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Shop Small
By Wendy Priesnitz

Shopping mindfully gives us the power to change the economic equation.

Occupy protest
Photo (c) Daryl Lang/Shutterstock

The Occupy Movement has confirmed the fact that the world’s economy is broken, greed and entitlement are in charge, and people are angry. So what now? While waiting for corporations and governments and bankers to do something, many people are already doing something. There is a swelling of grassroots initiatives to create change, to share wealth, to solve needs, to put people in control. Some of the solutions have been around for a long time and some are new ideas. I am thinking of things like worker and buyer co-ops, the slow money and slow/local food movements, community kitchens, land trusts, ethical investing, community credit unions, gleaning, sharing, urban homesteading, alternative economic indicators, fair trade, co-housing, restorative economics, rooftop power, self-employment, local currencies, and barter. There are many more.

They are all participatory. They are designed and implemented by us, working together with our neighbors for our own good, not by governments and corporations. They require that we understand how things work and that we make the rules for ourselves. They require that we stop thinking of economics as something other people do while we watch from the sidelines.

If we don’t have the time, energy or inclination to get involved right now in these projects, we still have the power, through individual choice, to make a difference. So much of creating change is about being mindful of our actions and their results. And the simple act of procuring the products and services our families need can, if done mindfully, have positive results. By choosing how and where we shop, we can channel money directly into the hands of people and families like us, rather than into the bank accounts of corporations that don’t care about our welfare and whose only interest is their shareholders.

Even if the economic benefits are lasting, you might worry about paying more if you shop local or small. However, don’t assume that avoiding the chain and big box stores will necessarily cost you money. In fact, there is little or no data to prove that big means cheap. A group in the UK campaigning against a grocery chain moving into in the creative and cultural heart of Cambridge did annual surveys of a box of products purchased in local shops and in the chain store and found the local shops to be around fifteen percent less expensive three years running. At any rate, “cheap food” isn’t really cheap; we pay for it later on in increased health care costs.

Local Business

Local businesses have been a staple of economies all around the world ever since people first began trading for goods and services, but they’re declining in number with the increase of large corporate chain stores. And that’s too bad. A 2003 study by the American Independent Business Alliance shows that forty-five of every one hundred dollars spent at small, local businesses stays in the local economy; just thirteen dollars of that hundred stay local when you buy at a national chain store.

One way local businesses keep money circulating locally is that they typically employ a wide variety of supporting services that must also be obtained locally. For example, if a local business needs to add to its facilities, it will hire a local contractor. Local businesses might also require the services of a bookkeeper, cleaning service, and other local businesses, which increases the amount of work for everyone in the local economy. Locally owned businesses also typically offer more locally produced goods than large chain stores do, which benefits everyone in that area financially, and reduces the pollution associated with long distance transportation.

farmers market
photo (c) Steve Lovegrove, Shutterstock

Local Currencies

Another way to keep money within a community is through the use of local currencies to support local businesses. Typically, members join the currency organization and exchange money for the currency, which is then used as full or partial payment for goods or services from other members offering time, skills, or products. The HOUR Exchange is a local currency network in Benton County, Oregon, committed to ecological sustainability and community-based economics. Their currency comes in the form of HOUR notes and one HOUR is worth an hour of labor, or ten dollars (a fair hourly wage). Like any other work, an hour of labor can be worth more than one HOUR. The HOUR Exchange explains that the name for the currency should “remind us that the real source of money’s value is created by people – our time, skills, and energy.”

Buy Direct

Your local farmers market or farm gate stall is a great place to buy from a small, local business. Buying directly from the producer eliminates the middle layers of distribution – either saving money or ensuring that the whole cost of your purchase goes directly to the farmer – and allows you to get to know the person producing your food and the circumstances in which it’s produced.

A Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) membership or other type of produce box scheme will accomplish the same. CSAs provide members with the added opportunity to actively participate in the growing of their food. And there is an environmental benefit to buying food from the source: Even when supermarkets display “local” food, it has often traveled further than you might think; even if it was produced just down the road, as it has been packaged centrally and shipped back to your local store.

Also, food from the farmer often has a lot less packaging and can often go straight into your bag. The buy direct arrangement also works for many other types of businesses, including craftspeople whose work is often available at their studios, at craft shows, or online.

Independent Business

What all of these businesses have in common is their independence. And aside from your local main street, craft show, or farm market, the Internet can also be a good place to shop for change. The Internet has allowed small, independent businesses to flourish – whether they offer local services or products and information that transcends distance. While some of the worst corporate retailers are there too – and are easier to find than the indies – a bit of searching is worth it.

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Buying from small, independent businesses, no matter where they’re located, supports those business owners directly – both financially and in other ways. For instance, your purchases enhance the proprietor’s confidence and self-esteem, and you know that your money goes to support them and their families. As somebody wrote in a graphic that’s been making the social network rounds, “When you buy from a small mom business, you are not helping a CEO buy a third vacation home.” And because independent business owners tend to be specialists in their fields and know their stuff well, you’re likely to get a good product or service from them.

The Corporate Monster That’s Eating the Book Business

An epic battle between Inc. and the rest of the book publishing and retailing world is a good example of a large corporation that is radically changing the face of an industry with its massive financial clout (more than $40 billion revenue in 2011) and predator mentality. But few people seem to understand or accept the danger of its dominance, even as it moves into other types of retail sales.

In business since the mid-1990s, is the world’s largest online retailer. It’s best known for books, but it also sells music, software, video games, electronics, clothing, jewelry, furniture, baby products, kitchen items, toys, and even food now that's it has purchased the Whole Foods chain.

local bookstore
photo (c) Lee O'Dell, Shutterstock

The company’s critics list complaints that include human resource issues like brutal working conditions in warehouses, firing people for having breast cancer and other health issues, anti-unionization efforts, and strict production quotas. It has also been controversial for avoiding and opposing sales tax collection (which gives it a price advantage over those that do collect sales taxes); remote content removal of books that customers have paid for from its Kindle e-readers; patent claims; anti-competitive actions; price discrimination; falsified or otherwise questionable product reviews; various decisions over whether to censor or publish content such as LGBT books, works containing stolen copyrighted content, that are libelous, or that variously facilitate dogfighting, cockfighting, child beating, and pedophile activities.

In December of 2011, it faced a backlash from small businesses for rewarding customers for spying on them in-store using their cell phones. It ran a one-day deal to promote its new Price Check app: Shoppers who used the app to check prices in a bricks-and-mortar store were offered a discount to purchase the item from Amazon instead. That was the last straw for many who had been watching the company steamroll small booksellers, who can’t compete with its low prices on both print and electronic books.

It has, in fact, now seemingly declared all-out war on the book industry that it’s been slowly eroding for years. With a war chest of six billion in cash, it appears intent on creating a monopoly for itself by controlling or replacing all aspects of book publishing, sales, and even lending. First, it bullied publishers into providing books on its terms – and, as the Amazon effect closes other stores like the Borders chain, the publishers have become so dependent upon its sales that they fear standing up to it. Then it created a popular platform that helps individuals self-publish, it hired an industry veteran to head up its own book publishing arm, and it even created a lending library.

It remains to be seen how extensive the damage from this monopoly will be. But experience in other industries shows us that eventually quality, price, and choice can suffer along with the people whose livelihoods depend upon the industry. Amazon’s domineering behavior is particularly alarming because it threatens the marketplace of ideas. So my indie publishing company’s books aren’t for sale there and I don’t buy there.

I hope you’ll join me in considering the effect that purchasing from bullies like Amazon has on owner-operated businesses, our communities, and the overall economy. We can be part of the solution. We can help shift political and economic power from the greedy “corporatocracy” if we put our money where our values (and hopes for the future) are.

Wendy Priesnitz is the co-founder of Natural Life Magazine, and has been its editor for more than 40 years. She is an award-winning journalist and the author of 13 books.

This article was published in Natural Life Magazine in 2012.


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