Small businesses need our support.
As year three of the pandemic begins, the small business owners in the US who have managed to keep their doors open continue to struggle with non-stop problems: customers afraid to enter the premises, supply chain issues, staff shortages, burn out and mental exhaustion.
Meanwhile, according to the US Census Bureau, e-commerce sales in the US increased almost 32 percent in 2020. In 2021, online sellers rang in an estimated $768 billion and that number will likely surpass $1 trillion in 2023.
As a result, Amazon shares have skyrocketed, along with Jeff Bezos’ fortune (and Jeff Bezos). His wealth increased from $113 billion in April 2020 to $182 billion at the close of the bell yesterday (a down stock market has wiped out a few of his billions this month).
Hearing these kinds of figures constantly bandied about in the news (or in newsletters) begins to normalize socially destabilizing wealth. Part of the problem stems from our inability to comprehend these numbers. Visualization helps.
This video made the rounds in February of 2020, just at the start of the pandemic, so keep in mind that Bezos’ fortune has increased by $69 billion since then. The rice mountain at the end would be nearly 57 percent larger today.
Environmental impacts of online shopping
You’ll find studies showing that online shopping can often be better for the environment than in-person shopping, based on the premise of one truck delivering many packages compared to many shoppers picking up individual packages in their individual cars (assuming everyone drives). But how many more packages do people order online, lured by the convenience of 1-click shopping, than they would if they shopped in person? And how many packages do they return? (Lots.) These studies also don’t take into account one aspect that can’t be quantified—quality of life in the communities in which giant warehouses now operate to meet the demand of online shopping.
Amazon warehouses usually operate in neighborhoods with a high proportion of people of color and low-income residents, according to an investigative report from The Guardian and Consumer Reports. In these neighborhoods, day and night, semi-trucks emerge from 500,000-plus square-foot warehouses, barreling down streets, emitting pollution that puts residents already at high risk of asthma and heart attacks at even higher risk. In one such neighborhood in Fontana, California, a resident told The Guardian “Local leaders sold off our lungs.”
An Oceana study that analyzed e-commerce packaging data estimated that Amazon generated 599 million pounds of plastic packaging waste in 2020, an increase of 29 percent over the 2019 estimate. Combining this data with another study, Oceana estimated that up to 23.5 million pounds of Amazon’s 2020 plastic packaging polluted waterways and oceans that year.
(Sign this petition urging Amazon to offer plastic-free shipping options.)
For a CBC Marketplace investigation, journalists bought 12 items from Amazon Canada, hid GPS trackers inside them and returned the items. By the time the story aired, only four of the returned items had been resold and some of the items traveled hundreds or even thousands of kilometers on their meandering routes, releasing emissions all along the way. A backpack in perfect condition went to a waste facility in Toronto, headed for a landfill. The waste created by free returns isn’t limited to Amazon. All the online giants follow similar practices. And these practices happen in the US and in the UK as well.
Small businesses can’t afford to throw their inventory in the trash. And the likelihood is much lower that customers will return shoes they’ve actually tried on inside a store.
Benefits of shopping small
More money injected into the local economy
When you shop at a small, local business, for every $100 you spend, $67 stays in the community. Spend that $100 online remotely and no money stays in your community. No sales taxes are collected to pay for building roads and funding schools and keeping hospitals open and paying firefighters. Local businesses also create local jobs—and often higher-paying ones. Those employees then go on to spend their paychecks in the community.
Small local businesses often operate in downtowns, not in city outskirts where big box stores pop up due to available land and which contribute to urban sprawl. Many small business customers can take public transit, walk or ride a bike downtown and ideally, also run a few errands at once.
If you can buy local products from local businesses, you slash transportation emissions even more. Food is a great example. I can practically see the apple orchards from where I live but I cannot find a locally grown organic apple in the big chain grocery stores. They come either from Washington State or even farther—Chile. When I shop at the farmers’ market, most of the food was grown less than 100 miles away.
When you shop in person, you can bring your own bag or container to the store (depending on the store) and eliminate the packaging altogether. If you buy online from a small business, such as an Etsy shop, it will more likely heed your no-plastic-and-less-packaging-please instructions.
Better customer service
Small businesses often do a better job at accommodating customers than big businesses. Want to fill your clean jars up with bulk foods without the staff either flat out refusing or insisting that they must first call head office to seek permission? Shop at a small business. Small businesses tend to do whatever it takes to retain their customers. The big guys, not so much.
Small businesses are also able to pivot quickly to meet the needs of the community. They built seating outdoors for dining when Covid hit, moved classes online or banded together in their communities to help ensure businesses kept their doors open. By keeping each other alive, small businesses help keep their communities alive.
The term “regenerative” has replaced the less vigorous “sustainable” in popular businesses lingo. A regenerative business not only does no harm, it also restores the health of people, places and the planet.
Small businesses regenerate communities. They improve neighborhoods. They provide essential services to residents. Some, like Ada’s Cafe in Palo Alto, for example, which hires adults with developmental disabilities who may not find jobs elsewhere, improve lives. (While she was in school, my daughter MK worked at Ada’s in the summers for about five years as a baker.) You can also bring your own cup to buy your drink there.
Diverse stores serving diverse communities
Every small, local café is unique—the beverages, the food, the décor. Every Starbucks is identical. Whereas big corporations make all their buying decisions from centralized head offices, rendering their stores homogenous, small businesses all differ in their offerings and cater to their communities. Which would you rather see in your neighborhood? Corporate America or independents that reflect your town and region?
Supporting small businesses helps strengthen communities and that, in turn, helps build social cohesion, which the US desperately needs at the moment. When I shop at the farmers’ market, for example, I run into neighbors, chat with vendors and feel a sense of community. You don’t experience that while shopping online or struggling to find parking at the mall.
Local independents also often get involved in their communities—sponsoring baseball and soccer and hockey teams, taking part in local events and celebrations and donating to local causes. And they are very generous. According to Indiebound, local businesses donate to charities at twice the rate of national chains.
The next time you need a product or service, please shop small! And when you do shop online, please choose a small business if you can. You can feel good knowing you’re supporting an independent business owner.
What is your favorite small business? Or do you own a small business?
I'm a new co-owner of The Raven Book Store in Lawrence, KS. We've been leading the fight against Amazon in the indie bookstore world. Our general manager even wrote a viral twitter thread about how Amazon impacts bookstores, which turned into a zine, then a book. Check it out! https://www.ravenbookstore.com/search/site/how%20to%20resist%20amazon
I just finished reading Nomadland by Jessica Bruder. The book describes the low wages and unnecessarily cruel working conditions in Amazon warehouses. Wages are so low that the seasonal, migrant thousands who do the work can only afford to live in RVs or their cars.