Supporting a small business can mean supporting environmentalism even when it might not be obvious. As local businesses in Ann Arbor shut their doors, students bemoan the loss of their favorite unique stops. Recent closures include The Local Bike Shop, Elixir Vitae coffee shop and Elevation Burger. With their closures, we lose not only some of Ann Arbor’s small-town charm but some of the city’s built-in environmentalism.
Supporting small businesses is not a new idea. Advocates tout the advantages shopping small has for the local economy and local job creation. It is also widely understood that businesses offering products made locally are sustainable since they don’t require a large energy expenditure for transportation. The main selling point for some small businesses is that they are environmentally friendly alternatives, like the People’s Food Co-Op, which sells locally grown produce and products. Oftentimes, a sustainable local business may openly advertise its environmentally friendly practices to help attract environmentally conscious customers.
The sustainable habits of local businesses can go under the radar, and sometimes small businesses practice sustainability without even trying. The Mail Shoppe, a local mail processing, packing and shipping store is an unexpectedly sustainable business. The store, that looks like a house, has been open for more than 30 years on South Division Street between William and Liberty. The shipping and mailing industry as a whole is not an environmentally friendly one — however, The Mail Shoppe’s personalized way of doing things is a step above industry standard.
The Mail Shoppe doesn’t have more environmentally-friendly practices because they go out of their way to be a green business, but simply because, as an independently owned store, they have the freedom to do what they want. The Mail Shoppe uses donated boxes and shipping materials that would otherwise have been thrown away.
Ryan Powell, who has worked there for 12 years, said, “In the corporate setting, they wouldn’t be allowed to accept previously used materials like we do.” Reusing materials is more environmentally-sound than using new, recycled or sustainable products.
Another example of a small local business’s unheralded environmentalism is Literati Bookstore. At first glance, a store selling new books and magazines does not seem like a sustainable business, though the bookstore has a reputation for being very community-focused. However, the bookshelves and tables inside were bought used, and the sign was designed and constructed locally. Both reusing furniture and utilizing local resources are environmentally-friendly business practices that may not be possible with a corporate-owned retail store. Public places, like Urban Outfitters or Starbucks, focus on curating a national brand with standardized signage and consistency in their interior decoration.
At a time when environmentalism is becoming a high-profile issue, some businesses, especially ones looking for good press, are transitioning to more sustainable practices. Initiatives like only offering straws upon request, giving out compostable ware or encouraging buyers to bring their own bags could make a difference in lessening the business’s environmental footprint. However, this practice of starting from an unsustainable position and working backward is slow-moving and often has a minute impact. The businesses with sustainable practices that do not go out of their way to advertise it deserve more credit.
Small businesses also have more of a stake in the community as a whole. Because of their reliance on the local community, they are more likely to want to get involved in local politics. For instance, small businesses may advocate for more walkable infrastructure since walkability is related to a street’s economic productivity. A corporation does not have the same stake in the success of downtown Ann Arbor.
As the trends point toward more consumer support of environmentally-friendly businesses, it should be kept in mind that local businesses without an advertised environmental purpose may indeed have one. Even if a restaurant is not offering a wide vegan selection and utilizing all-natural cleaning products, it may very well be providing a larger source of sustainability to the community.
Leah Adelman can be reached at email@example.com.