About once a year, particularly as Christmas begins to draw closer, I see something with which I’m never quite sure how to respond. I know that the people who post it on social media are doing so with their hearts exactly in the right place—but I can’t help but feel like the sentiment is missing some pieces.
It’s that wording that floats around to the effect of “when you buy from a small business, you are not helping a CEO buy another vacation home, you are helping a little girl get ballet lessons, a little boy get his team jersey, or parents put food on the table or pay off their mortgage or student loans.”
For the most part, I really agree with what it’s trying to say. I’m a small business owner. I like to afford groceries. I have student loans. I’m a parent. But, the conversation about big and small business isn’t always as simple as “either/or” in terms of supporting them. The reason why, even as a small business owner, I don’t always feel really great about that sort of social media post is because it sends out the isolated idea that small businesses are “good” and all corporate stores are “bad.” That perspective is missing some angles even if my bias (in a lot of ways) leans toward supporting small.
For my small business to operate, I depend on electricity, hardware, software, large and small scale printing companies, the phone company, my internet provider, my hosting company, the place that produces the clear sleeves that protect my product, the sustainable companies that forest the trees that produce the envelopes I use, the places (large and small) that make and sell the jewelry components I use, the places that make art utensils and supplies, the places that sell art utensils and supplies, as well as various shipping companies who I’m so grateful to for regularly stopping by my home to bring me supplies that I’d otherwise not have access—or at the very least not very easily.
Something a lot of these places have in common is that they funnel upwards to a larger entity—the kinds of entities that have CEOs and boardrooms and stock options.
When you’re supporting my business, you’re supporting their businesses, too. Without bigger businesses, my business couldn’t exist (or at least not how I presently have it configured).
Their jobs make mine possible.
And I’m grateful.
Here’s the thing though. My business alone can’t sustain those businesses.
When big businesses are viewed strictly as market-hoarding slices of the global pie chart of commerce, it can be easy to forget that business is an ecosystem. It is intensely flawed sometimes, yes, but an ecosystem nonetheless.
Sometimes big businesses cut corners or sacrifice on safety or quality, and then all big businesses get painted that way whether that’s fair or not. Sometimes small businesses get painted as over-priced, over-hyped goods, a portrayal that ignores that things by nature cost more and take more time when produced in smaller quantities or made using artisanal methods. (Even simply the inability to stock and carry large amounts of inventory can drive cost up.)
Broad-stroke statements that paint big business CEOs as the Mr. Potter and small businesses as the George Bailey of the Christmas season paint each respective aspect of the issue into opposing corners, setting ourselves up to miss the core issue. I like a quote I read once by Tim Pawlenty. He had likened being “pro-job and anti-business” as similar to being “pro-egg and anti-chicken.”
My small business relies on larger businesses. What’s more, corporate stores can employ more people than my business can. Large, franchised businesses can put food on more tables and feed more families than my business can. And if it’s important to note, the income earned from those employees who work at those big businesses can send far more kids to ballet and sports practice than my business can. I think a lot of large businesses need to step up and do a much better job in their labor practices as well as their pay scales in relation to a living wage, insurance options, and paid leave, but despite that, I’m doubtful we can get away from the fact that we need a spectrum of businesses to sustain economies.
Whether you’re buying from small, local shops and vendors, from a work-at-home-parent who is selling his or her direct-sales wares, or from freelancers and artisans whose main bread and butter is to create commissioned designs for larger corporations to produce and sell—those tributary or distributary sources are still often relying on or even going toward a larger source…which is probably going up to a CEO somewhere. You’re supporting both. Mostly, that’s a good thing. When at all possible, it needs to be a healthy ecosystem cooperating together, not a winner-takes-all battle against each other.
In theory, responsible capitalism has a lot of practical merit toward solving debt and providing sustainable income. (For more on that, Poverty Cure is one organization that sheds light on the global impact of what building businesses can do toward sustainable income streams that benefit communities.) That theory relies on the idea that people operate in an ethical manner. Unfortunately, that isn’t always able to be seen or known about in practice and is often subjective at best, but I hope the large businesses who do support ethical practices will be an example to those who don’t.
For me, nothing can replace the charm of shopping in well-curated businesses and buying from shops specializing in handmade goods. I love that. I have a kinship to these folks. I want those small places to succeed, to do exceedingly well—but making big business out to be the singular Christmas Grinch might not be the best marketing vehicle to get there in every instance. It’s not realistic, and maybe we can do better than that. Things like Small Business Saturday serve as good reminders to invest in small business. In our zeal, I do hope well-intentioned social media shares advertising shopping small are not done at the expense of subtly shaming purchases made in another part of the business ecosystem. Fact is (dual-ended marketing ploy that it is), the idea for Small Business Saturday was started and marketed by a large business.
I hope shoppers this and every season remember that for as much as dollars spent on products small businesses create and sell matters (it really, really does), it’s not inherently “bad” to support the person stocking shelves or serving at the drive-thru or ringing you up when you buy cat food. Those hard workers have bills, too; and the persons employing those workers have so much more on their plate to do than simply keeping their business’s lights on from the comfort of some supposed vacation home.
[As a note to you vacation home-owning types, though: help out the small businesses. See as as valuable in this ecosystem. Be honest on your taxes. Promote our products in your big-box places. Use ethical manufacturing practices as well as hiring practices. Pay living wages. Someday your vacation home won’t matter, but your impact really could.]
Large or small, starting and running a business is incredibly hard work. Do support businesses worth supporting (however you personally define that), but know that your dollar spent supporting ANY size business is supporting and sustaining so many, many more people than you see.