Buying Local: Much More Than Local Food

SBN Summit LogoThe benefits of buying local go far beyond buying healthy, delicious food from local farmers and producers. According to the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, multiple studies show that the economic impact of spending money at locally-owned businesses contributes much more money to the local economy than spending money at a national chain store. In addition, locally-owned businesses generate more jobs than businesses based elsewhere.

At the Sustainable Business Network of MassachusettsSustainability Leadership Summit 2012 in Boston on June 7, 2012, 115 entrepreneurs, farmers, consultants, and do-gooders of all types gathered to strategize about the best ways to work together to build a stronger, greener, and fairer  local economy.

In a small group session, Peter Brown from Red Sun Press and Susan Labandibar, President and CEO of Tech Networks of Boston led a discussion about how to deepen the “Local Ecosystem” of relationships among businesses. “As business owners, we’re recirculating a lot of money in the community,” Brown stated. “Tech Networks spends 72 percent of our revenue in Massachusetts,” Labandibar added.

Local businesses can do a lot to help one another, according to Brown and Labandibar.  They can band together to pursue joint sales contracts or hire shared staff for marketing, lead generation, or web design.  They can create a Business to Business Directory of local businesses to make it easier for businesses to find each other. In addition, businesses can inform their customers if they have a policy for purchasing locally and share information about local vendors that they support.

Andrew Meyer, co-owner of Vermont Soy in Hardwick, Vermont, spoke about how businesses in Hardwick share resources and support. Hardwick has received extensive media attention for creating a cluster of sustainable farms and food businesses that are helping to revitalize the local economy. “We’re committed to building a secure, vibrant local economy in Hardwick,” Meyer stated. “We’re connecting the local economic activity to the long-term interest of everyone in the community.”

Meyer’s second company, Vermont Natural Coatings, manufactures professional wood finishes using a byproduct from cheesemaking (whey) as a key ingredient instead of toxic chemical. VNC purchases the whey from local cheesemakers.

Meyer is part of a CEO group that’s been having informal monthly gatherings at each other’s businesses for the past six years. “We live and die by what’s going on with other businesses,” Meyer said.  “We need that collaborative efficiency and joint promotion.” Clearly, collaboration is working in Hardwick.

Betsy Cowan, Executive Director of Egleston Square Main Street in Jamaica Plain, convened a small group to discuss how the Sustainable Business Network and the “Buy Local” community can engage a more diverse set of customers and businesses to broaden its impact. Participants suggested that involving leaders who are indigenous to their communities, asking business owners about their needs, providing simultaneous translation at meetings, and breaking down the jargon/lingo to create universal messaging could all help SBN and local businesses collaborate more effectively.

Although helping small businesses get access to capital was a frequent discussion topic at the conference, Massachusetts has already launched a promising program to help business get loans.  Massachusetts State Treasurer Steve Grossman, one of the conference’s keynote speakers, described how he has moved nearly $250 million in taxpayers’ reserves from foreign and out-of-state investments to 44 Massachusetts community banks and credit unions that are investing in local businesses, especially women and minority-owned companies. “The Small Business Banking Partnership has been a game changer,” Grossman said.

While (as with any conference) it remains to be seen whether the positive energy and exciting ideas generated at the SBN Summit will lead to any new initiatives, the good news is that the shift to build a robust local economy is under way and is already making an impact. In any case, I’ll be looking for opportunities to use my power as a business owner and consumer to support other local businesses.

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