Big Boxes not so Green - Our Daily Green

Monday, July 19, 2010

Big Boxes not so Green

The other day, a comment was made on another blog about why shopping big box stores was a bad idea if you were buying earth friendly items and saving money. It was a fair question and it dawned on me that the negative press surrounding big box stores doesn't really resonate with the consumer, but rather winds up sounding like sour grapes from little stores.

The fact is, the low prices we pay at mega stores are often deceptive. As a former career retail employee, I can testify that for every lowered loss leader price, other staple prices rise. It's about total profit percentage, so volume items often can be sold at a loss or purchased cheaper because a large store can purchase quantities that smaller stores will never sell in a year.

Past the simple bait and switch pricing are several additional concerns that big box stores spark. One example is the Black and Decker company. Until this millennium, Black and Decker was a true Made in the USA company. Demands from big box home improvement stores for lower prices, drove the company to close a North Carolina factory and move operations internationally to the Czech Republic, China and Mexico. Similar pressures have affected Levi Strauss, once considered the quintessential American jeans company.

When a consumer is lured by the low price of cheap jeans or tools, they often overpay on the other "one stop shopping" items they pick up at such stores. How many people can honestly say they ever go into a store for just one item and never pick up anything else?

Beyond the merchandise is the environmental impact such big stores wreak. Covering open, breathing land with asphalt and 100,000 sq. ft. buildings is not conducive to a healthy soil or nearby water. When rain falls onto the mega stores parking lots, it washes petroleum toxins off the lot with it into nearby land and water. When big stores open in a new community, they often abandon smaller stores in neighboring communities, leaving an empty building behind.

The societal impact, the one we most often hear about, is indeed the closing of smaller businesses, the loss of decent paying jobs, and the loss of community involvement. I've written previously about the 3/50 local shopping movement. To highlight the truth behind the movement, as a parent, I am often soliciting donations for different retailers around town for various fundraisers.

While an unscientific survey, I can testify that the local stores were the generous ones, the ones who donated and participated in our various fundraisers. They are the people who had or have children in the community. They are the people who employ their neighbor. They pay fair wages. When I went to the national chain stores, I was told that I either was "too late" (this was 2 mos. prior to the event), that I had to fill out the proper requisition form from "corporate", or that they had given for the year. This was in January. We weren't a person or local interest, we were a statistic. Meanwhile, the local stores gave generously and showed up to support our fundraisers. They live and breathe the community.

The jobs created at the stores pay minimum wage and offer little opportunity for advancement. Big box stores are also often given tax abatement so they aren't even helping the community fund, putting a greater burden on homeowners for streets, maintenance and police. Yes. police. Large stores attract shoplifters as well as multiple cars in a parking space. Police surveillance as well as the occasional criminal report must be filed. Small communities that invite big box stores also must often hire more civil servants and therefore assume a greater expense for no return.

When a big box stores petitions (threatens?) to build in a community with the promise of economic growth or jobs or lower prices, or whatever carrot they wave at the townspeople? The town is best to realize that carrot is likely to be made of toxic plastic manufactured far from home and one they'll never catch anyway.


Ginger Bergemann said...

Thanks for sharing the link to this post with me. I completely concur with your points on the environmental aspect of building big box stores and the wonderful community of small business owners. I try to buy locally if at all possible. But in this day and age my question is how can we possibly avoid big box stores? In my small town it seems that is all we have. Aside from our farmer's market, it seems that all we have are chain stores.

Kim said...

Actually, Ginger, as I pointed out on your blog, I see both sides of the coin. I was more trying to answer the "environmental" impact question, and got a bit carried away. I will admit myself, the only reason I know what happens at a big box store is from having been there. Our local mega super giganticplex store is the only place around that carries nitrate free cold cuts. Guess what? I wind up with more than that "as long as I'm there".

I compromise from time to time, but it comes back to my 80/20 thing. We just need to make mindful choices as much as we can.

The 3/50 Project said...

@Ginger, one of the things that makes The 3/50 Project unique among "spend local" movements is our message of balance. It's unrealistic to think that consumers will completely eschew all big boxes or chain stores. Instead of an "all or nothing" approach, we ask folks to point an affordable $50 of their current monthly spending toward locally owned, independent brick and mortar businesses.

It's not additional dollars. It's only $50 per month. And it makes a difference.

Here's the big things ahead for all the little guys,

Cinda Baxter
President and Founder
The 3/50 Project