Not Business as Usual

New reasons for optimism on Main Street


| July/August 2002 Issue


It may seem that there’s little to celebrate on Main Street these days as hometown businesses lose out to chain stores, catalog shopping, e-commerce, and other out-of-town businesses. But flying beneath the radar of conventional economic wisdom are dozens of innovative efforts to boost the prospects of locally owned and civic-minded businesses. These projects take many forms, from direct challenges to big box outlets to ambitious plans for an alternative stock market, but together they offer a new economic vision. Focusing on socially conscious business principles and homegrown ingenuity, they offer hope that we can overcome current development trends that suck all the resources out of our local communities and despoil the environment.

The Business Alliance for Local Living Economics (BALLE) operates nationally, regionally, and locally in its mission to build "a living economy"—one that "works in harmony with natural systems, supports both biological and cultural diversity, and fosters fulfilling and enjoyable community life for all peoples." Seventeen regional "nodes" created to serve local businesses with information, education, local sourcing, and other services have sprouted since a February organizing meeting. . . . BALLE’s northern Washington node, called Sustainable Connections, links volunteers from the business community with local environmental and community causes. Participants pledge "to take continuous steps to incorporate sustainable personal and business practices; to promote economic, ecological, and cultural diversity; to foster healthy communication; and to choose local sourcing and purchasing."

In Minneapolis, the group Responsible Business Minnesota promotes business as a vehicle for economic and social justice with educational programs and community-building activities. . . . Also on the local front, the Salt Lake Vest Pocket Business Coalition, an alliance of 200 independent businesses, is fighting the big guys with a handy, easy-to-use map of the area that highlights major city landmarks—and local independent businesses. The coalition printed 50,000 maps and distributed them at local stores, hotels, and tourist information centers. . . . A Minneapolis group has introduced the Community HeroCard, which promotes local businesses while rewarding community volunteers and nonprofits. Volunteers get a discount on merchandise from participating neighborhood businesses, and a portion of the sales help fund local nonprofits. . . . CitySoft (www.citysoft.com), a Web site developer and management firm whose clients include America Online and Reebok, has made a name for itself by recruiting employees for its New York and Boston offices from inner-city neighborhoods, which are often overlooked in the digital economy. . . .

Activists in Santa Fe, New Mexico, last year founded the Permaculture Credit Union, designed to fund ecologically sound building, farming, and other business and individual endeavors. The credit union has more than 220 members and more than $1.1 million in deposits. . . . Troubled by the threat to hometown retailers posed by e-commerce giants like Amazon.com and Best Buy, the Tucson-based Arizona Daily News has launched an online advertising site called e-shop Tucson, where local merchants can hawk their wares. The newspaper is helping retailers promote their advantage in customer service and timely, inexpensive delivery. . . . California farmer, author, and activist Michael Ableman is working with a group of New Yorkers to build an urban farm on part of the World Trade Center site. The project would include gardens, orchards, greenhouses, and classrooms to teach about local food production. . . .

Many new initiatives want to boost local communities by working on the wider "macro" level, including Green Economics Movement Strategies (GEMS), the brainchild of Boulder, Colorado, philanthropist and investor John Steiner. GEMS would act as a trusted source for consumers hoping to support ethical businesses while encouraging the sort of collective buying that would have a major influence on the economy. GEMS would benefit locally owned businesses, as well, by offering technical assistance tools. . . . A group led by Odwalla juice co-founder Greg Steltenpohl expects to complete by the end of the year the initial planning phase of the Interra Inter-Cooperative Initiative, a financial transaction network linking socially responsible businesses and consumers. The network would employ smartcards that would allow members to store and exchange value with each other in an account similar to a frequent flyer account. . . . Banker and entrepreneur Joe Sibilia, meanwhile, hopes to reshape the investment world with his Springfield Stock Exchange, an Internet-based stock market for socially responsible companies. . . .

The Web is also home to the ManyOne Network (www.manyone.net), launched in April by longtime information technology wizard Joseph Firmage. Beyond providing a state-of-the-art Internet portal that will provide a solid alternative to AOL, ManyOne offers such services as the Cooperative Trading Network, which helps communities exchange goods and services locally and worldwide. . . . On the legal front, Brooklin, Maine–based attorney Robert Hinkley has proposed the Code for Corporate Citizenship as an amendment to state laws governing corporations. The code would extend the requirements of corporate responsibility beyond shareholder return, adding that such return may not be "at the expense of the environment, human rights, the public safety, the communities in which the corporation operates, or the dignity of its employees."