Published on August 19th, 2015 | by Andrea Bertoli0
Power of the People: Local Movements for Self-Reliance and Urban Revitalization
Sometimes it feels like politics and regulations are out of our hands, but there is a growing movement of ‘local first’ initiatives, grassroots activism and urban revitalization proving that people have the power to make huge changes for their neighborhoods and their planet. “Self-reliance” is a growing buzzword that allows local communities to focus on creating economies and jobs (and therefore a tax base) that are resilient to fluctuations in broader markets. Very importantly, it also allows them to send less of their money out of their community for things like oil and fossil fuel based energy.
“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”
This famous quote from Margaret Mead explains a growing trend of localized activism around the country. Regardless of the reason– building local economic movements, fighting the Keystone Pipeline, standing to protect sacred land on Mauna Kea in Hawaii, or organizing for water rights in Detroit, citizens around the nation have been gathering and fighting for rights with renewed fervor.
Local First Movements
In the past decade there has been a growing movement towards a ‘local-first’ first economic system. A local-first mentality hopes to build the local economy and support the community from within, rather than supporting larger stores and companies that move money out of the community. Supporting local businesses has many benefits for the community, and can build a stronger local economy and create community connections where none existed before.
Betsy Burton, who helped found Local First Utah in 2005, says that initially people didn’t take to the idea of favoring small businesses, but as her customers have seen how the economics of big box stores and internet sales can hurt local businesses, she says people totally understand the movement, and realize that small businesses are the “backbone of the community”. CNN says, “Today, the number of groups promoting “local first” or “buy local” campaigns is at an all-time high. More than 150 business alliances from Austin, Texas, to Portland, Maine, encourage community members to buy from independent, locally-owned businesses.
Local First movements also make our communities more interesting. In an interview in the Ann Arbor News, shop owner Hans Masing says, “There’s a term, United States of Generica, where you go into any town and find exactly the same stores and restaurants. That completely kills the local flavor. You don’t see people raving about the local Applebee’s…to maintain that here, you have to shop local and support local businesses.”
Not only does it dilute the personality of a town, big box stores like Wal-Mart, Target and others are known for having a negative economic effect on towns across America, leading to wage stagnation or depression, and lowering the tax base. In this 2013 article on Salon, author calls Wal-Mart ‘an economic cancer on our cities.” As consumers learn more about how their purchases affect both their local and global community, and learn that an economy based on large corporations based outside the city offers virtually no benefits to the consumer (sometimes the prices are slightly lower at the bigger stores, but the quality and customer service also are diminished). For this and many other reasons, local community business and activism continues to grow.
So what exactly happens when you shop local, and how can it benefit the local economy? Here are some great reasons from Independent We Stand:
1. More of your money will be kept in your local economy: For every $100 you spend at locally owned businesses, $68 will stay in the community. What happens when you spend that same $100 at a national chain? Only $43 stays in the community.* This is economic fact, so think about that the next time a big box store tries to argue that it’ll create jobs in a community if only they are allowed to plow over some vacant land and build a monolith structure with a huge parking lot: why would they come to town if they’re not going to take money out of the community and send it back to their corporate HQ?
2. You embrace what makes your community unique: You wouldn’t want your house to look like everyone else’s in the U.S. So why would you want your community to look that way?
3. You create local jobs: Local businesses are better at creating higher-paying jobs for your neighbors. When you shop locally, you help create jobs for teachers, firemen, police officers, and many other essential professions.
4. You help the environment: Buying from a locally owned business conserves energy and resources in the form of less fuel for transportation and less packaging.
5. You nurture community: Local business owners know you, and you know them. Studies have shown that local businesses donate to community causes at more than twice the rate of chains.
6. You conserve your tax dollars: Shopping in a local business district means less infrastructure, less maintenance, and more money available to beautify your community. Also, spending locally instead of online ensures that your sales taxes are reinvested where they belong— in your community!
7. You create more choice: Locally owned businesses pick the items and products they sell based on what they know you like and want. Local businesses carry a wider array of unique products because they buy for their own individual markets.
8. You took advantage of their expertise: You are their friends and neighbors, and locally owned businesses have a vested interest in knowing how to serve you. They’re passionate about what they do. Why not take advantage of it?
9. You invested in entrepreneurship: Creativity and entrepreneurship are what the American economy is founded upon. Nurturing local business ensures a strong community.
10. You made your community a destination: The more interesting and unique you community, the more we will attract new neighbors, visitors and guests. This benefits everyone!
The Power of Cities
City and other local municipal governments have picked up the baton on the fight against climate change and a host of other large scale issues that tend to get gummed up at state and federal levels. While Republicans currently control both houses of congress, nothing is likely to happen in terms of advancing any climate change legislation, despite the fact that the grand majority of Americans want action. (see Republicans being against wind energy, against people knowing what chemicals fracking companies are pumping into their groundwater, against raising fuel economy standards, against helping our military reduce its reliance on foreign oil, against disclosing information about air pollution to local residents, and even against the free market when that free market favors clean tech companies.)
State governments are often a little better, with more progressive states like California, Oregon, Washington and the Northeastern states leading the way on renewable energy. But the rubber really hits the road in cities. There, where the grand majority of residents tend to be overwhelmingly progressive, governments are taking action. Climate change is only part of the equation. Consider this, from Catalyst, The Magazine of Canada’s Chemical Producers, Spring 2009:
“…the City of Toronto recently passed regulations requiring companies to report on the inputs to their operations. They created a list of chemicals for reporting purposes…..This regulatory effort has created justified fear of the proposed toxics legislation in the Province of Ontario.”
In this case, chemical makers are fearful of regulation at the city level, where they may have to report on their emissions, toxics, and products. While chemical makers can leverage significant power at the federal level, where nothing ever seems to get done, they have far less power over local politicians, who are far more likely to actually represent the people they are supposed to represent. Why would large multi-national chemical makers be worried about one little city? Here’s why: once one city has a regulation they must follow, other cities follow, and what results is a patchwork regulatory environment that looks something like this:
For a company, this is a nightmare. Wait, actually, it’s only a nightmare if the company is doing unhealthy and unsustainable things. If the company is producing organic food, or non-toxic products, local regulations are virtually non-existent. So large chemical manufacturers, for example, can either deal with the above, or they can start to shift away from toxic products. Pretty simple, and exceptionally effective.
Learn more about why local is important to YOUR city, and by all means, get involved!
Learn more about how local business is booming in cities across the country
BALLE: Business Alliance for Local Living Economies
Learn more about the power of local food
The Power of buying Locally, Everywhere
Learn how helpful your green small business is for the local economy with B Lab’s quick assessment tool.
Image credits: How much money stays in the local economy graphic from Local First;