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Natural Awakenings National

Empower Local Businesses to Strengthen Local Economies: Success Tips from Advocate Michelle Long

Oct 31, 2011 10:50AM ● By Brian Clark Howard

Michelle Long is the executive director of the Bellingham, Washington-based Business Alliance for Local Living Economies (BALLE). The fast-growing network aims to empower local businesses with their financial goals while they actively contribute to healthier communities and a cleaner environment. Their triple bottom line is people, the planet and profit.

BALLE represents 22,000 independent businesses in 30 states and Canadian provinces. By serving as an information clearinghouse and support center, BALLE is proving that no business is too small to make a difference.

Why is it important to foster local economies?

Locally based activity is where we are seeing real prosperity. Today, as we face economic, community and ecological crises, we see bright spots where local businesses are working together to build strong, healthy local economies.

How can local businesses positively affect their  communities  and the environment?

There is a natural accountability when business owners live with the impacts of their decisions, instead of from hundreds or thousands of miles away. Local supply chains also reduce carbon impacts by decreasing transport time.

Why is it vital to foster new strategies and support networks for local businesses?

Small businesses are stronger together than they are alone. Working in collaboration, business people enjoy enhanced powers of communication and networking, including opportunities to save on smart, shared purchasing. They often support each other through learning, mentoring and even investing in each other’s businesses.

How does investing money locally, or community capital, help?

This aspect is a critical component of a healthy community economy, because too often, when we put our money into something like a mutual fund, we don’t know the impact and how much harm is coming from it. Community capital, investing locally, is much more personal and direct; it can help ensure we’re bringing about changes we want, such as resilient communities and local food supplies. Just going for impersonal financial returns isn’t working.

More local banks are innovating in this area. One example is One Pacific Coast Bank, in the Northwest. New kinds of investment clubs also are coming on line.

Which examples illustrate how businesses are thriving as a result of new local models?

Several local manufacturing groups spoke of their results at BALLE’s 2011 annual conference. Examples include SF (San Francisco) Made and Made in Newark. These nonprofits build a regional economic base by developing a sustainable and diverse local manufacturing sector.

In Philadelphia, the apparel boutique Sa Va uses local materials in every detail, down to people growing plants for dye in vacant lots. The city has granted the shop tax breaks in acknowledgment that it creates jobs and supports other local businesses.

Which examples illustrate how businesses have reinvented themselves based on new local models?

After attending a BALLE conference, the president of T-shirt maker TS Designs launched steps to localize the entire supply chain to enhance its push for social and ecological sustainability. Typically, a tee travels 16,000 miles before you put it on, but TS now collaborates with North Carolina farmers, cotton ginners and others to go from “dirt to shirt” in 750 miles.

What challenges loom for local business efforts, and how can they be overcome?

One of the biggest hurdles is that many people are innovating, but they are going it alone. BALLE connects businesses to other people, ideas and resources so they can learn from each other and not have to start from scratch.

Another barrier is financing. We have started to bring together pioneering philanthropists that put a little funding in to create the conditions for businesses to proceed from there. The Cleveland Foundation, for example, recently helped seed a worker-owned laundry co-op.

Most economic development subsidies still favor large corporations rather than local businesses, but some shift when they see studies like those from Civic Economics, proving that the cost per new job is much cheaper by catalyzing and growing local business. In Phoenix, a study by BALLE network’s Local First Arizona showed how the state gets more high-paying jobs with benefits from a local office supply company, Wist Office Products, than from a big box store. Wist also spends more money locally for services ranging from graphic design to legal assistance, and donates more to local charities. In all, the study found that on a $5 million state contract, Arizona was losing half a million annually in economic leakage by doing business with a nonlocal competitor. As a result, the city of Phoenix changed its procurement rules and now buys local.

Brian Clark Howard is a multimedia journalist and the co-author of Green Lighting,  Geothermal HVAC  and Build Your Own Wind Power System. Connect at

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