With what environmental organization are you affiliated?
I’m founder of Sprawl-Busters.
What does your organization do?
We help community groups fight off big-box sprawl — strategize their battles, understand key objectives, and develop a game plan.
What, in a perfect world, would constitute “mission accomplished”?
Getting people to stop shopping at these giant stores and invest their money in local businesses.
How does it relate to the environment?
We would end the practice of building shopping plazas consisting of 20 or more acres of concrete and asphalt.
What do you really do, on a day-to-day basis?
I hear from about three new communities a day. I help them strategize and keep my website updated with the latest developments on the sprawl front.
What long and winding road led you to your current position?
I fell into this by accident 12 years ago when Wal-Mart came knocking on the back door of my town. When we beat Wal-Mart at the ballot box, my phone began ringing off the hook. What was supposed to be a 13-week campaign has lasted 12 years.
How many emails are currently in your inbox?
Who’s the biggest pain in the ass you have to deal with?
Local officials and developers.
Who’s nicer than you would expect?
Local citizens’ groups have been like angels in the midst of battle.
Where were you born? Where do you live now?
Born in Washington, D.C. I now live in Massachusetts.
What environmental offense has infuriated you the most?
The fact that Wal-Mart now has 358 dead stores on the market — a total of 28 million square feet of dead space.
What is your environmental nightmare?
Being locked in a Wal-Mart store.
What’s your environmental vice?
Using a coal stove to heat my kitchen in the New England winter.
What are you reading these days?
Zoning codes and comprehensive land-use plans.
What’s your favorite meal?
Chinese food, but not made in China.
What’s your favorite place or ecosystem?
Every place is someone’s home and should be treated as someone’s — or something’s — favorite place.
What’s one thing the environmental movement is doing particularly well?
I don’t think we are doing anything very well, and we have to behave as if we are running out of time to get it right.
What’s one thing the environmental movement is doing badly, and how could it be done better?
We should work on improving our regional land-use planning and development and reinventing our zoning codes. We need to form new county-based alliances of public and private groups to take back our communities from greedy developers and Wall Street investors and keep out wasteful sprawl. We need better state laws to protect us as well.
If you could institute by fiat one environmental reform, what would it be?
Place a cap on the size of buildings.
What was your favorite band when you were 18?
I liked Bob Dylan when I was 18, and my favorite song was his “Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll.”
What’s your favorite TV show? Movie?
I only watch news on TV. My favorite movie will be the forthcoming Robert Greenwald movie Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price.
What are you happy about right now?
Every victory over Wal-Mart makes me very happy. But a good organizer is often happy, never satisfied.
If you could have every InterActivist reader do one thing, what would it be?
Friends don’t let friends shop at Wal-Mart. I would encourage everyone to think of their shopping dollars as an investment. We need to begin to wean ourselves from Wal-Mart and invest our money locally, where it works better for the economy. The battle against big-box sprawl will be won or lost in the aisles. If you find yourself in their aisles, we are losing the battle.
Legends of the Sprawl
What’s the best advice for small-business owners struggling against big-box retailers? — Eric Schwaab, Hyannis, Mass.
First, be honest about what the likely impact of a Wal-Mart will be. Don’t hold the false impression that you will feel no difference, or that customer loyalty will see you through. My suggestion is that small businesses join with citizens’ groups to engage Wal-Mart in a zoning battle, redraft local zoning codes to place restrictions on big-box stores, and give money to citizens’ groups that can hire a land-use attorney to give Wal-Mart a fair fight. Do not rely on the notion that you can “thrive and survive” a Wal-Mart by just shifting your product line and emphasizing personal services. Join the battle head-on, and tell public officials you want a competitive marketplace — not one dominated by one or two big stores.
If Wal-Mart committed to reducing its ecological footprint — with green roofs, parking decks, natural lighting, etc. — would your stance soften at all? Is there anything Wal-Mart is doing right? — Mike Hadden, Alpharette, Ga.
No. There is nothing I can think of that it is doing right. Its business model is built on exploitation. It is a chain store, and at every link in the chain, from the sweatshops in Shenzhen, China, to the sales floors in America, someone is being exploited. Worst of all, we taxpayers are giving it millions of dollars annually in corporate welfare by building roads and sewer lines, through tax-increment financing and health-care subsidies for its workers, etc. The model is driven by Wall Street investors, not by Main Street needs. If market need was the litmus test for new Wal-Marts, there would be no more stores built. Wal-Mart is saturating the market to gain market share and to keep stock price up. Its growth now has nothing to do with what consumers need.
Have you encountered critics who argue that low-income shoppers can’t afford not to shop at big-box stores like Wal-Mart? What has been your response? — Evelyn Goss, Austin, Texas
Yes. Wal-Mart has created and perpetuated a low-income cycle of worker/consumer. Something like 30 percent or more of Wal-Mart shoppers have no bank accounts. Wal-Mart’s 1.5 million workers have to shop at the company store because they can’t afford to shop elsewhere. It’s a great closed-loop system, akin to a plantation where the field workers went to the company store with their day’s wages. By making small profits on large volumes, Wal-Mart has created great wealth at the top of the chain. Each member of the Walton family is worth about $18 billion. They could afford to pay their workers a decent wage and provide them with health insurance, instead of amassing unimaginable wealth. That’s why I say the model is based on greed, not need.
What’s the process for decommissioning an already-established Wal-Mart in my community? — Carlos Gomez, Sierra Madre, Calif.
You don’t have to decommission it; Wal-Mart will do that for you. It has left hundreds of its discount stores empty, more than 356 stores today — or 28 million square feet of empty space, plus an equal amount of parking lots. All these stores have been dumped as the company replaced them with larger superstores. If you have a Wal-Mart discount store near you, it will either be enlarged or shut down. Another great way to shut down a Wal-Mart is to threaten to unionize it. Wal-Mart would rather close a store than see the workers organized.
Wal-Mart has already invaded our region, and the businesses we relied on have gone belly-up. Other than shopping online (which not everybody can do), we have no alternative except to travel 75 miles to Richmond. Any alternatives you can recommend? — Cindi deCapiteau, Heathsville, Va.
If Wal-Mart shoppers have killed off the other businesses in the area, as they have done in my area also, you have to either create new ways of shopping — like food co-ops and general retail co-ops, which are growing in popularity — or seriously examine your needs, to cut down on items you might be tempted to get at Wal-Mart. There is no need, for example, to buy any groceries at Wal-Mart. There are usually some alternatives left. For other goods, make a list of what you need, and if driving 75 miles to Richmond is the only current alternative, save your purchases for two or three times a year instead of impulse buying each month. If you find shopping at a Wal-Mart morally distasteful, you will find other sources or cut down on your purchases. Let your values guide you. Whatever you can’t find, other merchants may be willing to source for you.
What strategies have been used in the past to encourage Wal-Mart to rethink its plans and either relocate or sell its property to a developer who will enhance the area? — Dean Brown, Orange, Calif.
You cannot “encourage Wal-Mart to rethink its plans.” It pays no attention to what the community says it wants. Wal-Mart is driven by what it thinks its stockholders want and what will add value to its stock. But local citizens can reinvent their zoning codes to stop or restrict big-box sprawl. A cap on the footprint size of buildings can be done with one sentence.
What can we do to create more eco-friendly (pedestrian-accessible, public-transit friendly) development or build in ways that waste fewer acres? — Name not provided
The place to start is your local zoning codes. Local residents can petition their elected officials to incorporate items like size limits, public-transit orientation, underground parking, open space, and environmentally friendly design standards. Residents need to press for such changes, introduce them on their own, and organize efforts to create the kind of zoning ordinances that reflect the kind of community they want to live in. In my state of Massachusetts, for example, any 10 registered voters can petition for zoning amendments to control big-box developments.
How can we plan ahead so that a decade from now we will have codes in place that automatically disallow growth, except in very exceptional circumstances? — Niki Thane, Bellingham, Wash.
See my answer above. As Tip O’Neill might have said, “All zoning is local.” Communities across the country should be engaged now to create the kind of code they want to live by 10 years from now. Regional planning is the best way to ensure appropriate land use for an entire area. Planning, by definition, means anticipating where you need to be. That process is ongoing, so there is no time like the present to engage your community in a charrette, or land-use moratorium, to step back from the table and begin some short- and long-range visioning.
Can sprawl be curtailed if impact fees are instituted so developers have to pay for new infrastructure? — Irene Scharf, Helotes, Texas
Yes. A simple change to your zoning code would be to require that no public funds be used to subsidize private developments. That means developers have to fund their own water and sewer lines, and any required road improvements. They should also be assessed for the incremental costs they create for public safety, such as extra police and fire-safety personnel. Big-box stores, for example, bring considerable crime with them, which creates a public burden on police and the courts. The cost of police protection should be estimated and assessed to the developer.
Has your group explored the possibility of establishing connections to eco- and labor-friendly producers that could compete with chain stores? — John Schneider, Rhinelander, Wis.
Sprawl-Busters is focused on stopping the spread of big-box sprawl. Alternative economic vehicles, such as the cooperatively owned discount store being developed in my town in Massachusetts, are a valuable adjunct to the anti-sprawl movement. It also works to show people that anti-sprawl does not mean anti-growth, and that growth can bring added value to a community if done correctly. Sprawl-Busters will continue to try to be a clearinghouse on issues affecting big-box sprawl.
You wrote that placing a cap on the size of buildings is the environmental reform you would impose by fiat. What makes this an environmental reform? As long as the building is used efficiently, what does the size matter? — Laura Matson, Portland, Ore.
A 200,000 square-foot store, built on one floor, consumes roughly five acres — just for the store. Add the parking lot, and you’re taking up 10 acres of impervious surfaces, with storm-water runoff, vast fields of light pollution, damage to surrounding properties, etc. But if you impose a 50,000 square-foot limit on the building’s footprint and a total cap of 100,000 square feet, you have just created 150,000 square feet of potential green space and forced the building to go up two stories. Furthermore, if you require the parking area to be underground, you can move the footprint to the streetwall (sidewalk), make it more accessible for pedestrians, and create more compact, usable space, with three acres of open space.
Do other large stores like Kmart and Target have horrible employee treatment and sweatshop practices like Wal-Mart? — Sarah W., Fargo, N.D.
I look at the business model, not the logo. Target is just Wal-Mart with an attitude. Home Depot is just Wal-Mart with a hammer. Lowe’s is just a blue Home Depot. They all follow the same corporate model: Labor is a cost center to keep exploiting to maximize profit. Communities are just sites to exploit to generate the prototype store that produces the most sales per square foot.
Do you put malls in the same category as Wal-Mart? — Joe Salzman
It depends. I have seen some relatively neighborhood-based malls that tried to incorporate designs compatible with the surrounding environment. I strongly endorse neighborhood-scale retail developments that do not try to overwhelm an area with their size and regional market. Some malls work at that smaller scale, some are just as guilty of wasting land as Wal-Mart.
How can I convince my dad — a Wal-Mart junkie — to quit shopping there? So far, no amount of argument, reasoning, cheerleading, or cajoling have convinced him that saving 20 cents on a bottle of sunscreen really ends up costing society a lot more in the long run. — Amy Ellsworth, Boulder, Colo.
I personally think the best way to educate others, including family, is to set a personal example by not shopping at Wal-Mart. “Friends don’t let friends shop at Wal-Mart.” I would not try to wean people from Wal-Mart if they are addicted, but I would say to your dad, “I would ask that when you are shopping for me, for a birthday or other occasion, please don’t buy anything from Wal-Mart, because I am trying very hard not to give them any money.” When it is your dad’s birthday, buy him a copy of the book The Case Against Wal-Mart with a $5 bill tucked inside, saying, “try spending this money at a locally owned store.”
I am from the North Shore of Staten Island, and I’ve heard that Wal-Mart is planning to open a store near us — a place where mom-and-pop shops do thriving business. How can we stop this tragedy? — Patricia Boustany, Staten Island, N.Y.
First, write me and let’s talk strategy: . Second, form a citizens’ group. Third, hire a good land-use attorney. Fourth, begin a letters-to-the-editor campaign now. Fifth, raise money to pay for the lawyer. Sixth, lobby your planning board or city council to oppose big-box retail. Seventh, ask for a retail moratorium for six months to give Staten Island the chance to develop more appropriate zoning rules to deal with big-box retail. All of these strategies are detailed in the book Slam Dunking Wal-Mart: How You Can Stop Superstore Sprawl In Your Hometown. Call toll-free, 1-877-DUNK-WAL, to get it.
Do you sell anti-Wal-Mart bumper stickers, T-shirts, etc., or know anyone who does? — Alexandra Moffat, Lyme, N.H.
I sell anti-Wal-Mart T-shirts like the one pictured in this column, but in quantities of 24 only. I have “I don’t shop at sprawl-marts” bumper stickers for $1 each (plus postage). There are a number of websites and printing companies that sell other bumper stickers.