customers are low-income families - a fifth don’t have a bank account - and the 99 percent of us drawn to those Everyday Low Prices. The 1 percent isn’t even in the (made-in-China) frame. As Paris Hilton said, “Walmart . . . do they like make walls there?’’

So which is the fairest one of all? That would have to be the smart, absorbing “The Walmart Effect: How The World’s Most Powerful Company Really Works - and How It’s Transforming the American Economy’’ (Penguin, 2006). The Economist listed it as a 2006 book of the year, and author Charles Fishman, a Fast Company senior editor, artfully details how Walmart’s scale creates a universe all its own. That ruthless pursuit of low-cost goods, for instance, means its 100,000 suppliers must kowtow to price-cutting demands or die. (Vlasic Pickles, which eventually filed for bankruptcy reorganization, was rocked by Walmart’s fiat to sell its one-gallon jars of pickles for an absurd $2.97). Fishman also nails the stateside effect of Walmart’s mammoth outsourcing to China. As one textile manufacturer says, “We are shopping ourselves out of jobs.’’

So what’s it like to work there? The crummy-employer story gets fine due in “Walmart: The Bully of Bentonville: How the High Cost of Everyday Low Prices Is Hurting America’’ (Doubleday, 2006) by BusinessWeek writer Anthony Bianco. His chapter on how Walmart hires is creepy-funny as an Ed Wood movie. Job applicants are shown a film with an ominous union organizer stalking the parking lot, for instance, and the firm is so bent on finding servile workers, it clumsily tries to screen out free spirits. Actual application-form question: “ ‘I sometimes have some pretty wild daydreams.’ A. Agree. B. Undecided. C. Disagree.’’

But here’s the paradox; the miserliness that makes Walmart an adverse place to work also makes it a great place for sustainability. Ready to have your mind blown? Read “Force of Nature: The Unlikely Story of Walmart’s Green Revolution’’ (HarperCollins, 2011) by Pulitzer Prize-winning Edward Humes. It shows how environmental activist Jib Ellison convinced CEO Lee Scott that going green would not only improve Walmart’s miserable image but also save money. He takes Scott and other CEOs on consciousness-raising rafting trips, and has Walmart’s notoriously insular execs meet with reps from the Environmental Defense Fund . . . even Al Gore . . . even Greenpeace!

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Soon, Ellison helps Walmart set up “sustainable value networks’’ to root out waste in each division. Thus Unilever and Procter & Gamble are forced to switch to concentrated laundry detergent, saving on packaging and transportation costs. Hamburger Helper must eighty-six curly noodles for straight ones, since straight makes less bulk. By 2009, Walmart has all its suppliers create a worldwide sustainability index to make sure they’re environmentally sound, and Scott pledges to achieve the goal of zero waste, and for the stores to be supplied 100 percent by renewable energy. All this adds up to, as environmentalist Hunter Lovins said, “The fall of the Berlin Wall in sustainability.’’ Stunning. Then again, the critics counter, this greenwashing just distracts from the damage the Walmart economy inflicts. The only sustainable Walmart, they say, is a shuttered Walmart.

Again with the contradictions, again with the extremes. My head hurts.

Katharine Whittemore is a freelance writer based in Northampton. She can be reached at katharine.whittemore@ comcast.net.