The Top 5 Reasons Why The Bollard Shouldn’t Publish Any Ranting Smear that Comes Across Its Desk
An op-ed by Stacy Mitchell
Two years ago, when I wrote a cover story for The Bollard investigating Whole Foods and its claim of being a boon to Maine farmers and food producers, my criticisms were based on a lot of actual reporting, scrupulously fact-checked, and balanced in tone. Nothing less would meet The Bollard’s journalistic standards.
An op-ed admittedly allows for spicier language, less reporting, and more opinion. But still, a worthy op-ed is one that is thoughtful, rooted in fact, and written by someone who has taken real time to investigate his or her subject. Reputable media outlets don’t publish any ranting smear that comes across their desks.
So it was with great disappointment in our homegrown news outlet that I logged onto The Bollard Web site and saw “The Top 10 Reasons NOT to Buy Local.”
What’s with the double-standard? Shouldn’t the same care and investigation that goes into a piece critical of a major corporation also be required of an op-ed that challenges the message put forward by a coalition of local businesses and citizens?
It’s not that The Bollard should shy from publishing criticism of Buy Local, but I don’t know how this particular piece passed muster. I wonder if editor Chris Busby’s own involvement with the Buy Local campaign made him so eager to be inclusive of other opinions that he failed to apply the proper degree of scrutiny.
It’s amazing to me how little time Zachary Barowitz apparently devoted to investigating any of his claims. A string of half-baked accusations mixed with insinuations, strained anecdotes, and name-calling does not make for a viable critique. In fact, his op-ed is a prime example of the baseless sloganeering he accuses Buy Local of.
1. “Wild Accusations”
Among his half-baked accusations, Mr. Barowitz tries to discredit research showing that a larger share of a dollar spent at a local business stays in the local economy compared to a dollar spent at a national chain. He suggests that this assertion is based only on a single study. Actually, there’s a whole body of research, including about half a dozen studies that are linked on the Portland Buy Local Web site.
It’s clear Mr. Barowitz didn’t bother to read these studies or contact any of the authors. Had he, he would have learned that researchers have indeed looked at franchises (like McDonald’s), finding that, because of their contractual purchasing obligations with the corporate franchisor, their spending flows are much more like a national chain’s than an independent business’. (A McDonald’s franchise does not have the option of sourcing its buns and Happy Meal boxes from a Maine producer.)
The studies also provide an answer to his question about labor: “If 28 percent of local businesses’ expense is labor, shouldn’t that percentage be roughly the same for chains and franchises?” No, it shouldn’t and it isn’t. The reason is pretty common sense: All the management and marketing functions of a local business are carried out on-site by local employees. At chains, most of these functions happen at corporate headquarters. The result is that locally owned businesses spend a larger portion of their revenue on local payroll. (And one spin-off benefit is a more interesting mix of jobs in the local economy.)
Mr. Barowitz also asserts that Buy Local’s statements about environmental impact are “disingenuous” and full of “wild assumptions.” Again, he doesn’t bother to actually investigate or offer any facts.
Indeed, there are some local businesses out by the mall/big-box complex in South Portland and there are also some chains downtown and in the neighborhood business districts that are scattered throughout Portland (and, no, this is not all about the peninsula). But these exceptions don’t change what is a very lopsided mix. The mall area is at least 80% chain and downtown is at least 80% independent.
Both here and across the country, this correlation holds: independent businesses tend to favor compact, multi-story business districts, while most chains like to sprawl out by a highway. There are very real business dynamics that drive the preferences of both groups, which I won’t take the space to go into here, but have written about extensively elsewhere (including in Big-Box Swindle).
A group of businesses in a three-story building along Stevens Avenue with a limited need for parking can accomplish much more economic activity on an acre of land than a one-story outlet by the mall that needs three-four square feet of parking for every square foot of store space. The latter is the type of building format that almost all national chains prefer and even insist on, and it is absolutely the least efficient use of land.
Between 1990 and 2005, a period that saw big-box chains like Target, Walmart, Lowe’s, and Staples grow rapidly, the amount of land devoted to retailing in the U.S. more than doubled. Meanwhile, consumer spending rose just 14%. That’s a lot more land paved per dollar of economic activity. (My sources are the U.S. Energy Information Administration and the Bureau of Labor Statistics.)
This period also saw a startling increase in the number of miles the average American household drives for shopping. Between 1990 and 2001 (the most recent year of data from the U.S. Department of Transportation), miles driven for shopping grew more than 40% — three times as fast as driving for all other purposes. What happened is that tens of thousands of small businesses closed and were replaced by a smaller number of big boxes. Not only did these chains locate on the fringe, but, where once a region had a dozen hardware stores dispersed across as many neighborhoods, now it has a single Home Depot that pulls shoppers from the whole region. That means most people must drive further for a gallon of paint. Altogether, it adds up to almost 100 billion extra miles on the road each year over 1990 levels.
So, while Mr. Barowitz doesn’t bother to seek it out, there is data on the land use patterns of businesses and the transportation habits of shoppers, and Buy Local’s claim that, by choosing neighborhood and downtown businesses, you can “slash the amount of driving and air pollution involved in running errands” is well-supported.
2. “Asinine” Insinuations
Despite Mr. Barowitz’s insinuations to the contrary, nowhere does Buy Local suggest that we should only consume products grown and produced here in Portland, or that people should never shop at chains.
That would be absurd. Mr. Barowitz himself takes the opposite and equally absurd position that globalization is an unqualified good.
Trade is as old as humanity. My-lobsters-for-your-coffee-beans is a pretty good arrangement and one I think most everyone would like to keep going. But there’s a far cry between relatively self-reliant and self-governing communities that freely and fairly trade with one another and a system in which our local economies are gutted and transformed into little more than the economic colonies of global corporations.
3. “Meaningless” Terms
Mr. Barowitz asks, “What do ‘local’ and ‘independent’ mean?” and suggests these terms have no real meaning. The Buy Local campaign has a definition for both, published in its directory and on its Web site.
Had Mr. Barowitz done any research, he might have learned that Maine Hardware is not a franchise. It’s an independent business that together with other hardware stores owns Ace Hardware, a wholesale cooperative. As an independent business, Maine Hardware can decide how much of the Ace merchandise to carry, whether to include the Ace brand in its signage, and all other aspects of how to run its business. It also gets a vote and a share of any profits made by the co-op.
A franchisee who owns a McDonald’s or a Dunkin Donuts, on the other hand, must follow a very lengthy and detailed manual on how to run his or her business. There’s almost no room for deviation from the formula and there’s certainly no share in the profits or governance of the parent corporation.
One is independent and the other is not.
I’m tempted to go on like this: to talk about the actual research that’s been done by Consumer Reports and others on price differences between chains and locals; to point out that concentrated market power has actually reduced the diversity of products available on store shelves; to question the accuracy of a “survey” that reports that Coffee By Deign pays below the Maine minimum wage; and to challenge Mr. Barowitz’s absurd notion that fear of being sued by their workers gives big corporations “some incentive to behave.”
This last one is especially galling given the major undercover investigation released by the U.S. Government Accounting Office just last month. It found that calls from low-wage workers complaining of not being paid for all the hours they’ve worked (a widely documented problem in the big-box retail industry) have been pouring into the U.S. Department of Labor for years, but many of these calls are never returned, much less investigated. Does Mr. Barowitz think someone making $8/hour at Target who gets nowhere with federal authorities can just hire a lawyer?
5. “Smug” Name-Calling
But I’ll stop with the point-by-point refutation and end with one comment on the overall tone of the piece. Throughout it, Mr. Barowitz uses words like “smug,” “intelligentsia” and, especially, “elite” to describe Buy Local.
Until I read Mr. Barowitz’s op-ed, I thought we had at last left behind the incredibly lame rhetorical trick of calling people you disagree with “elites” as a way to discredit them and ultimately distract your audience from those who are really pulling the levers of power.
Does Mr. Barowitz honestly believe that a group of small businesses pooling their nickels to print posters and buy quarter-page ads in The Bollard constitutes a powerful mercantile elite? I wonder where he imagines this fat-cat cabal gets together to hatch its plans. It would have to be a Buy Local member business, of course. Perhaps Andy’s Old Port Pub or Tony’s Donuts?
Mr. Barowitz should pick up a copy of the hefty Maine Sunday Telegram and take a look at the pounds of advertising circulars stuffed in the middle to see who can really put money behind a “cynical marketing campaign” in this town.
Or, better yet, I suggest a drive up to Augusta while the Legislature is in full swing. One can find any number of lobbyists representing big corporations, including some major retail brands, roaming the halls. These companies are so rich and so intent on having their way that they not only have people crawling all over Washington, but they’ve even dispatched lieutenants to our humble little backwoods state. Now that’s an elite.
Stacy Mitchell lives in Portland and is a researcher with the non-profit Institute for Local Self-Reliance (ilsr.org). She also serves on the board of the Portland Independent Business and Community Alliance, but the views expressed here are her own and do not necessarily represent the views of the organization’s members or board.