Bad things come in big packages: The real costs of Costco

“Growth for the sake of growth is the ideology of the cancer cell.” – Edward Abbey

I am going to write something somewhat off topic here. It has little directly to do with children and nature, and everything to do with community health. I hope you won’t mind my political rant, but this is very much on my mind lately.

If you are familiar with Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, you may remember Arthur Dent lying down in front of a bulldozer that is preparing to tear down his house. Later we learn that a group of aliens (the Vogons) has been preparing to tear down the earth to make way for an intergalactic superhighway. It makes the bulldozer fight seem rather futile. Nonetheless, I have been having an Arthur Dent experience for the past little while. Sometimes, we just have to do what we can.

I’m not a radical environmentalist. I drive a car. I live in a suburban house. I typically shop in supermarkets, and don’t always buy organic produce. I fully admit I could do better. However, when I found out that a Costco is trying to bulldoze its way into my neighbourhood (with a planned opening in less than 8 months), I felt the need to (metaphorically) lie down in its path.

My planning education and my personal interests have focused a great deal on what makes for a safe, healthy and sustainable community. There is a widely accepted conclusion in this field that big box stores are harmful, economically, environmentally and socially. However, I have been informed by a few different sources, that my community “wants” a Costco. While no one has been able to give me any real data to back up this assertion, and no public consultation was done, it appears to be the general consensus of local politicians. This scares me.

Thankfully, other problems have cropped up. These problems don’t require a basic knowledge of sustainability, local economics or healthy communities. These problems come down to traffic congestion. Traffic-wise, the proposed location is ludicrous. And THIS is what the decision will hinge on. Forget local economy; forget active transportation; forget safety hazards; forget environmental impacts. We must worry exclusively about how to get our cars quickly from point A to point B. But, this may be a strong enough argument to at least stall the construction.

People appear to be missing the bigger picture. They are not considering all of the hidden costs a community pays for a Costco (and other big box retailers generally).

Economic Costs

Big box stores drain money from the local economy. A company such as Costco provides powerful incentives in terms of bulk discounts and convenience. Smaller retailers cannot hope to compete, and may even close. Big box stores also spawn further similar kinds of development. This ultimately leads to massive problems with sprawl. Numerous studies have outlined exactly what happens when a big box store comes to town.

Big box stores remove money directly from the local economy. Studies have shown how big IMG_20130904_104611box retailers only return a tiny fraction of their profits to the community. Smaller businesses tend to buy locally, and generally keep more money within the community. Small businesses even tend to give far more money to charitable causes than big box retailers do.

Costco is planning to set up shop just down the road from a popular farmer’s market. If you want to know how I feel about those, see here.  But, it’s going to be hard for many deal-seeking shoppers to justify spending money on the high quality local food there, when two minutes away, you can buy a massive quantity for the same price.

Social Costs

Cookie cutter warehouse stores with giant parking lots do nothing for a sense of place and responsibility for the community. It is hard to get excited about places that look like prisons.

Big box stores reduce social interaction. One study I read found that a person is seven times more likely to have a conversation with a stranger in a farmer’s market than at a big box store. People who live in places with an abundance of big box stores have even been shown to vote less often.

Big box stores, and Costco in particular, are not designed to be accessible to people using alternative forms of transportation. They promote car-dependency. People just don’t take the bus to Costco. I even saw an online joke making fun of someone bringing their smart car to Costco. So, forget walkable and bikeable communities, although all the plans and strategies for the community state this is a priority.

In addition, a Costco is designed for people who have cars, who can manage bulk packages and who can afford a membership. This is clearly non-inclusive.

Health and Safety Costs

Increasing car dependence carries all sorts of health and safety risks. Increased traffic certainly increases accident risk, and reduces walkability in neighbourhoods. Increased car use contributes to the obesity epidemic. Reduced variety and choice (due to stores closing) also reduces accessibility around neighbourhoods, which should optimally be mixed-use and diverse.

Environmental CostsPicture1

Large parking lots are impermeable surfaces which create water runoff and quality issues. They also create heat islands and can destroy habitat. Since these developments tend to spawn further similar types of buildings, the cumulative effects can be devastating.

Increased car-focused development has many obvious impacts on the environment, from increased air pollution and resource use, to an increased demand for more and wider roads.

Traffic Costs

The traffic problems are well-documented (See here). The proposed location would create further congestion in an already problematic area. Costco would be drawing massive numbers of cars from the community and surrounding areas and creating a severe bottleneck. Clearly this is a problem. It just isn’t where I choose to spend my energy.

And, in my view, the biggest problem of all:

Legacy Costs

Every time we build a new big box store and another small business closes, we lose a piece of our community identity. We lose opportunities for stories, for adventures, for creativity, for art, for uniqueness, for nature, for learning and for cultural development. We lose the opportunity to teach future generations what a beautiful, sustainable, vibrant, healthy and safe neighbourhood looks and feels like.

Elected representatives have a responsibility and an opportunity to make good decisions about how our communities function. We select them because we trust that they will do the necessary background research, talk to the necessary people and make a concerted effort to fully understand the impacts of their decisions. My elected officials made commitments to the community to uphold principles of sustainability, active transportation, local economic prosperity, safety, health, and many others. It is my sincere hope that they will consider these principles before making a rash decision.

What is the real price we are paying for giant packages of toilet paper and buckets of ketchup? If the price is the health of our community, forget it!

Please contact me if you would like more information or are willing to join me in front of the metaphorical bulldozer.

I also wrote a letter to the newspaper:

If you made it to the end, thanks for reading!!!

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14 Responses to Bad things come in big packages: The real costs of Costco

  1. Made it all the way through! We are big fans of Costco, for a variety of reasons, and have never thought of them alongside most other big box retailers. Here’s the thing: in countries such as Japan, (or in most American communities in generations past), people bought their meat from the meat shop, their vegetables from a fruit stand, their milk from a similarly specific shop or delivery service, their baked goods from the bake shop, their seafood from a fish monger, and so forth. If Costco were coming into a situation such as that, we, too, would be opposed.
    But the reality in most communities is that those shops are long gone and Costco isn’t competing against local merchants, but against the Safeways and Walmarts of the world. Costco has a good reputation for treating its employees well, contributes to causes and organizations we support, and supports sustainable fisheries. Moreover, in terms of reliable fruit and fresh produce, quality meats and fresh fish, most of the other chain supermarkets can’t compare.
    We are also fans of farmers’ markets, but, like the local meat shops and vegetable markets of the past, these have fallen away in many locales. Ironically, we have noticed that, in spite of (or maybe because of) the Safeways of the world, in some areas farmers’ markets are having a bit of a renaissance as people who can afford it are demanding locally grown, fresher produce.
    On freshness, there is one other point worth making. In most communities, unless there’s a Costco, there is generally no place to buy quality fresh fish and other seafood products. Even in coastal communities, because of the weird distribution system American seafood marketers generally insist on – and because stores like Safeway often Refuse(!!) to carry fresh, local fish, Costco’s the only option for items such as American-grown scallops, wild-caught Alaskan salmon, and sustainably harvested wild Dungeness crabs. If you are lucky enough to live in a community that still has a fish monger who knows his or her business, a produce shop, an old fashioned butcher and so forth and don’t have to shop at one of the typical chain grocers, we share your dismay over getting a big box – of any description. Anyway, thought-provoking post.

    • Thanks for reading! Definitely some things to think about. However, the area I live in has an abundance of local farmers and a large population of old order Mennonites. This Costco would be placed next door to a really popular small country farm market.

      I have to believe there is still a place for smaller vendors.

      Even if the economic issues were to prove irrelevant, there are still all the other costs too!

      Thanks for your comments!

  2. KW is a unique community in that we have fantastic access to local farmers and lots of small shops and restaurants. I would hate to see any of that jeopardized for yet another big box store. There is one in Kitchener, there is one almost done in Guelph. That should be more than enough for this area.

    The traffic in that area will be a huge deterrent for us to head that way to shop at Herrles, Adventure Guide and other local stores.

    • It is nice to hear someone else say that!

      However, the development has now been approved pending some traffic studies and consultations. As I suspected, it all came down to traffic.

      Thanks for your comment!

  3. Sad to hear….. such excess…..

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  5. beefwalker says:

    Great post. And I’m with you on every point but one. Increased car use doesn’t contribute at all to the obesity epidemic (except to make it easier to get to McDonalds!) as exercise (or the lack of exercise) does next to nothing for weightloss. Countless meta studies have shown this, but the fitness industry wants you to think otherwise.

    Because of a thing called homeostasis, your average hunter gatherer and your average couch potato burn around the same amount of calories per day. Now exercise is great for all sorts of things, muscle tone, hormones, sleep etc. but the only way to effectively lose weight is – and always has been – through food. And not less food, just better food, and that includes

  6. granitercg says:

    I can see how you would be concerned about Costco affecting the two local businesses (Dutchies at Erb and Ira Needles as well as Herrles which is further down Erb as you head towards St. Agatha).

    Aside from those businesses, I do not see how there are any local businesses being threatened. The area in question is across from the Regional landfill (if we want to talk about something with potential to threaten water, homes, and the environment). It is also worth noting that it is on the fringe of the city, past thr suburbs. This is not a Costco threatening the core of the city. This Costco will likely not have an effect on the St. Jacob’s Farmer’s Market either (any more than the Costco near Sportsworld).

    The St. Jacob’s Market seems more than stable. People come from the GTA to visit the market, bypassing several Costcos along the way. People who enjoy quality local food will continue to go to the markets and people who need things in bulk (especially items that the markets do not carry) will go to Costco. There is a place for both. As someone who lives in that area too, my biggest concern is definitely the traffic. Ira Needles was developed around even though the road was built with one lane (a huge oversight by whatever city planner made that call). Although they have expanded it to a two lane road, there is likely still going to be congestion, which makes walking to the Boardwalk (and crossing at round abouts) that mucb more perilous.

    • My concern is about a much bigger picture… It is about the cultural shift towards the proliferation of big box stores. Perhaps the smaller businesses will survive in the short term but extensive research has shown the damage these superstores do to communities in so many ways over the long term. The traffic problem is definitely a concern as well. However, to me, the much bigger problem is the attitude change that prioritizes bulk purchasing and saving a few bucks over a healthy community.

      Thanks for your thoughtful comments!

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