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Friday, December 28, 2012

New Year's Resolution

By Tim Faulkner, ecoRI.org News executive editor

2013 is shaping up to be a year of activism. Planning is underway for a massive Presidents Day rally in Washington, D.C. Union supporters are striking and taking to capitals. College students are calling for divestment. Even those happy with the outcome of the presidential election aren’t taking the year off.

Perhaps a new consumerism will also be part of this burgeoning activist movement. Environmental degradation aside, the economy is improving; shoppers are spending; new stores are opening.
This wave of growth presents an opportunity to transform the physical look of retailing, the livability of our communities and the health of local economies.

The nationwide Black Friday rallies at Wal-Mart Supercenters show that the low-price-only doctrine undermines the economy. In terms of jobs, wages — about $9 an hour at Wal-Mart — and standard of living, big-box stores and discount retailers only make people poorer and contribute to the nation’s wealth gap. The “Wal-Mart Effect” reinforces the oldest of adages: "You get what you pay for."

Simply put, you can’t buy stuff for cheap and also expect to earn a respectable income and live in a nice place. In our consumer-dominated economy, shopping sets the standard of living. If you patronize big-box stores and strip malls, then your community begets retail sprawl, and low-paying retail jobs dominate the workforce. Shopping centers and malls create fields of pavement, threaten wetlands, increase flooding and make driving stressful and dangerous. You are where you shop.

Contrast this ever-growing image with the goals of Grow Smart Rhode Island, the nonprofit group advocating for revitalized and walkable city and town centers. Grow Smart RI promotes the development and preservation of unique communities through the advancement of small businesses, public transportation, rehabbed buildings and access to local agriculture. It seeks a quality of life based on sustainability, not low prices.

But smart growth doesn’t make consumers less wealthy. A recent report from Civic Economics showed that $45 of every $100 spent at a local retailer stays in the community, while only $13 from a national chain stays local. Clustered and transit-oriented development also increases property values and reduces transportation costs. It creates work in construction and transportation, careers that are more likely to weather a poor economy. These projects also create proportionally more medium-wage jobs and fewer low-wage jobs, according to Grow Smart RI.

The principles are slowly proving true in cities such as Cambridge, Mass., and countless smaller communities and neighborhoods across the country. Both North Kingstown and South Kingstown have already embraced the idea in order to preserve open space and manage growth. And Rhode Island has 21 towns and villages identified as candidates (pdf) for such development.

The good news is that the economy has the momentum to make smart-growth principals take hold. Local public policy also is advancing the cause, with the passage of the complete streets legislation (pdf) by the General Assembly. Consumers, however, must support this development for it to succeed. Shop your values at places where employees earn respectable wages with benefits, in stores and restaurants that use local food and products and sustainable packaging. Avoid retailers engulfed in a sea of pavement.

It may not be a full-blown march or protest, but practicing sustainable consumerism during a resurgent economy drives the change required for a better Rhode Island.