Vote With Every Dollar

By Guest blogger Jon Barth, Southwest Detroit Business Association

Paying with Debit CardThe days are getting shorter, the leaves are falling and most Americans are gearing up for their annual holiday shopping spree. Last year, Americans spent more than $600 billion on gifts. A well-known superhero was once told “with great power comes great responsibility;” I’d say that $600 billion is a lot of power and responsibility. That’s enough money to buy 600 billion fast food cheeseburgers. Or 30 billion pairs of clearance rack jeans. Or you could even pay off the City of Detroit’s pre-bankruptcy debt 33 times.

Every dollar is a vote. When I buy a $1 cookie from the bakery down the street, I’m voting for that bakery to continue making cookies. I’m also voting for the company that supplied the bakery with their flour, the farmer that grew the wheat, the governments that the bakery pays their taxes to and so on.

Choosing to purchase the cookie from the bakery over one from a grocery store even if the price is a little higher and the quality is the same means that I value my community and want those dollars to benefit those within it. When a package of cookies is purchased from a grocery store owned by a company based out of California, a portion of the money spent goes to California, some goes to the bakery that made the cookies and some goes to all the supply-chain folks in between. Also, that’s a dollar I won’t be spending in my community, because I only have so many dollars, and I only need so many cookies.

Last year the average American spent a little over $700 on holiday gifts. While it pales in comparison to $600 billion, $700 is nothing to sneeze at. With $700 you could cast a major vote for American manufacturing, innovation in Silicon Valley or small-scale goat farming in Vermont. Every dollar you spend on a particular business makes it a little more likely that they will succeed in the marketplace and continue to do what they are currently doing. For example, if everyone in America buys goat cheese for someone on their list this year, next year we will still have farmers making the cheese, and the supply may even increase. But if nobody gives the gift of goat cheese, goat farmers may choose to focus on other pursuits.

Holiday shopping is small potatoes when compared to the impact of our day-to-day spending choices.  A couple of weeks ago I was ordering office supplies online for my office. I had my choice of products and a variety of opportunities use my organization’s dollars to vote. I work in Southwest Detroit, which happens to be home to the second most polluted zip code in the state of Michigan. Further, my office is located adjacent to the most polluted zip code in Michigan, and I experience the effects of this on a daily basis. My need for office supplies granted me the opportunity make my purchasing decisions around small, but very deliberate, votes. For example, I opted for non-toxic oil-based soap rather than a competitor’s floor-cleaning product that contained toluene, a toxin known to harm the central nervous system when inhaled. It only cost a couple of dollars more, and in doing so, I voted for non-toxic cleaning products and better air-quality in my office building.

Nobody’s perfect. Even the most principled individuals have to compromise on their values from time to time, especially when your ideal choice is cost-prohibitive. Sometimes, we don’t have enough information to know we’re making the right choice. Sometimes there really isn’t a choice. Regardless, we all have the power to make at least a small difference.

What are your values?

Think about how your spending habits might be voting for or against some of those values. Are there any ways that you might be able to change your spending habits to better support those values? If you want to keep American manufacturing alive, maybe it means spending a little more on your next TV to get the American-made set. If money is tight, maybe it means cutting back on non-essentials so that your spending on necessities can be more in line with your values.

What I’m really saying is that every dollar you spend is a vote for the kind of world you want to live in. I’m not trying to tell you how to spend your money, but am asking for you to think a little bit about how you are wielding your spending power.

Remember, with great power comes great responsibility.

Jon Barth works with the Southwest Detroit Business Association (SDBA). The SDBA is a coalition of businesses and community interests committed to facilitating the continuation and enhancement of a stable, economically healthy Southwest Detroit. The SDBA employs strategies that support existing business and industrial enterprises, enhance the climate for public and private investment and economic growth and act as a vehicle for cooperative ventures that support economic development in Southwest Detroit. For more information, visit