Last night I attended a gathering of merchants, service providers and others who support local independent businesses in our town. It was a festive affair of about three dozen featuring a pot luck dinner, good conversation, and a few announcements about the emerging organization. From both a personal and professional perspective, I wholeheartedly support and advocate for this type of group and the movement of local “Indies” as they are called. This particular group is aligned with the American Independent Business Alliance (AMIBA) while other similar organizations may be associated with groups like the Business Alliance for Living Local Economies (BALLE) and they advocate for local independent businesses as the backbone of the local economy.
Our local Concord, MA group calls itself the Concord Independent Business Alliance or CIBA and membership is approaching 100 merchants and other businesses. Other groups in the region include Nashoba Local First, Cambridge Local First, and the Independent Business Alliance of Western MA. CIBA is working on several campaigns including the Ten Percent Shift which asks residents to shift at least ten percent of their expenditures to local independent merchants. This effort is a part of a larger effort in New England sponsored by the New England Local Business Forum (NELBF) who cite numerous studies on local spending as justification and reasoning for the program. They are also implementing a $2 bill campaign whereby a number of specially embossed bills will be distributed to merchants and circulated to customers with the purpose of encouraging local spending. This may or may not have been patterned after presidential candidate Ron Paul’s Campaign for Liberty but is certainly part of a larger movement to consider the establishment of local currencies similar to Berkshares or Totnes Pounds (see Yes! Magazine article entitled “31 Ways to Jump Start the Local Economy” which includes local currency at #23).
It is encouraging to see the momentum grow for local independent business advocacy organizations like CIBA since it is a critical component of relocalization efforts. Keeping dollars and other forms of exchange (e.g. local currency, barter, etc.) circulating locally is an important means of developing local resilience, becoming less dependent on the national and global economy and its cyclicality and lack of redundancy, and the benefit to local businesses and residents generally. It is also a key focus of the Transition Town movement that is spreading across the globe from its origin in the UK. I consider the economic component of relocalization and local sustainability efforts to be among the most significant within my own urban planning practice.
If I had any concerns related to these buy local or independent business advocacy campaigns, it would relate to two areas: the product mix and the perspective on consumption. As the need for local sustainability has become all too obvious, the types of products and indeed services that we consume is under greater scrutiny. While it would be impossible to develop these types of membership organizations without the widest and most comprehensive membership reach of local independent businesses, it is hard to reconcile support for products and services that reflect or promote wasteful consumption, products that are not themselves sustainably produced or manufactured locally, products that are expected to end up in the waste stream in short order (especially plastics), and products that are focused on needs rather than wants.
I would also suggest that a local economy be cognizant and provident of the needs of the full range of incomes within a community before full advocacy of a buy local program. Providing a comprehensive range of affordable basic human needs such as groceries. medicines, hardware, and dry goods within a walkable distance is a reasonable goal of any such program and as such, should reciprocally receive a positive reception by the local market of residents and visitors. I am not suggesting that high end goods and services cannot be an integral part of a healthy local economy. But no such economy can be healthy and balanced without meeting the needs of the fullest range of citizens in the community.
Also of great relevance is the need for communities and businesses to be aware of and begin to prepare for an age of energy constraints. The spike in oil prices in July 0f 2008 was just a hint of the probable wide fluctuations in energy prices and availability over the next decade. This expected volatility will make the development of alternatives risky and unpredictable and thus should not be counted on as an energy panacea. With this in mind, businesses should consider product mixes more geared toward basic needs as households may need a greater percentage of their incomes for direct energy expenditures and higher prices of other commodities and goods that have energy as a significant input in production or distribution. So in fact, challenging economies and energy constraints should be a great opportunity for local businesses and traditional town centers since they already have the physical layout best able to facilitate walking, biking, and transit instead of the 20 mile trek out to the mall or big box center.
Finally, local town centers where independent businesses are largely located serve a very important human need for community and social interaction. Residents meet each other on the street, merchants develop personal relationships with their clients over time, and social capital is more highly developed which facilitates a community spirit and enhanced quality of life that can’t be found in a sterile mall. As we move in the direction of the local again, we should keep all of these issues in mind.
Also see this in Energy Bulletin: Transition Town Local Currency (what’s it all about)