Earlier this year, East Bay Express Publisher Jody Colley began a project to encourage each of our readers to "Make the Pledge" to spend $100 of their holiday shopping dollars at locally owned stores. If each of our readers did so, the effect would be an additional $8.74 million dollars for the East Bay community. Readers were encouraged to e-mail their agreement to participate in the project, with one lucky reader set to win $1,000 in gift certificates at independent locally owned merchants and restaurants.
Good ideas take root, and this one was no exception. Along with assistance from the Business Alliance for Local Living Economies, the American Independent Business Alliance, and the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies, the Express convinced other alternative weekly newspapers across the country to participate. As of this writing, more than seventy papers, from Maui to Halifax and Seattle to Sarasota are participating. An economic analysis shows that this project could redirect as much as two billion dollars into local communities. These are dollars that would have left the local communities served by these papers and ended up as profits for the big box retailers.
The effect of the large national chains on our communities is well documented. Most of the big chains are publicly traded companies subject to the unrelenting demands of Wall Street for quarterly profits, and the extraordinarily bizarre tenet that layoffs are good as they improve short-term profits. When these companies move in, small businesses wither and owners become wageworkers at the big chains. The creativity that emanates from a diverse mix of local merchants, many of whom sell what they do because of their interest and knowledge of their products or services, is lost. This creativity and diversity that comes from a vibrant local business community helps make neighborhoods interesting.
The immediate economic effect of these recirculating local dollars is impressive. As compared with national or international chains, 40 percent more of each dollar spent at a local store stays in our community. Certainly in these perilous economic times, buying at local merchants who in turn spend their receipts at other local businesses instead of shipping them to Wall Street or overseas helps keep our communities vibrant and livable. The quantitative effects of our local purchases can have a qualitative effect in our communities.
But what may be most impressive is the stress that this program places on conscious consumption. If one thing is clear in our time, it is that mindful living is required in order to have a community and globe in which we all can enjoy livable lives. During the Bush administration, encouraged by a mantra of uncontrolled "progress" and accumulation, oblivious and insensitive actions have led to a world on the brink. A sense of scale has tilted to a "bigger is better" mantra that cannot be maintained. Living consciously means consideration for us and our planet through an attention to the effects of our actions or inactions.
Like it or not, much of our effect on the community and on our planet comes from our patterns of consumption — not only what we buy, but also how we buy it. When we see those five dollar T-shirts in the big box stores, we need to consider how they could be so cheap. How could any worker who made or transported these products be paid anything approaching a livable wage? Acting with a respect for the labor of those workers may mean paying a few more pennies or dollars for our products, but the cumulative effect of our actions could be significant. And, of course, buying at local merchants serves to reduce our personal carbon footprint, a requirement of conscious and moral living today.
Buying local is not about privileging your community over others. But, as Stephen Stills crooned, it means loving the one you are with. Buying local means knowing from whom you buy. It means being able to ask someone who can tell you from where the product came. Consumers in the East Bay have an advantage given the knowledgablility and caring attitude of most of our small businesses.
At the Web 2.0 Summit held earlier this year in San Francisco, Al Gore urged a project to "bring about a higher level of consciousness about our planet and the imminent danger and opportunity we face because of the radical transformation in the relationship between human beings and the Earth." Part of that consciousness must be understanding the effects of our actions as consumers, on the earth and on our communities. Local merchants are making a greater effort to locally source products and to consider the carbon footprints of their sourcing. We need to support them in their efforts, and to question them when this is not obvious to us.
While consumption often seems like a personal act, thoughtful local consuming can be part of conscious living. Giving the enormity of the problems facing us at this moment in history, this kind of activity is required if we are able to turn things around. Al Gore believes that if we are willing to work together and to have the courage to take disciplined and bold acts that we can succeed. Buying local, as a community, is one of the ways to do this.
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