Corporations co-opt "local" - Page 2

As the movement to buy local gains momentum, chains try to get in on the action and confuse consumers

They wouldn't be doing this on a hunch," observed Dan Cullen of the American Booksellers Association, a trade group which represents about 1,700 independent bookstores and last year launched IndieBound, an initiative that helps locally owned businesses communicate their independence and community roots.

Signs that consumer preferences are trending local abound. Locally grown food has soared in popularity. The United States is now home to 4,385 active farmers markets, a third of which were started since 2000. Food co-ops and neighborhood greengrocers are on the rise. Driving is down, while data from several metropolitan regions show that houses located within walking distance of small neighborhood stores have held value better than those isolated in the suburbs where the nearest gallon of milk is a five-mile drive to Target.

In city after city, independent businesses are organizing and creating the beginnings of what could become a powerful counterweight to the big business lobbies that have long dominated public policy. Local business alliances — such as San Francisco Locally Owned Merchants Alliance, Stay Local! New Orleans, and Phoenix's Local First Arizona — have now formed in more than 130 cities and collectively count about 30,000 businesses as members.

In San Francisco, the buy-local movement is strong. Voters and elected officials have erected bureaucratic barriers to new chain stores, and citizens have used those tools to fend off even respectable chains such as American Apparel, which earlier this year tried unsuccessfully to open a store on über-local Valencia Street. The San Francisco Small Business Commission runs a buy-local campaign that was created in December by such unlikely partners as the Guardian, Mayor Gavin Newsom, and the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce (see "Shop local, City Hall," 5/6/09).

Through grassroots buy-local and local-first campaigns, these alliances are calling on people to choose independent businesses and local products more often. They also are making the case that doing so is critical to rebuilding middle-class prosperity, averting environmental collapse, keeping more money in the local economy, and ensuring that our daily lives are not smothered by corporate uniformity.

Surveys and anecdotal reports from business owners suggest that these initiatives are changing spending patterns. While the federal Department of Commerce reported that overall retail sales plunged almost 10 percent over the holidays, a survey in January by the Institute for Local Self-Reliance (where I work) found that independent retailers in cities with buy-local campaigns saw sales drop an average of just 3 percent from the previous year. Many respondents attributed this relative good fortune to the fact that more people are deliberately seeking out locally owned businesses.


None of this has slipped the notice of corporate executives and the consumer research firms that advise them. Several of these firms have begun to track the localization trend. In its annual consumer survey, the New York–based branding firm BBMG found that the number of people reporting that it was "very important" to them whether a product was grown or produced locally jumped from 26 to 32 percent in the last year alone. "It's not just a small cadre of consumers anymore," said founding partner Mitch Baranowski.

Corporate-oriented buy-local campaigns that define "local" as the nearest Lowe's or Gap store are now being rolled out in cities nationwide. Some represent desperate bids by shopping malls to survive the recession and fend off online competition. Others are the work of chambers of commerce trying to remain relevant.