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SLF in 2010 ~ Against all odds…or maybe not

Dec 30 1:35 pm

This is the 4th installment of a week-long blog retrospective at the year that was for SLF & the Local Movement in 2010, and a glimpse into what 2011 may hold.  Please add feel free to comment with your thoughts throughout the week. If you missed the previous posts, here’s Part IPart II and Part III

I think David and Goliath is a good analogy for our work...and I think the result will be the same

I think David and Goliath is a good analogy for our work...and I think the result will be the same

We’ve spent the past couple days looking back at the year that was in Somerville and across the Nation.  And those stories, to me, demonstrate significant accomplishments in the face of pretty significant odds.

Today, I’ll talk about why those odds seem so long, but at the same time, why we’ll still succeed in shifting culture to something that works for people.

Let’s start the dialogue locally (of course) and then expand it to the national view.

Development in Somerville

When I was thinking about getting involved in this work, I had lived in Somerville for about 5 years.  But choosing this community wasn’t just a matter of convenience.  I did some research.  And I did some thinking.

What would the ideal community to try to spark a movement be and what would it look like?  After some info digging, a lot of conversation and thought, I resolved that Somerville was one  of the top 5 places in the country to make it happen.

There was already support of the independent business community here, a sense of community identity and pride and one of the most active citizen bases I’ve ever seen.

But what really makes Somerville a special place to do this work is its future, and the role we can play.

Recently, after an introduction from super connector Mimi Graney, Executive Director of Union Square Main Streets, I’ve struck up a relationship with Jesse Baer-Kahn of City Retail in Kendall Square.  Jesse has been instrumental in the recent development in Kendall Square that has seen large scale development maintain independent business on the ground floor.

Jesse & I are now collaborating, thinking of how we can solve this problem:

  • How do we bring in the good parts of development, while minimizing the effects of gentrification.

And the good,  yet unsurprising news, is that we are not alone in addressing this issue.  The Community Corridor Planning Process, guided by Groundwork SomervilleSomerville Community Corporation, Cambridge Health Alliance & Somerville Transportation Equity Project have worked to build consensus amongst all community stakeholders since October, 2008.

Bringing together Stakeholders FTW!

Bringing together Stakeholders FTW!

Here’s an excerpt from  their final report which sounds an awful lot like us, don’t you think?

Keep and Add Local Businesses: We want locally owned, culturally diverse, clean businesses in commercial areas with employees who live in Somerville.

I guess the point here, is that we have an opportunity to advocate for what we think our community can be, what our local economy could look like….and we have amazing community partners to help us get there.

To my knowledge, nobody has solved the gentrification issue of development.  While I don’t think we’ll develop all the answers, even in a best case, I believe our community has an opportunity to do just that.

And it’s an opportunity we are excited to face.

Co-Optation of Local

Earlier this year, we published an important and insightful piece (as all of her work seems to be) by Stacy Mitchell on the growing Corporate Co-Optation of Local.  This piece really opened my eyes to something that had been a growing concern on my mind.  From the article:

In one way, all of this corporate local-washing is good news for local economy advocates: It represents the best empirical evidence yet that the grassroots movement for locally produced goods and independently owned businesses now sweeping the country is having a measurable impact on the choices people make.

“Think of the millions of dollars these big companies spend on research and focus groups. They wouldn’t be doing this on a hunch,” observed Dan Cullen of the American Booksellers Association

I guess I always knew that if we were successful in our work it would mean an economy significantly redirected to small and mid-szed local independent businesses.  And that this shift would mean that large corporate interests would contract.

Having spent over 7 years in Corporate America, I know contraction is not an option.

Nothing says local like your neighborhood Wal-Mart

Nothing says local like your neighborhood Wal-Mart

But the respsonse I expected was a fight.  A refudiation of our data and statistics perhaps or maybe a dismissal of the importance of our mission.  Or the much more grave strategic threat, backroom dealing to subvert our work.

I was wrong, at least for now.

For now, the plan seems to be to try to take our message.  Let me be clear why this is dangerous, and why we remain vigilant on who a SLF member is and what it means to be a local independent in our community:

If supporting large multi-national corporations becomes part of buying local, then buying local doesn’t have the impact we describe.

Further, I’ll paraphrase a movement colleague, Beth Geagan from Sustainable Community Connections of Idaho, who described at this years BALLE conference, what our movement is trying to do:

We are trying to create new systems in new ways.  Not new systems with old ways.  Not old systems in new ways.  The distinction is important.  We need to create new systems because our systems don’t fully work for people.  We need to create new ways because our ways don’t fully value communities or people.

And to me, if we are to create new ways, we have to be honest and accurate when we describe the new economy.

And while I won’t name any names, there are quite a few multi-billion dollar corporations out there who would love to have you think they are part of the movement.  They are not.

Look, I’m not sure if these entities are ultimately part of the solution our movement seeks, and if so to what extent, but I do know this.

The local movement is coming from a values driven place, seeking to build communities that work for people.  And more and more, I see big corporations trying to capitalize on our work from a market driven place, seeking first and foremost to build their bottom line which works for their shareholders.

In 2011, we’ll continue to keep it real when it comes to local, and we hope you do as well.

The Resource Gap

I knew, coming into this work, that it would take us a while to generate sustainable funding.  While the road has been long, and sometimes perilous, I do feel like we’re getting close.

More and more, we’re able to measure and quantify our work,  And our growing community consensus and reach combined with this is bound to generate foundation funding soon.  And when it does come, and we add more social entrepreneurs to our staff and enhance our programming in the community, the change will only accelerate.

But then there’s the issue of government funding for our work in the community and the locally owned and independent businesses we support.

Taking a step back, its sobering to realize that while multi-national corporations and too big to fail banks received billions in federal dollars in the past year, local business networks receive, literally, next to nothing.  I’m personally aware of less than $1 Million in government funding and grants for local business networks, most of which go to just a couple of mature organizations.

Think about that for a second.  There are 140 communities that have started similar organizations to SLF.  At my $1 Million estimate, that equates to an average of $7,150 per community.

Hrmmmm….

At some point, there's gotta be more than a drop of a drop in our funding bucket

At some point, there's gotta be more than a drop of a drop in our funding bucket

But, here’s the good news.  I’ve always thought that the best way to generate the support that is needed for our work is to create such public consensus that political leaders have no choice.  And as I’ve talked about throughout the week, I think we’re getting close.

And here, dear reader, is where I hope you will come in.  Tomorrow, we conclude our series with the announcement of a new program at SLF, one that we hope will further engage you, our early adopters.

The question is….will you resolve to be a Local Luminary and help us light a path towards a new economy in 2011?    Find out how in tomorrows final post of the Year in Review series.

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Reflections in Plaid

Nov 26 4:54 pm

by Joe Grafton

Well…that was interesting.

As the afternoon winds down on the day after Thanksgiving, I’m left to reflect on the whole Plaid Friday experience. I guess, if anything, it reaffirmed my belief in what we’re doing and injected new energy into our work.

It was surreal, hearing this Radio Boston piece comparing Plaid Friday to Small Business Saturday.  I’m no journalist, and a Google search turned up nothing, but I would guess AMEX has to have millions invested in that campaign.  And yet, here is the host asking which one will ‘stick’.  As you’ll see below, Plaid Friday came to New England with a much less resourced, but maybe as effective, approach.

Plaid Friday, if you have yet to hear, was created last year by local business owners and organizers in Oakland.   You can listen to one of the creators on WBUR’s Here and Now .  What I think is so amazing is that without any truly organized or staffed group trying to promote it or pitch it, communities all over the nation adopted the concept and set it free into their communities.

And the buzz, to me at least, looked serious.

The idea came to New England through sister organization Seacoast Local’s Karen Marzloff and SLF blogger and good friend of mine, Jody Colley of the East Bay Express.  Both amazing entrepreneurs from the independent alt weekly media, they also both work closely with their local business networks.  From there, Karen shared the story at our regional gathering of networks, which spawned the 10% Shift 2 years ago among other things.

And that was it.  Networks representing thousands of businesses agreed (NELBF), on the spot, to organize our own communities and work together to spread the Shift Your Shopping / Buy Local campaign throughout the holiday season. The four members of the Steering Committee (we’re really excited to see that number grow to 7 in 2011!) Laury Hammel & Stacy Mitchell (authors of the Op-Ed piece this week), Karen & I had a conference call on November 6th where we hashed out a plan for Plaid Friday promo in New England.

The Op-Ed, the social media campaign, the PR…all of it came together as just one of the many things all of us are responsible for in our burgeoning, yet vastly under-resourced, networks.

And what does this really mean? Well, as wonderfully amazing as the people in the local movement are, I’m not sure that a fraction of our collective time is the equivalent of hundreds (thousands?) of hours of professional manpower and potentially millions of dollars that AMEX put towards their campaign.

What I do think it says, however, is that the tipping point for ‘local’ is getting ever closer. That the work we’ve been putting in locally in our communities is paying off.  That you: our readers, followers, advocates and evangelists, are talking to your friends and redefining social and cultural norms. That the Shift is starting to ‘sink in’ in our communities. And that we, the people, do have some power left in this society and exercising it can actually be fun and feel good. Two great matches for the holiday season.

As I was writing this blog post, I saw this come across my screen:

Plaid Friday trending on Twitter

Plaid Friday trending on Twitter...nice allegory

Trending on Twitter in Boston ~ #PlaidFriday is on that list and, while Black Friday is #1, its promoted.

One day, I hope, the work done by local networks will get the support from all sectors that it should.  We’ll be able to dedicate full time resources to campaigns like Plaid Friday, offer even more support and promotion for our members and continue to build on the idea that if we all come together, as a community, that we can make the world a better, more sustainable place.

But until then, we’ll keep trying things.  Some will be a hit,  others will not.  And when we find something that works, like Plaid Friday, you better believe we’ll do it better the second time around.  Plaid Friday Nationwide, from the grassroots…coming November, 2011.

PS-

Plaid Friday is simply the START of the Holiday Shopping Season, please Shift Your Shopping this year.  Shop-A-Palooza and Midnight Madness comin atcha next week!

This Friday – GO PLAID!

Nov 22 1:24 pm

This article originally appeared on Boston.com in The Angle section.  That piece can be found here

Today, SLF begins a 6 week campaign, in collaboration with our sister networks from around New England, asking you to SHIFT YOUR SHOPPING this holiday season.  This is THE most important holiday season we’ve seen at SLF, and we are not sabre-rattling when we say that it is make or break for some of your favorite local retailers.

If not us, who?  If not now, when?  We think the time is now and ask you to join us, starting with Plaid Friday this week.

-The SLF Staff & Board

 

Go Plaid this Friday - design by Truly Good Design

Go Plaid this Friday - design by Truly Good Design

Let’s Make it Plaid Friday This Year

By Laury Hammel and Stacy Mitchell

For many Americans, Black Friday has come to epitomize all that’s gone wrong with this season of gift-giving and the long hours we’ll spend in the coming weeks negotiating traffic jams, crowds, and the endless aisles of big-box stores. That’s why we propose that New Englanders take a new approach to holiday shopping this year. Let’s use this special time to slow down and really savor the places where we live: our public squares and historic buildings, our sense of community, and the rich variety of locally owned stores and restaurants that contribute so much to the flavor and spirit of our region.

There’s no better place to begin than by reclaiming the day after Thanksgiving. Last year, a group in Oakland, California, came up with a great idea: “Plaid Friday.” It’s a simple concept. On Friday, shift away from the malls and “go local” instead. Stroll your neighborhood or downtown, stop by a few independent businesses, meet friends at a local coffee shop — in short, simply enjoy your community. And, while you’re at it, wear something plaid. This mainstay of New England wardrobes is the perfect alternative to Black Friday. With its endless variety of colors and combinations, plaid is a fitting symbol of the diversity of New England’s cities and towns and the local entrepreneurs who give them life.

In case you are worried that Plaid Friday won’t be as good for our economy and ailing job market as Black Friday, never fear. Even if you spend less this season, by shifting more of your shopping to locally owned businesses, you’ll actually create more jobs here in New England than if you shop only at chains and online retailers. Here’s why: Unlike national retailers, locally owned businesses rely on other local businesses for many goods and services, like accounting, printing, and so on. As a result, when you shop at a local business, a much larger share of what you spend is re-spent elsewhere in the community, supporting a variety of local jobs. Several studies have quantified this, finding that spending a dollar at a locally owned business creates about three times as much economic activity and more jobs in the region than spending that same dollar at a chain store. Given that each New Englander will spend an estimated $700 on holiday gifts this year, the potential economic benefits of shifting more of our purchases to locally owned businesses are sizeable.

Over the last few years, thousands of local businesses across New England have joined together to form organizations like Worcester Local First in Worcester, Mass., and Seacoast Local in Portsmouth, NH. These groups, which now number more than a dozen across the region, are working to rebuild their local economies and make New England a
place where independent businesses once again thrive.

Many have come up with creative ways to ensure that going local this holiday season is an easy and appealing choice for shoppers. Here in Greater Boston, for example, under the theme, “Think Local, Thank
Local,” members of Cambridge Local First are donating a percentage of their sales during the week beginning with Plaid Friday to a local nonprofit, Food for Free.

So, even as the media spends the next few weeks anxiously monitoring cash registers at national retailers, it’s worth remembering that a more significant indicator of New England’s economic well-being and
capacity to create jobs will hinge on how well our hometown businesses are faring.

Laury Hammel owns The Longfellow Clubs and is the Executive Director of the
Sustainable Business Network and a founder of Cambridge Local First. Stacy
Mitchell is a researcher with the Institute for Local Self-Reliance and vice
president of the Portland Independent Business & Community Alliance in
Portland, Maine.

The Corporate Co-Opt of Local

Aug 10 11:37 am

by Stacy Mitchell

 

 

 

Local Signage....at Wal-Mart

HSBC, one of the biggest banks on the planet, has taken to calling itself “the world’s local bank.” Starbucks is un-branding at least three of its Seattle outlets, the first of which just reopened as “15th Avenue Coffee and Tea.”  Winn-Dixie, a 500-outlet supermarket chain, recently launched a new ad campaign under the tagline, “Local flavor since 1956.” The International Council of Shopping Centers, a global consortium of mall owners and developers, is pouring millions of dollars into television ads urging people to “Shop Local” – at their nearest mall. Even Wal-Mart is getting in on the act, hanging bright green banners over its produce aisles that simply say, “Local.”

Hoping to capitalize on growing public enthusiasm for all things local, some of the world’s biggest corporations are brashly laying claim to the word “local.”

This new variation on corporate greenwashing – local washing – is, like the buy-local movement itself, most advanced in the context of food. Hellmann’s, the mayonnaise brand owned by the processed-food giant Unilever, is test-driving a new “Eat Real, Eat Local,” initiative in Canada. The ad campaign seems aimed partly at enhancing the brand by simply associating Hellmann’s with local food. But it also makes the a claim that Hellmann’s is local, because most of its ingredients come from North America.

It’s not the only industrial food company muscling in on local. Frito-Lay’s new television commercials use farmers as pitchmen to position the company’s potato chips as local food, while Foster Farms, one of the largest producers of poultry products in the country, is labeling packages of chicken and turkey “locally grown.”

Corporate local-washing is now spreading well beyond food. Barnes & Noble, the world’s top seller of books, has launched a video blog site under the banner, “All bookselling is local.” The site, which features “local book news” and recommendations from employees of stores in such evocative-sounding locales as Surprise, Arizona, and Wauwatosa, Wisconsin, seems designed to disguise what Barnes & Noble is – a highly centralized corporation where decisions about what books to stock and feature are made by a handful of buyers – and to present the chain instead a collection of independent-minded booksellers.

Across the country, scores of shopping malls, chambers of commerce, and economic development agencies are also appropriating the phrase “buy local” to urge consumers to patronize nearby malls and big-box stores. In March, leaders of a new Buy Local campaign in Fresno, California, assembled in front of the Fashion Fair Mall for a kick-off press conference. Flanked by storefronts bearing brand names like Anthropologie and The Cheesecake Factory, officials from the Economic Development Corporation of Fresno County explained that choosing to “buy local” helps the region’s economy. For anyone confused by this display, the campaign and its media partners, including Comcast and the McClatchy-owned Fresno Bee, followed the press conference with more than $250,000 worth of radio, TV, and print ads that spelled it out: “Just so you know, buying local means any store in your community: mom-and-pop stores, national chains, big-box stores – you name it.”

The Real Buy Local Movement

In one way, all of this corporate local-washing is good news for local economy advocates: It represents the best empirical evidence yet that the grassroots movement for locally produced goods and independently owned businesses now sweeping the country is having a measurable impact on the choices people make.

“Think of the millions of dollars these big companies spend on research and focus groups. They wouldn’t be doing this on a hunch,” observed Dan Cullen of the American Booksellers Association (ABA), a trade group which represents some 1,700 independent bookstores and last year launched IndieBound, an initiative that helps locally owned businesses communicate their independence and community roots.

Signs that consumer preferences are trending local abound. Locally grown food has soared in popularity. The U.S. is now home to 4,385 active farmers markets, one out of every three of which was started since 2000. Food co-ops and neighborhood greengrocers are on the rise. Driving is down, while data from several metropolitan regions show that houses located within walking distance of small neighborhood stores have held value better than those isolated in the suburbs where the nearest gallon of milk is a five-mile drive to Target.

A growing number of independent businesses are trumpeting their local ownership and community roots, and reporting a surge in customer traffic as a result. In April, even as Virgin Megastores prepared to shutter is last U.S. record store, independent music stores across the country were mobbed for the second annual Record Store Day. A celebration of local music retailers that features in-store concerts and exclusive releases, the event drew hundreds of thousands of music fans into stores, was one of the top search terms on Google, and triggered a 16-point upswing in album sales, according to Neilson SoundScan.

In city after city, independent businesses are organizing and creating the beginnings of what could become a powerful counterweight to the big business lobbies that have long dominated public policy. Local business alliances – like Stay Local in New Orleans, the Metro Independent Business Alliance in Minneapolis-St Paul, and Arizona Local First in Phoenix – have now formed in over 130 cities and collectively count some 30,000 businesses as members. Through grassroots “buy local” and “local first” campaigns, these alliances are calling on people to choose independent businesses and local products more often and making the case that doing so is critical to rebuilding middle-class prosperity, averting environmental collapse, and ensuring that our daily lives are not smothered by corporate uniformity.

Surveys and anecdotal reports from business owners suggest that these initiatives are in fact changing spending patterns. A survey of 1,100 independent retailers conducted in January by the Institute for Local Self-Reliance (where I work) found that, amid the worst economic downturn since the Depression, buy-local sentiment is giving local businesses an edge over their chain competitors. While the Commerce Department reported that overall retail sales plunged almost 10 percent over the holidays, the survey found that independent retailers in cities with buy-local campaigns saw sales drop an average of just 3 percent from the previous year. Many respondents attributed this relative good fortune to the fact that more people are deliberately seeking out locally owned businesses.

Corporations Take Note

None of this has slipped the notice of corporate executives and the consumer research firms that advise them. Several of these firms have begun to track the localization trend. In its annual consumer survey, the New York-based branding firm BBMG found that the number of people reporting that it was “very important” to them whether a product was grown or produced locally jumped from 26 to 32 percent in the last year alone. “It’s not just a small cadre of consumers anymore,” said founding partner Mitch Baranowski.

“Food is one of the biggest gateways, but we’re seeing this idea of ‘local’ spread across other categories and sectors,” said Michelle Barry, senior vice president of the Hartman Group. A report published by Hartman last year noted, “There is a belief that you can only be local if you are a small and authentic brand. This isn’t necessarily true; big brands can use the notion of local to their advantage as well.” Barry explains: “Big companies have to be much more creative in how they articulate local … It’s a different way of thinking about local that is not quite as literal.”

One way corporations can be “local” too is to stock a token amount of locally grown produce, as Wal-Mart has done in some of its supercenters. The chain’s local food offerings are usually limited to a few of the main commodity crops of that particular state – peaches in Georgia or potatoes in Maine – and sit amid a sea of industrial food and other goods shipped from the far side of the planet. Yet, this modest gesture has won Wal-Mart glowing coverage in numerous daily newspapers, few of which have asked the salient question: does Wal-Mart, which now captures more than one of every five dollars Americans spend on groceries, create more and better opportunities for local farmers than the grocers it replaces?

Wal-Mart, like other chains, has learned that, with consumers increasingly motivated to support companies they perceive to be acting responsibility, tossing around the word “local” is a far less expensive way to convey civic virtue than the alternatives. “Local is one of the lower-hanging fruits in terms of sustainability,” explains Barry. “It’s easier for companies to do than to improve how their employees are treated or adopt a specific sustainability practice around their carbon footprint, for example.”

Rather than making direct claims using the word “local,” some companies are pushing marketing messages that work by association. One example that caught Dan Cullen’s eye was a CVS television commercial that begins in a Main Street bookshop, following the owner around as she tends to her customers. The bookshop then transforms into a CVS. The bookshop owner is now the customer. The feel is still very much Main Street. “Suddenly the kind of unique, enjoyable, grassroots bookstore experience morphs into a CVS experience,” said Cullen. “There’s a Potemkin façade that a lot of chains are trying to put up because consumers now want something other than a cookie-cutter experience.”

Redefining Local

Still another corporate strategy is to redefine the term “local” to mean, not locally owned or locally produced, but just nearby. “With the term ‘local’ being so nebulous, it seems ripe for manipulation,” notes Mintel, another consumer research firm that counsels companies on how to “craft marketing messages that appeal to locally conscious consumers” and how to avoid “charges of ‘local washing.'” The key, Mintel says, is for companies to decide what they mean by local and to disclose that clearly so as not to be accused of trying to misappropriate the term.

Corporate-oriented buy-local campaigns that define “local” as the nearest Lowe’s or Gap store are now being rolled out in cities nationwide. Some represent desperate bids by shopping malls to survive the recession and fend off online competition. Others are the work of chambers of commerce trying to remain relevant. Still others are the half-baked plans of municipal officials casting about for some way to stop the steep drop in sales tax revenue.

Many of these AstroTurf campaigns are modeled directly on grassroots initiatives. “They copy our language and tactics,” said Michelle Long, executive director of Sustainable Connections, a seven-year-old coalition of 600 independent businesses in northwest Washington state that runs a very visible, and according to market research, very successful “local first” program. “I get calls from chambers and other groups who say, We want to do what you are doing. It took me a while to realize that what they had in mind was not what we do. Once I realized, I started asking them, what do you mean by ‘local’?”

Examples abound. In northern California, the Arcata Chamber of Commerce is producing “Shop Local” ads that look similar to the Humboldt County Independent Business Alliance’s “Go Local” ads, except they feature both independents and chains. Spokane’s Buy Local program, started by the local chamber, is open to any business in town, including big-box stores. Log-on to the Buy Local web site created by the chamber in Chapel Hill, NC, and you will find Wal-Mart among the listings.

When billboards proclaiming “Buy Local Orlando” first appeared in Orlando, Florida, Julie Norris, a café owner who last year co-founded Ourlando, an initiative to support indie businesses, was excited to see the concept getting such visibility. But she soon realized that the city-funded program, which provides businesses who join with a “Buy Local” decal, seminars at the Disney Entrepreneur Center, and a listing on the web site, was open to any business in Orlando. “We sat down with the city and said, What you guys are doing is a real disservice to the local business movement,” she said. When Norris complained publicly, city officials accused Ourlando of being “exclusive” by not allowing chains.

The city did agree to remove from its press materials and web site a reference to a study that found that, for every $100 spent locally, $45 stays in the community. The problem was that the study, conducted by the firm Civic Economics, found that to be true only if the money was spent at a locally owned business. Shop at a chain store, the analysis found, and only $13 of that $100 spent stays in the community.

The Economic Development Corporation (EDC) of Fresno County also appropriated the $45-stays-local statistic when it kicked off its Buy Local campaign at the Fashion Fair Mall. The figure was repeated on a TV news story without any clarification that it did not apply to the types of chains visible in the background. Like the Orlando initiative, the Fresno campaign aims to boost sales tax revenue by deterring online and out-of-town shopping. It goes out of its way in every radio and TV spot to make sure people know that “local” means national chains and big-box stores. “Buy Local” stickers and posters are now visible on malls and chains throughout the Central Valley. “For someone to say you are not local if you are a big box, I say baloney. They invested here,” explained Steve Geil, CEO of the EDC.

“I would prefer that the county’s resources were not being spent promoting Wal-Mart and Home Depot,” said Scott Miller, owner of Gazebo Gardens, a plant nursery founded in 1922. “We have a great history of being involved in community events and donating to local causes. Our plants are grown locally. We believe that our kind of business is more valuable to a community than any big chain.”

When the city of Santa Fe decided to launch a campaign to encourage people to shop locally, the Santa Fe Alliance, a coalition of more than 500 locally owned businesses that has been running a buy-local initiative for several years, signed on. At the kick-off in March, the Alliance’s director, Vicki Pozzebon, emphasized the economic impact of shopping at a locally owned business versus a chain. “After that, the city asked me not to push the $45 vs. $13, but just say ‘local.'” said Pozzebon. The city’s message, according to Kate Noble, a city staffer who runs the program, is that shopping at Wal-Mart is fine, as long as it’s not walmart.com. Pozzebon said, “It has only diluted our message and confused people.”

These sales tax driven campaigns may well be doing more harm to local economies than good, according to Jeff Milchen, co-founder of the American Independent Business Alliance, a national organization that helps communities start and grow local business alliances (and on whose board I serve). “If you encourage people to shop at a big-box store that takes sales away from an independent business, you’re just funneling more dollars out of town, because, unlike chains, local businesses buy lots of goods and services, like accounting and printing, from other local businesses.”

The irony of trying to solve declining city revenue by trying to get people to shop at the local mall is that the mall itself may be the problem. While many California cities are facing budget cuts and even bankruptcy, Berkeley has managed to post a small increase in revenue. Part of the reason, according to city officials, is that Berkeley has more or less said no to shopping malls and big chain stores and is instead a city of locally owned businesses that primarily serve local residents. That creates a much more stable revenue base. Berkeley hasn’t benefited from the temporary boom that a new regional mall might create, but neither has it gone bust.

Will Big Local Triumph?

Can corporations succeed in co-opting “local” – or at least so muddling the term that it no longer has meaning? The Hartman Group’s Barry thinks that’s possible. “For many consumers, these things are not being called into question much. They say, Hey, it’s my local Wal-Mart or my local Frito-Lay truck. It depends where you are on the continuum and how you define local, which is a term that is really up for grabs.”

Milchen is less concerned about what he calls faux-local campaigns in cities where there is already a strong local business organization. “It’s more of an educational opportunity than a problem, so long as they respond to it,” he said. But in places where local enterprises are not organized, he fears these corporate campaigns may succeed in permanently defining “local” for their own benefit. Michelle Long shares that concern: “That’s my fear. People are going to do diluted versions and hold the space so that real campaigns don’t get started.”

Local-washing has prompted local business advocates to reconsider their language. Many are now using the word “independent” more than “local.” Controlling language is critical, said Ronnie Cummins, director of the Organic Consumers Association, who is pushing for tighter regulation of the word organic, as well as rules governing terms like natural, sustainable, and local. “We’ve been fighting so long without the help of federal regulators that some people have forgotten that tool.”

But perhaps local-washing will ultimately make corporations even more suspect and further the case for shifting our economy more in the direction of small-scale, local, and independent. “I think the fact that the chains are trying to play the local card, in a way makes it easier for us,” said the ABA’s Cullen. “I think people are going to recognize that these aren’t authentic and that’s going to make the real thing all the more powerful.”

Stacy Mitchell is a senior researcher with the New Rules Project (www.newrules.org) and author of Big-Box Swindle: The True Cost of Mega-Retailers and the Fight for America’s Independent Businesses (Beacon, 2006). If you liked this article, you might also like her monthly newsletter, the Hometown Advantage Bulletin (http://www.newrules.org/hta-signup).

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Moving our Money in Somerville

Jul 18 1:56 am

(This article was originally published on The Huffington Post)

Across the nation, local and independent businesses are organizing. The “local movement” is experiencing a boom, BusinessWeek recently observed. In 2006, about 40 communities had ‘buy local’ organizations. That number now tops 130. These Local First Networks and Independent Business Alliances are independent community-based nonprofit organizations, with a mission and vision of a sustainable and thriving local economy. More than 30,000 independent business owners are now leading this movement, together, and that number grows by the day. Somerville Local First in Somerville, Massachusetts, one of the nations most densely populated communities, on the border of Boston and Cambridge, is one of these networks, and we’ve seen our message embraced in and around our community over our first two years.

But this rapid growth is based on more than just a feel-good mentality. An emerging body of economic research shows that doing business with local independents is the fastest way to restart and reshape our economy. Civic Economics, a leading research firm, published the LocalWorks study, commissioned by LocalFirst in Grand Rapids, MI. That study revealed that a 10% Shift from non-local to local purchasing would provide significant and fast economic paybacks. If the 600,000 people in the Grand Rapids metro area shifted 10%, they would:

  1. Create 1,600 new jobs, reducing unemployment by .5%
  2. Create53 million in new wages
  3. Create137 million in new economic activity for the region

The study results have since been replicated in New Orleans, and spawned the 10% Shift campaign in New England, and now in more than 10 US States. In Somerville, everything we do in community education and messaging relates back to this achievable and reasonable goal: Shift 10% of whatever you’re now spending to Local Independents and we can reshape our local economy.

And now, Somerville Local First has turned our attention to the financial sector. Locally owned banks and community based credit unions have been shown to provide a significantly higher level of responsiveness, service and, most importantly, lending to our community. While the largest 20 banks control 57% of the total deposits in the United States, they do only 28% of the small business lending. Compare that with small- and medium-sized banks, who control only 25% of the deposits but dispense 54% of the dollars loaned to small businesses.

Based on all of this, we’ve decided to launch a Move Your Money campaign, asking all sectors of our community to move their money out of the banks that are too big to succeed, and put it into the financial institutions that are truly rooted in our community.

Stacy Mitchell, a leading researcher and author in the local movement and an expert on community banking, says “Moving your Money is one of the most important things that you can do to promote sustainable local economies. Local businesses depend heavily on small, local financial institutions for loans, as these organizations do the majority of lending to small businesses, local nonprofits and entrepreneurs. By moving your deposits to a local financial institution, you’re helping to build and reinvest in your own local economy.”

We’re confident that this hyper-local campaign will succeed. We’re using all the tools at our disposal, avenues both proven and innovative. From printing flyers and financial learning sessions to social media campaigns and electronic surveys that provide near-instant feedback to our community partners, we’re leaving no stone unturned. We will also, as we always do, keep our message 100% positive. Sure, we’ll make comparisons to illustrate the differences between Local and Non-Local banks, but we’ll leave the vitriol to someone else. This isn’t about revenge against big banks; it’s about revealing the overwhelming strengths of the local financial institutions already in our midst. In our community, it’s simply accepted that Bank of America and the other Too Big to Fail banks don’t have our communities’ best interests at heart.

Individuals and organizations in Somerville, Boston, and beyond, are recognizing the added value that local businesses deliver to our communities, and are choosing to buy local first. Our Move Your Money campaign is centered on changing behavior, raising awareness, and continuing to plant the seeds of change. And, as we’ve witnessed through our work thus far in the community, we predict that people will begin to proselytize their friends and neighbors, and the movement to support local financial institutions will to spread virally. As campaigns like this one take off and their success becomes apparent, more and more communities will take up the buy local banner. In fact, just this week in New England’s 2nd largest city, Worcester Local First announced their Move Your Money Campaign.

The energy surrounding movements like Move Your Money, Slow Food, and The 10% Shift is encouraging and should give us all hope. If we’ve learned anything from the financial meltdown, it is that we must start thinking much more carefully about how we choose to exercise our economic influence. When we choose local as customers and consumers, we take back ownership of our community. The local movement is growing, and it’s reaching across industries and sectors like food and finance. In Somerville, we feel that the movement to reclaim our local economies is what’s truly Too Big to Fail.

Stacy Mitchell

Jul 15 2:05 am

Stacy Mitchell

Stacy Mitchell is a senior researcher with the New Rules Project and directs its initiative to curb the power of big-box retailers and strengthen locally owned businesses. She’s the author of Big Box Swindle, writes regularly for a variety of publications, and produces a monthly email bulletin, The Hometown Advantage. Visit her website at www.newrules.org/retail.

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