Saturday, March 7, 2009

Book Review: Big Box Swindle

Last December, I wrote an article on the importance of buying local for my city's green newsletter. I played up the importance of supporting neighbors in a bad economy, the fact that local businesses give 350% more support to non-profits than do non locally owned businesses, and the value of preserving local culture.

Within hours of sending out the newsletter, a very active and very green citizen shot me a blistering email. She found my article divisive and offensive. What was more, she hated our downtown. It was too expensive and didn't carry some of the items that her 17 year old niece wanted for Christmas. She scoffed at donations made by local businesses to our schools and community organizations. They couldn't possibly compare, in size, to the 5% that Targets allegedly give back to their communities. And she wanted a Target in our town, darn it! A green one, that she could walk to. Never mind that there is a Target the next town over. She needed one here.

I put together a lengthy and, I hoped, eloquent response, declaring my allegiance to Main Street. The other green task force members piped in with positive thoughts about buying within the city limits but it was the response from the task force's fearless leader that made the biggest impression.

"Mary, have you read Big Box Swindle? Let me send a you a copy so that you can better understand the importance of supporting locally owned businesses and the impact of big box stores."

Here I sat, a green bookworm if ever there was one. Heck, I even blog at a place devoted entirely to green reads and yet I'd never heard of this book much less read it.

I immediately logged into my library's online reservation and reserved a copy of Big Box Swindle: The True Cost of Mega-Retailers and the Fight to Save America's Independent Businesses by Stacy Mitchell.

Before reading it, I had intuitively known that local businesses provide more interest, more diversity in the marketplace and I had supported other bloggers who felt the same. I had read, with great interest, the chapter in Affluenza that pointed out how chain businesses erode our communities and ship our dollars to corporate headquarters instead of to city hall. I had nodded in agreement with Bill McKibben when he explained, in Deep Economy, that, when chain stores come to town, the individual benefits (through cheaper socks and shampoo) but the community suffers. Indeed, I had immediately agreed with Katrina, from Kale for Sale, when she suggested that, at The Blogging Bookworm, the book list link to independent bookstores instead of Amazon. And the first ad we ever put up at The Green Phone Booth was for IndieBound, an online cooperative of independent bookstores across the country.

But knowing, or suspecting, that it is better to support local businesses is one thing. Having the marketplace laid bare, with all its secrets and swindles set forth, is another.

For me, Big Box Swindle is the next The Omnivore's Dilemma. It rocked my world and opened eyes in a way no other book has since I plodded along with Michael Pollan through factory farm feedlots and the fields of PolyFace Farm.

In Big Box Swindle, the author systematically explains how chain stores have changed American culture. They've moved us out of our downtowns, into our cars, and out to the fringes where we buy things shipped from Asia, made with toxic ingredients by people paid unethical wages, and rung up by a cashier who works full time but lives below the poverty line.

They've ripped up our forests, torn down our historic buildings, and polluted our rivers and streams as they pave over more and more of the country.

They've limited our selection. We wear the clothes, dance to the music, and read the books that an ever-shrinking group of people choose for us. "The pressure [the mega retailers] place on manufacturers to lower costs has sharply curtailed investment in product research and development." (138).

They've taken subsidies from well meaning but ill informed city councils and demanded tax breaks in return as they bring in lower paying jobs and drive local businesses out of business.

They've stripped our country of its meeting places, whittled away at the idea of community and left us paying the same price for shampoo as we did before - but with a smaller paycheck, fewer community amenities and for a lesser product.

If you care about rebuilding your community, about rebounding from this economic collapse, about preserving those beautiful natural spaces and those binding community places, if you want to have more choice in what you use to wash hair or paint your walls, if your city is struggling to pay it teachers or keep its park and rec classes open, this book is for you.

It is impossible to move forward without truth. And of truth, this book offers plenty. But it also offers solutions. Ways to overcome the big box syndrome sweeping the country. Ways to fight it within your own community. And ways to support those independently owned businesses the provide our country with the beauty, the diversity, the flavor the heart that makes up America.

The politicians have bickered enough about bailouts and stimulus packages. This book provides the blue print for the only one that matters but the only folks who can do it. Together, we can bail out Main Street and get back the community we all want.

Rating: 10 out of 5.
Recommended: For everyone who has ever paid for anything.

7 comments:

JAM said...

Green Bean,
Thanks for the review! Although I read this book last month, you make me want to go read it again. Really, the only big box store we still frequent is Costco - my husband is the main food shopper, and carefully plans his trips around Costco, Whole Foods, and Star Market. He feels that the prices at Costco for the things we eat from there are too good to pass up, and in a lot of respects I think the big food store chains are similar to big box stores anyway. We do have a local vegetable/grocery type store, which we frequent in the summer, but for winter in New England it's hard to get much local. But reading the book, and now with your review to make me think about it more, definitely keeps things in the front of my mind. Our local (next town over) Target is undergoing a revision to become a super Target and my husband asked me if it was finished yet. I realized that I have not driven over that way in months and had no idea. A few years ago I probably went to Target once a month, so that's been a good change for me.

Donna said...

OK, I'm sold! I just requested the book from my library. Really great review.

kale for sale said...

Great review! I'm certainly going to look for this. You're the first person I've heard talk about it. Thank you.

Green Bean said...

Jam: It really is one of the most thought provoking, eye opening books, isn't it? I've made similar positive changes with Target. :)

Donna: So glad you are reading it!

Katrina: I'd never heard before either. Then, I HAD to read it. Cannot believe people haven't been talking about it.

MeadowLark said...

Care to do a cross-country lend? My library didn't have it and quite honestly, I think I might actually read it!

This from someone who is disgusted with our downtown because it seems to think that a $72 t-shirt is worthwhile. Um, sorry over-priced yuppie store owner, no deal.

Of course, I haven't been to a Target in several years. Come to think of it, I might need some new clothes... I rarely shop!

So I admit, I have some learning to do. Interested in a loan? I can either return or giveaway at my place. Just a thought... and can't hurt to ask!

Beany said...

This book has also changed my world profoundly. Although I never shopped at walmart or target, I didn't see any problem with shopping at Amazon or Home depot. This book has changed that view and I'm vowing never to patronize these big box stores ever again. I cancelled my netflix membership years ago and recently signed up with an independent movie lending place. I found the nearest independent bookstore and plan on visiting to buy a book or two this week. It really is like Michael Pollan's writings which changed my worldview for good.

This was an excellent, accurate and honest review. Thanks for the recommendation.

Beany said...

cancelled netflix months ago..not years.