One of the treasures of the Hudson Valley is the preponderance of small, local businesses. It is an alluring feature of this region—our streets are lined with a great diversity of micro-enterprises representing the work of people that live and create in our midst.
Recently I’ve noticed a proliferation of signs reading “Think Local First” or “Go Local” on the streets of our towns. Though there was localist activity before the recession officially struck, it has kicked it into high gear, and galvanized village and hamlet businesspeople to cooperate in new ways to create a more vibrant local economy.
We have been educated to see all business as one type of activity, but locally owned and run businesses are truly cut from a different cloth than their national, publicly traded counterparts. The math tells an important part of the story. Much of the money spent at a locally owned business flows back into and is reinvested in the community—particularly if the business sources locally—while the majority of money spent with a national chain is sent back to headquarters, often to service massive debt or produce unreasonable profits. But there are other, more qualitative, reasons that local business is good for community, and good for the future of humanity.
Local shops, restaurants, farms, and service providers are run with the ingenuity and artfulness of the people we know — members of our community. When we walk into the shop or restaurant we are likely to see its owner—the living, breathing human that is part of the fabric of our locale. And that owner is motivated by his or her relationship with customers, who are also neighbors. The owners may see their compensation in the opportunity to put their social, environmental, and creative values into action in the way they run their business. And so the business becomes a vital part of the fabric and culture of our place.
I recently attended the conference of an organization called Business Alliance for Local Living Economies or BALLE (www.livingeconomies.org)—a national organization comprised of numerous regional business networks. The organization’s mission is to help build thriving local economies based on sustainable business and environmental practices. The emphasis on localism is not an accident, for it is in a small business community that economic output acquires the vital component of meaningful relationships and a direct sense of our interdependence with one another. In fact, it was BALLE that coined the term “Think Local First.”
There is a movement across the country to build local living economies as a viable alternative to the old business models. These are values-based businesses that blend the idealism and activism of the nonprofit arena with the productivity of business, and are able to have a real impact.
A key concept of living economy is “triple bottom line,” which measures prosperity in terms more encompassing than financial profitability. It suggests that real abundance must address People, Planet, and Profits in approximately equal proportions. In this paradigm, business is not just for making a living, it is for making a difference, and demonstrating truthful principles in action.
According to BALLE, a Living Economy is guided by the following principles:
• Living economy communities produce and exchange locally as many products needed by their citizens as they reasonably can, while reaching out to other communities to trade fairly in those products they cannot reasonably produce at home. These communities value their unique character and encourage cultural exchange and cooperation.
• Living economy public policies support decentralized ownership of businesses and farms, fair wages, taxes, and budget allocations, trade policies benefiting local economies, and stewardship of the natural environment.
• Living economy citizens appreciate the benefits of buying from living economy businesses and, if necessary, are willing to pay a price premium to secure those personal and community benefits.
• Living economy investors value businesses that are community stewards and as such accept a “living return” on their financial investments rather than a maximum return, recognizing the value derived from enjoying a healthy and vibrant community and sustainable global economy.
• Living economy media provide sources of news independent of corporate control, so that citizens can make informed decisions in the best interests of their communities and natural environment.
• Living economy businesses are independent and primarily locally owned, and value the needs and interests of all stakeholders while building long-term profitability.
We are blessed to already possess many of the aspects of a living economy in the Hudson Valley. Supporting these principles in our lives is a meaningful investment in our community and all that we share.