Buying local is not enough 

Wage Rage

This weekend marks the official start of the holiday shopping season, and in recent years, the horror stories about Black Friday rampages have been increasingly bookended by a fervent call urging consumers to buy local.

The folks behind the buy local movement would like you to know that the money you spend at locally owned businesses is ultimately better for communities than the money you spend at big-box stores or online retailers. The question, though, is how much better?

Small-business proponents have a long list of the economic benefits of buying local, which they especially like to break out during the holiday season. Typically, these lists show you how much of your dollar stays in the community when you shop local versus when you shop at some corporate-owned chain and, by extension, how much economic impact local shopping has on the economy of an individual town or city.

Take Charleston for instance. Our buy local champions, Lowcountry Local First, state on their website that for every $100 spent locally, $45 stays in the local economy as opposed to $14 spent in a chain store. Recently, their Twitter account sent out this tidbit of information in the run-up to a promotional event: "Shifting a mere 10% to Local = $50M in new wages $140M in new economic activity & 1,600 new jobs. How's that for a stimulus plan!" While that works out to an average salary of $31,250 per new job created, it seems unlikely that the average job created by local small business pays $15 an hour. So we got in touch with LLF to find out more about where their figures come from.

LLF President Jamee Haley responded and provided us with a link to a study performed in the Grand Rapids, Mich., area in 2008, which backs up their figures. Ms. Haley noted that she believes that the $15-per-hour figure makes sense when you consider the range of local businesses that may benefit from buying locally, from retailers to web designers to accountants.

That is a fair assessment, of course, but it addresses the broadest interpretation of the data. The buy local movement, while including "web designers and accountants," is much more vocal around the holiday shopping season, and it is fairly doubtful that retailers are paying an average of $15 an hour, or that many are offering full-time positions at any pay rate. With that in mind, it is not clear how much better off the community really is if more workers aren't paid a living wage.

The anti-Walmart, anti-Starbucks, anti-McDonald's crowd may push for "fair wages" from the chains, but they're silent when it comes to the push for similar initiatives aimed at local small businesses. This is a seemingly strange disconnect in logic until you remember that the buy local movement is not the same creature as the living-wage initiative. At its heart, the buy local movement is merely about putting profits in the hands of a different set of people, people who just happen to be our neighbors and who are more likely to directly or indirectly put money back in our hands. While the relative proximity of these business owners to their employees means that there is a lot of "taking care of our employees" rhetoric in the air, it is important to note that you can hear the same talk from just about any national chain store when they're questioned about their low wages and their paltry or non-existent benefit options.

Creating jobs and keeping money in the local economy is certainly a lofty goal, but merely exchanging one set of people for whom the bottom line is important for another is hardly the answer. If local business owners want the support of the community they serve, they need to do a better job of showing the community exactly why they deserve that support.

While the simple math about the economic benefits of shopping local are difficult to argue against, especially in light of the seeming correlation between the rise of big-box stores and the overall decline in America's middle-class shop owners in the last four decades, it is important to remember that local business owners are not the only variable in the equation. Sadly, it is a testament to the continued invisibility of the American working class that the focus here is only on the number of jobs created by buying local, and not the quality of those jobs.

If it is true that a rising tide lifts all boats, then we have to ask local business owners if they are more interested in raising the tide or if they merely want to put more boats in the water.

Mat Catastrophe is a multimedia geek who is currently co-authoring a book called Arguing on the Internet. He is also the owner of several satirical "new media" companies.

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