"Buy American" is a great message. An even better one may be “Buy Marquette, Michigan.” Or “Buy Las Cruces, New Mexico.” Or “Buy Davidson, South Carolina.”
Entrepreneurs Laury Hammel and Judy Wicks launched the Business Alliance for Local Living Economies (BALLE) to inspire and support companies trying to keep transactions within their geographic communities. That can mean restaurants buying from local farmers; construction companies buying from local shingle manufacturers; or restaurants, farmers, construction companies and shingle makers teaming up to market to local consumers. Wicks and Hammel talked to Inc. Editor-at-Large Leigh Buchanan about their crusade to keep dollars and jobs at home.
Wicks: I learned about the need to build local economies through my work with local food. I founded White Dog Café in 1983 and created a network of farmers to supply it. I then expanded that network to other Philadelphia area restaurants, and I began to understand the importance of communities being self-reliant. I attended my first Social Venture Network conference in 1993. Laury was the first person I met when I arrived at the airport. He welcomed me and helped load my luggage into the van.
Hammel: I founded the Longfellow Clubs in 1972 in Massachusetts and incorporated in 1980. Our mission was to help our community be as healthy as possible: physically, mentally, and spiritually. We were always looking for other businesses that shared that mission. In 1988 we got together with companies that included Ben and Jerry, Stonyfield Farm, and Tom’s of Maine to form a group called New England Businesses for Social Responsibility. In 1991 I helped form a larger group called Businesses for Social Responsibility (BSR) to collaborate on issues of justice and sustainability around the country. But in 2000 BSR decided it didn’t want to deal with small and mid-sized companies anymore. So I went to Julia and said I wanted to start another organization to work with those companies.
Wicks: Laury had already built a network in Boston and I in Philadelphia. Other SVN members had started local business networks in their communities. So we took all these disparate networks and formed them into a national organization to catalyze and support each other. By connecting these networks we want to form a new global economy, starting with the United States. Today we have between 70 and 80 networks representing around 30,000 businesses.
Hammel: The networks are all different sizes and they can be rural, suburban, urban. They include large cities like Chicago. The Boston network is organizing all of Massachusetts. Arizona is a network and so is Utah. A number of small communities in California. One of our most active and innovative members is Bellingham, a small city in Washington.
Wicks: From the beginning we thought this should be a bottom-up grassroots organization. Each local network is autonomous with its own name and own ideas about how to create a local economy. So they vary greatly. Some are 501c3s. Others are more loose associations of businesses that are building local supply chains or waste chains. Every one is different because the circumstances of the local communities are all so different. There’s no one-size-fits-all here.
Hammel: In New England we have 18 networks working together on a regional basis around campaigns like Shift Your Shopping, which is a program that’s gone national around encouraging people to shop locally during the holidays. Then there’s a host of things BALLE offers networks to help them work together, such as webinars on subjects like community capital, environmental responsibility, how to organize, and how to raise money.
Wicks: We want to harvest the good ideas that have been successful at a local level and explain them to other communities. Among other things, BALLE passes along business models for entrepreneurs. For example, there’s an entrepreneur named Eric Henry in North Carolina who prints T-shirts. He noticed that all his cotton T-shirts were made overseas, even though North Carolina is cotton country. So he started a project called Dirt to Shirt that connects the cotton farmer to the ginner to the spinner to the cutter and so on throughout the chain to create a shirt that is entirely made in North Carolina. He presented at a BALLE conference about how he connected his whole supply chain within his own state.
People can also learn how to start various campaigns. The first one I can remember was the Local First campaign in Bellingham. They developed a handbook of how to start that kind of program and distributed it to other networks around the country through BALLE. In Philadelphia we created a green jobs campaign.
Hammel: In Boston we designed a 100-question assessment in seven categories about what companies are doing to make their businesses green. We certified over 100 companies in Boston on that program and have talked to people from around the world about it. We just held for the third year in a row the largest food festival in the country that features only local businesses. Forty thousand people came.
Wicks: It’s about survival. If we’re reliant on long-distance shipping for our basic needs then we are vulnerable to the weather, to the rising cost of oil, to social upheaval. Climate change makes it even more urgent that we have food security, water security, and energy security. That is the foundation of world peace.