$100 spent at a local, independent bookstore circulated $45 through the Austin, Texas, economy, whereas the same money spent at a national, chain bookseller circulated just $13, according to a study by Civic Economics for Liveable City Austin Independent Business Alliance.
It’s all too easy to spend the majority of our money on items shipped from far away. (In some stores, that’s literally all that’s available.) Buying locally made goods from locally owned stores is the obvious way to counteract that, but it’s not always as easy as it looks. In some towns, corporate shopping is the only option—and “local” is not so easily defined.
Just what is a local business? According to Michelle Long, executive director of the Business Alliance for Local Living Economies (BALLE), “If more than 50 percent of the ownership is located in a community and the owners have full autonomy to buy local organic potatoes to make French fries, BALLE considers them local and independent.”
Ideally, the business uses local labor and resources—but there are exceptions. “Coffee beans don’t grow in the Pacific Northwest,” Long says. “But an independent coffee shop can import fair-trade coffee and roast it locally. The local business movement isn’t about being isolationist; it’s about having a global economy made up of local living economies.”
“I can tell you the farmer’s name and the story behind every food we serve,” says Duskie Estes, chef/owner of Zazu Restaurant and Farm in Santa Rosa, California. Between 80 and 95 percent of Zazu’s food and wine comes from within 50 miles; 30 percent grows in the restaurant’s garden and on Estes’ farm.
“Most of our ingredients are picked the day we serve them and are never refrigerated, so they retain all their flavor and nutrients,” Estes says. “We’re committed to supporting Sonoma County’s agricultural diversity.”
Part of a growing movement of restaurateurs who support local food producers, Estes is happy to spread the word to her patrons. “The more you understand seasonality, the easier it is to shift your food expectations,” she says. (Translation: No Fried Green Tomato BLTs on the menu in August.)
Shift where you shop
Grocery store chains sell primarily imported and processed foods. To eat fresh, local, whole foods, look for organic, sustainable products at the following places:
• Farmer's markets
During the growing season, many farmers sell their produce at a market, roadside stand or “you-pick” farm. This eliminates the middleman, so farmers keep more profit, and you get a fresher, tastier harvest. By meeting farmers directly, you’ll learn that many family farmers who can’t afford organic certification use organic growing methods anyway. Search online for growers and farmer’s markets by ZIP code at the Locavore Network and Local Harvest.
• Community-supported agriculture (CSA)
Purchase food directly from a farmer through a seasonal share in a CSA. In return, you receive a bag of fresh farm products (produce, eggs, honey, cheese, flowers, meat, etc.) each week during the growing season. CSAs help farms’ cash flow, so you’ll share in their bumper strawberry crop—or hail-decimated tomato failure.
• Grocery stores
Let your supermarket know that you and your neighbors care about eating locally. Lobby the store’s produce or meat manager to stock more regionally grown foods. Or, join a food co-op that sells local fare.
• Your garden
Grow fruit and veggies in your yard or with an urban farming or community garden program.
• Find our if your town's Chamber of Commerce has an alliance of local, independent businesses, and support them whenever you can.
• Check the Business Alliance for Local Living Economies (BALLE) website for a local business network near you. If you own an independent business, consider creating a BALLE network with other area owners.
• Ask stores, food markets and restaurants about the origins of their products. Let the owners know you care about conscientious sourcing.
• Support local artists and craftspeople. Artist co-ops and many galleries represent regional artists.
• When remodeling, hire local iron- and metalworkers; textile, cabinet, furniture and lamp makers; and stained-glass artists.
• Shop at independent resale stores, including consignment boutiques, used home furnishing stores, used sports-gear shops, estate sales and architectural salvage stores.
Made locally, made green
To check that the goods you’re buying are both local and environmentally sustainable, ask the retailer or producer these questions.
Is the product:
• produced locally to minimize transportation energy?
• grown using organic methods, and in season?
• raised humanely and without supplemental drugs or hormones?
• made from renewable resources?
• extracted responsibly without impairing wildlife habitat, water quality or resource sustainability?
• created from recycled or reclaimed materials?
• made with nontoxic ingredients?
• grown or made by people paid a fair wage?
• manufactured in a manner that minimizes waste, pollution and toxic emissions?
• packaged minimally or in recycledcontent packaging?
• designed to last a long time?
• recyclable at the end of its life?
–Reprinted with permission from It’s Easy Being Green: A Handbook for Earth-Friendly Living by Crissy Trask.
Laurel Kallenbach is a freelance journalist who specializes in ecotourism, yoga and green living.