memes,  the ethical life

Life is so much more complicated than the pro-small business memes make it sound.

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Today I saw a meme that read “When you buy from a small business, you’re not helping a CEO buy a third holiday home. You’re helping a little girl get dance lessons, a little boy his team jersey, moms & dads put food on the table. Shop local.”

Let’s ignore for a moment the sexism involved in assuming the girl get’s dance lessons and the boy a sports jersey. Let’s focus on this issue of big businesses verse small.

There’s an extent to which that is true. A small business owner is probably not buying a third holiday home.

However, many so-called small-businesses these days are actually multi-level marketing schemes, where the person believes him or herself to be the owner, but the majority of the money gets funneled back to the CEO of their supplier. The small business owner would still say “so, you’re still supporting me. I still benefit from it, even if my supplier does too….” and that’s true… buying from them helps them put food on the table and put their kids in activities, even if it also helps the CEO of their supplier buy a third holiday home. But the same is true for the employees of big businesses.

Employees of big businesses are also trying to put food on the table. The employee at the worst corporation is still trying to put their child in dance lessons or buy a jersey or put food on their table. They still want their job. Buying from that corporation – even if it helps the boss buy a third holiday home – still helps them too, right? It keeps their location in business, keeps them employed, and depending on how the big business is run, they might have more benefits and job security than the multi-level marketer.

Multilevel marketing schemes, where people get to “be their own boss” while not having to worry about creating their own product or figuring out their own shipping lines, etc, try to take advantage of the way we idealize small businesses by calling the sales reps as independent business owners rather than employees. They try to focus our attention on the sales reps and their need to earn a living and take the CEOs out of the picture, but if we step back, the picture doesn’t look all that different.

And looking at the ideal small businesses – those locally owned and operated – we have to acknowledge that the small scales they work on make it hard for them to compete. Many people can’t afford to buy from small businesses, because the products cost more.

To some extent we need to be asking ourselves not whether the boss is buying a third house or trying to put their kids through work, but are all parts of the supply chain earning decent wages? How much of the money is staying locally within the community and how much of it is going out? How sustainable – both economically and environmentally – is this business and their products? Things get complicated and most of us can’t buy things from an entirely good supply chain. Most of us don’t have the option of just buying the ethically great stuff.

We can’t buy our way to a just society. We need laws that ensure that employees are paid liveable wages whether they work for big companies or small. We need laws that tax billionaires heavily, recognizing that their wealth is the result of the workers in all their companies, and in the public infrastructure that makes their companies possible – (think roads, health care, schools that educate their workers children, etc, etc). We need laws that make it so that no matter what company we buy from, no one is buying third vacation homes and everyone can afford to feed themselves and enrich their children’s lives.

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