Wednesday, January 04, 2006

The Choice is Ours

I wrote this originally at the end of 2004. It reflects some of my core beliefs and philosophy about food and life as well as the importance and consequences of the choices we make.

Philosopher Bertram Russell said, “Change is scientific, progress is ethical, change is indubitable, whereas progress is a matter of controversy.” And here’s one way the battle between change and progress plays out somewhere in America everyday. A huge retail chain moves into the area. It offers product variety and one-stop-shopping at a level unmatched by any competitors. Its goods are so inexpensive that it soon begins putting local shops out of business. One by one, Main Street stores close and are replaced by down market businesses or national chain outlets. Has the community merely changed or progressed?

Many economists would argue that the town is better off. The standard of living is increased. Locals now spend less for essentials and can afford more discretionary purchases. Growth is fueled as savings are redirected to more productive uses. Small business owners and community advocates on the other hand would take the opposite view. A far smaller portion of every sales dollar brought in by a national chain stays in the community than does with a locally-owned business. And behemoth businesses threaten commercial diversity and local authenticity. Before you know it, every town center or shopping plaza looks the same. An important piece of the community’s physical and social identity is lost.

Regardless of which side of this debate you are on, it is important to understand that changes like these happening in communities and in the workplace result from choices that we make each and every day as consumers. We have the freedom to choose what we buy and with whom we do business. And those decisions have far-reaching impacts on the economic health and aesthetic quality of our communities.

Many Americans can’t seem to get enough of stores like Walmart, Home Depot, Starbucks, Dunkin Donuts or Costco. If you are one of them then by all means keep shopping in these places. But don’t be upset when local merchants go bust. Would you miss businesses such as Ferns, Carlisle Auto Repair, West Concord Supermarket, Idlewylde, The Cheese Shop and West Concord 5 & 10 (These are businesses in Concord and Carlisle, Massachusetts where I live. Please substitute them with the beloved local establishments in your area) were they to disappear? If so then make sure you patronize them too. Don’t calculate value purely on price. Is saving two bucks a pound on ground beef at the Walmart Supercenter or three dollars on a bottle of merlot at Costco worth the larger price of decimating local businesses?

America, for better or for worse, is one giant marketplace where the customer is king or queen. We may feel powerless as workers and ignored as voters, but as customers we rule. Our influence is vast. So think twice about what kind of locality and region you wish to live in the next time you set off shopping. Because where you shop, and what you buy affects the make up of our community. Favor chain stores and big box outlets? Keep shopping in these places - more will pour into the area. Love local merchants, farmers and artisans? The best way to ensure they are here tomorrow is to buy from them today.

Some might assert that locally-owned businesses like the ones I’ve mentioned are an anachronistic luxury that only well-off people in communities like Concord and Carlisle can afford to keep going. Maybe so - but there is evidence that businesses that compete on authenticity and quality can more than hold their own even when they go up against big and powerful national firms. During the 1950’s and 1960’s national bakery and brewing corporations became dominant. Local and regional bakeries and brewers got acquired or went bust. Soon the big players began producing standardized products to reap efficiency and cost advantages. Quality standards plunged (remember Wonder Bread?) Were these changes for the better or worse? It took more than two decades to answer this question but eventually consumers voted with their pocketbooks. Today many communities have locally-owned bakeries producing top-notch breads, pastries and cakes. Local breweries and brew pubs producing a wide variety of high quality beers and ales are now common in many regions and cities around the country.

Is this change or progress? We decide – every time we reach for our wallets. The choice is ours.


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