Depending on your business philosophy, Wal-Mart is either a ruthless retail behemoth that destroys Main Street or it is the proudest achievement of capitalism. Take your pick: do you want US$10 jeans, or do you want a store with a conscience? It is a choice we will all have to make soon because Wal-Mart, the world's biggest retailer, is coming to a neighbourhood near you. Only in Japan has the Wal-Mart theology of round-the-clock discounting failed to catch on. This week I learned that Wal-Mart wants to open a 'big-box' store down the street from where I live. At first glance, it looks pretty good. The marketing strategy is all green and New Age: the store will recycle rainwater, generate electricity with a windmill and keep interior lighting to a minimum. If this sounds like founder Sam Walton playing the Wizard of Oz behind a curtain, there is a reason: for all its astounding success, Wal-Mart has a huge public relations problem. The news clippings recently are almost all bad: class-action lawsuits by women claiming discrimination; teenage workers maimed while operating forklift trucks; accusations that illegal immigrants worked as janitors. Some critics call Wal-Mart the retail version of a neutron bomb - it obliterates all other commercial life in the immediate vicinity. Who can possibly compete with somebody who sells everything at a discount, from maple syrup to mattresses, in stores as big as a city block? Wal-Mart has more employees than GM, Ford, GE and IBM combined, and Walton (he died in 1992) was rich enough to leave US$20 billion to his wife and each of his four children. Yet the company decided recently to shut down a store in Quebec, because the workers were trying to start a union movement. It is this kind of penny-pinching labour-bashing that provoked people in several American states to shout 'no' when Wal-Mart came to town looking for new store locations. People who used to fight on behalf of whales, or old-growth forests, are now battling the ghost of Sam Walton. But I am in conflict. When I look at the drawings of the proposed Vancouver store, I see an environmentally sustainable building surrounded by trees, and I see a company that is doing precisely what those in free-market economies are supposed to do - grow, by selling us what we want, at prices lower than the competition. Wal-Mart is the face of globalisation. We may not like it, but it has reshaped the marketplace, and company management dismisses all the criticism directed against it as the 'nibbling of guppies'. You can talk that way when you are the biggest fish in the water.