A New Deal for Local Economies: I. The Good News
Let me begin by sharing some good news. Scattered here and there, in my country and in yours, the seeds of a new, more local and durable economy are taking root.
Locally grown food has soared in popularity. There are now 5,274 active farmers markets in the United States. Remarkably, almost one of every two of these markets was started within the last decade.(1) Food co-ops and neighborhood greengrocers are likewise on the rise.
Some 400 new independent bookstores have opened in the last four years.(2) Neighborhood hardware stores are making a comeback in some cities. More students graduating from pharmacy school report that they would rather open their own drugstore than work for chain. In April, even as Virgin Megastores prepared to shutter its last U.S. record emporium, more than a thousand independent music stores were mobbed for the second annual Record Store Day. This celebration of independent record stores drew hundreds of thousands of people into local stores, was one of the top search terms on Google, and triggered a 16-point upswing in album sales.(3)
Driving is down in U.S. over the last two years, while data from a dozen metropolitan regions show that houses located within walking distance of local businesses have held value better than those isolated in the suburbs where the nearest gallon of milk is a five-mile drive to a superstore.(4)
In city after city, independent businesses are organizing and building an increasingly powerful counterweight to the big business lobby on issues as varied as tax policy and global warming. Local business alliances have now formed in over 130 cities and collectively count some 30,000 businesses as members.(5) These alliances are calling on people to choose independent businesses and locally produced goods more often and making a compelling case that doing so is critical to rebuilding middle-class prosperity, averting environmental catastrophe, and ensuring that our daily lives are not smothered by corporate uniformity.
There is growing evidence that these initiatives are succeeding. Last winter, as the economy spiraled downward, many big retail chains reported double-digit sales declines. Some filed for bankruptcy. But a survey of 1,100 independent retailers found that revenue was down just 3 percent on average.(6) What accounted for this relative good fortune? Many of those surveyed said that more people are deliberately seeking out locally owned businesses.
But here's what is perhaps the strongest — and, undoubtedly, the most bizarre — evidence to date that people's priorities are changing: Many massive, globe-spanning corporations are now trying to figure out how they can be "local" too. Hellmann's, the mayonnaise brand owned by the processed-food giant Unilever, is test-driving a new "Eat Real, Eat Local" marketing campaign. Frito-Lay is using farmers to pitch its potato chips as local food. Barnes & Noble, the world's top seller of books, has launched a new campaign under the tagline, "All bookselling is local." Winn-Dixie, one of the largest supermarket chains in the U.S., has a new slogan: "Local flavor since 1956." The International Council of Shopping Centers, a global consortium of mall developers, is pouring millions of dollars into television ads urging people to "Shop Local" - at their nearest mall.
Most astounding of all, Starbucks, a company that has spent untold millions developing one of the most recognizable brands on the planet, is now beginning to un-brand some of its outlets. The first of these just reopened as "15th Avenue Coffee and Tea" in Seattle and, unless you read the fine-print on the menu, you would quite easily assume it was an independent coffee house.
Corporations desperately want to turn the local economy movement into nothing more than a cheap marketing trick they can appropriate for their own ends. These attempts at imitation are unnerving. But in the end I think this new variation on corporate green-washing — let's call it local-washing — will backfire. In the meantime, I'm heartened by what it says about the current consciousness. After all, these companies spend enormous sums on market research and they would not be doing this unless they had detected a sizeable shift in public attitudes.
1. United States Department of Agriculture, Farmers Market Growth: 1994-2009.
2. "Indie Bookstores Open Across the Country in 2008," Bookselling This Week, Jan. 22, 2009.
3. Stacy Mitchell, "Death of the Category Killers," Hometown Advantage Bulletin, Jun. 23, 2009.
4. Nate Silver, "The End of Car Culture," Esquire, May 6, 2009; Joseph Cortright, "Walking the Walk: How Walkability Raises Housing Values in U.S. Cities," CEOs for Cities, August 2009.
5. See "Map of Local Business Alliances" at http://www.newrules.org
6. "Independent Retailers Outperform Chains Over Holidays, National Survey Finds," New Rules Project Press Release, January 15, 2009.