Thursday, December 16, 2010

Letter from Andy Shallal of Busboys and Poets

Wal-Mart Coming to DC… STOP!

Here we go again. A city in dire straits for jobs and revenues and a retailer offering millions of dollars in taxes and hundreds of jobs. What is there not to like?

Politicians are tripping over themselves to hail this newest big box retail darling – Wal-Mart. Think of the jobs, they tell us. Think of the cheap products. Think of the development and tax revenues.

But just scratch the surface and you can see serious flaws in this mindset.

Take the jobs for instance - its small business that overwhelmingly outpaces big boxes and large retailers for job creation. Furthermore they provide a diverse workforce that can withstand economic downturns and wholesale layoffs.

When it comes to tax revenues, small business comes out ahead once again. Small business generates the majority of the business tax base for this city. Furthermore, local dollars stay in the community. Local businesses hire local architects, local contractors and local lawyers.Revenues don’t leave the community; they are reinvested over and over again creating an economic multiplier.

As consumers we have become accustomed to demanding cheaper products. However, cheap products come at a cost. Those products that fill the shelves at Wal-Mart and other big box retailers with “impossible to beat” prices have a cost that most Americans, once informed, would not want to subsidize.

Organizations like Global Exchange have been working hard to inform consumers about these hidden costs. Their business plan requires that every product they sell be “fairly traded”. When you buy a scarf or a shoe at Global Exchange you know that the product has been certified as “fair trade”. You know that the workers making these products are paid a fair wage, have fair housing opportunities, have running water and toilets. It is these practices that create a safer world where we don’t have to depend on slave labor to satisfy our unrealistic and unsustainable expectations that “cheaper is better”.

Years ago when I was first starting my restaurant business, I was approached by someone who pulled up a truck at my back door and offered me cases of tomatoes, lettuce and other vegetables at impossibly low prices. I was tempted to buy the products before realizing that these were stolen products. For me to accept them would amount to being an accessory and would create a market situation that is unsustainable. I recognized the hidden cost that such a transaction would entail. I refused them.

The next time you find a pair of shoes for $5 at Wal-Mart or another big box retailer, ask yourself the question: What is the real cost of this shoe?The reality is that without slave labor, this shoe could not have been possible at that price.

I know that poverty in this city is undeniable. However, you cannot fix a right with a wrong. Using Wal-Mart as an argument to provide cheap products for poor people in this city, as some politicians have suggested, is abdicating the responsibility and the role of government to its citizens.We cannot rob one community to feed another.

Its time to put and end to this economic myopia and look ahead to a more sustainable approach to development in DC.

Andy Shallal

Owner, Busboys and Poets

Chairman, Think Local First DC

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