Opinions in Dialogue: Are local businesses good?

The “support local” message has many sides

Vancouver’s urban areas are seeing more small businesses pop up. Photo courtesy of Joe Mabel via Wikimedia Commons

by Meera Eragoda, Sara Wong, with introduction by Madeleine Chan

Small and local businesses have been hit hard during this pandemic, increasing rally cries to support them. But are answering these calls the solution? Students Sara Wong and Meera Eragoda discuss the intricacies of this topic.

Sara: To start off, buying local can be expensive. But if you have the budget to purchase a latte from Starbucks daily, I don’t see why you can’t support an independent coffee shop instead. This “support local” message can also be directed at people who spend a lot of money on beauty products, home accessories (like candles), and fast food items.

Meera: There are many local businesses that I support, and I do still think they’re a much better alternative than buying from places like Amazon and Starbucks, if people can afford it. Your point about how expensive local businesses are is a good one, but the conversation around small business often leaves out that they can be gentrifying forces. Often, small businesses set up in working class neighbourhoods because rent is cheaper. This ends up increasing the value of those neighbourhoods and pushing out working class residents who rely on the cheaper living cost. The influx of places like Downlow Chicken, Umaluma, and even Moja (one of my favourites) are undoubtedly contributing to the gentrification of  Commercial Drive and the Downtown Eastside.

Additionally, I’ve noticed how the “support local” message that has been especially pervasive during COVID-19 flattens any real activism, and posits the solutions to crises as “buy more.”

Sara: You’re absolutely right about how small businesses can contribute to gentrification. The last time I was in Chinatown, I noticed a DALINA — a high end café. I’m more mad about Tim Hortons being in the area though. At least with small businesses, they care about the community they’re a part of. Sticking to the Downtown Eastside, there’s one coffee shop I really love, Coastal Eden Café, that provides job opportunities for folks who have had trouble finding work due to past struggles with addictions. Tim Hortons, meanwhile, has a history of discrimination, such as racially profiling Indigenous customers and refusing to serve people with disabilities.

Also, there are many ways to support local that don’t involve spending money! You can write nice reviews, promote small businesses’ activities (e.g. new takeout menus or special product launches) on social media, or connect with industry-led organizations.

Meera: I do think you’re right about small businesses tending to care more about their community than large businesses or chains. The troubling thing about that is often their care only goes as far as what doesn’t hurt their bottom line because ultimately, even though they’re small capitalists, they’re still capitalists. Small businesses have less money which makes them less likely to provide their employees with proper benefits, safe working conditions, and appropriate wages. Focusing the conversation on small businesses takes it away from worker rights.

On the point about addiction, I’m glad to hear that Coastal Eden Café provides those opportunities and I would love to see more small businesses implementing policies like these. But on the whole, small businesses are more likely to align themselves along pro-police and anti-crime lines. Most Business Improvement Areas in Vancouver and elsewhere rely on the police, which not only contributes to gentrification but is also detrimental to unhoused people, BIPOC, and drug users. With the Strathcona tent city, for example, the Strathcona Business Improvement Association (BIA) was a huge voice advocating for NIMBYism (not in my backyard) and city intervention. This means that even though they support the ideals of housing for everyone, they don’t want unhoused people in their neighbourhood. 

Sara: Sadly, this is the first I’m hearing about the Strathcona BIA’s NIMBYism. It’s disheartening, especially after reading their president’s statement about wanting to build “lasting connections between the often disparate groups that make up a community like Strathcona.” Analyzing the Strathcona BIA even more, I noticed that a majority of its staff members are visibly white and none own or operate small businesses like the ones we’ve been discussing. With these points in mind, I think the overarching issue is a lack of representation. 

I’m also glad you brought up workers’ rights. Although I see more has been done in recent years to make working in a restaurant environment more inclusive — like having values-based hiring practices, clear commitments to diversity, and gender-neutral spaces — I wouldn’t say the industry has been revolutionized yet. I’m not sure I agree with you about the “support local” movement taking away from the fight for workers’ rights though. My takeaway is that we need to pay closer attention to the practices of small businesses and hold them accountable when they do not uphold social responsibilities. 

Meera: Yes! That’s it exactly. I’m not against small businesses but I do think it’s important to be aware of how they operate within capitalism and hold them accountable not on an individual basis, but across the board. For Strathcona BIA, I don’t think they’re the exception to the rule, unfortunately. As The Tyee reported, “The Canadian Federation of Independent Businesses represents more than 100,000 members who operate small businesses across Canada [ . . . ] In recent years, the CFIB has lobbied against increasing the minimum wage and against guaranteed personal leave for workers, among other causes.” 

Because of their precarious position, they are often the ones who run ideological cover for big business, fighting for conservative policies that place workers in precarious positions. For organizations like the Strathcona BIA, I agree that representation is important, but it can also turn into tokenism — which includes hiring people of colour who will uphold conservative ideals.

You make a fair point about how conversations about worker and small business rights can happen in tandem. Sadly, the conversations that were happening in the beginning of the pandemic about mutual aid have been mostly flattened due to highly circulated social media graphics about small businesses to support.

Sara: Again, you’ve brought up some excellent points that I haven’t considered before. I think it goes to show that supporting local in the long term will require much more than spending money or re-posting a cute infographic. But while the pandemic is ongoing, small businesses need all the help they can get. These businesses, as previously discussed by Saman Dara at The Peak regarding a lecture by Jeremy Stone, “provide people with the ability to grow, learn skills, and experience successful mentorship, all the while serving different demographics, trades, and geographic communities.” If they disappear, it will be that much harder to improve things such as workers’ rights and fair representation. 

Meera: Small businesses need help to get through the pandemic, and we should support them (especially BIPOC-owned ones). As I mentioned earlier though, more times that we’d like to think, small businesses are at the forefront of eroding workers’ rights. I think what’s needed generally is for conversations surrounding unions and legislation to be much more prominent than they are right now. 

Small businesses are a far better alternative to big business and I love supporting the creativity of locals. But it’s also important to remember that they are far from perfect and to reiterate a point you made, we need to hold them accountable.