'Buy local' the rallying cry of effort to stimulate economy in Lowcountry
The sustainability movement is in full swing.
Churches are preaching environmental stewardship. Architects and designers are taking into account renewable energy, green roofs, geo-thermal heating and cooling and other "green" features. Recycling seems to have become not only an obligation but an industry that enables manufacturers to create a host of new products while relying less on raw materials extracted from the Earth. Wind farms are going up. Hybrid vehicles are more popular than ever. Even General Motors has been forced after its collapse to adopt a new approach, which it's touting as "Reinvention" in a new TV advertising campaign: "Greater efficiencies. Better fuel economy and new technologies. Leaner. Greener. Faster. Smarter."
The sustainability movement has many components. Active for decades, but gaining momentum now, is the growing grass-roots "buy local" campaign, which is an outgrowth of the old "Think global, act local" concept. The general idea behind it is simple: When commerce happens locally, area merchants benefit most and the environment is least affected.
When you buy a widget made in China, it must travel to your community (which consumes energy), and most of the money you spend ($57 of every $100, according to a
2004 study) goes to manufacturers, suppliers and marketers who operate far away. When you buy a widget from a store in your community, more of your money ($68 of every $100) stays put, and it stimulates more local economic activity.
This is what Lowcountry Local First is trying to get across. The North Charleston-based organization, an alliance of member merchants, is launching its 10% Shift campaign June 30 with a 10 a.m. public announcement at Marion Square. The purpose is to increase local spending and provide a jolt to the sagging economy.
"The 10% Shift campaign is part of a 'stimulus plan' for the Lowcountry," said Jamee Haley, executive director of Lowcountry Local First.
The alliance is hoping that area consumers will pledge that at least one out of 10 shopping excursions will take them to locally owned stores. If all residents committed 10 percent of their shopping budgets to local merchants, the effort could generate about $140 million in total new economic activity, $50 million in new wages and more than 1,000 new jobs, according to Lowcountry Local First and its national affiliate, the Business Alliance for Local Living Economies, or BALLE.
Here's some data to illustrate the point: A study by Civic Economics, a consulting and research firm, reported in 2003 that for every $100 spent at a chain bookstore in Austin, Texas, $13 went back into the local economy. For every $100 spent at an independently owned bookstore, $45 was returned to the local economy. That's called "the multiplier effect."
"Buy Local" is catching on. Lowcountry Local First is one of about 60 BALLE chapters, and it has more than 50 merchant members, many of whom are now spreading the word about the "10% Shift" campaign.
Sarah O'Kelley, co-owner of Glass Onion restaurant in West Ashley, heard about Lowcountry Local First about three years ago, at a Bowen's Island oyster roast.
"I loved the idea," she said. It encapsulated everything O'Kelley and partners Chris Stewart and Charles Vincent were trying to do at the restaurant: serve fresh, seasonal food that originates, as much as possible, from local producers; and foster a sense of community purpose by cultivating loyal patrons who would not only enjoy the Southern home-style grub, but recycle their dollars through local merchants and suppliers.
O'Kelley, who moved to Charleston from New Orleans, said she goes out of her way to support other local businesses and forge collaborations. She buys supplies from area merchants, shops at locally owned stores and works with others to promote Lowcountry Local First.
"A lot of the things we do are more about community than the bottom line," she said. "It's about educating the public, because we've got to bring the consumer into the equation."
Haley said her alliance hopes to engage more and more merchants and convince area residents to embrace the "10% Shift" initiative fully by 2010.
"We must grasp the idea of how we can really help ourselves by making a small shift (in spending habits) and greatly improve the local economy by doing so," Haley said.
Mount Pleasant Councilman Joe Bustos, who is running for mayor and who chairs the Bids and Purchases Committee, said the town already has taken some steps toward improved local sustainability. The local vendor program includes a mechanism by which town procurement officials can engage a local supplier so long as its bid price is not more than 10 percent higher than its competitors. In other words, local companies get preference, even if their products or services cost slightly more, Bustos said.
The long-term benefit easily justifies the one-time cost, since much of the money is plowed back into the local economy, fueling growth, he said. When that happens, more sales tax revenue is generated, and when more sales tax revenue is generated, residents might see a higher sales tax option credit on their property tax bills.
The more sales tax that's collected, the less the municipality must rely on property taxes, Bustos said.
Another ripple effect of increased economic activity in Mount Pleasant is that the retail environment becomes more conducive for opening new stores, Bustos said. New stores mean more business licenses. More business licenses mean more revenue for the town. More business license revenue means less need to hike property taxes and other fees.
"It's not that people don't want to shop locally, they just don't think about it," Bustos said. The point of the "10% Shift" campaign is to get them to think about it.
Christine Osborne, owner of Wonder Works, which has stores in West Ashley and Mount Pleasant, said she heard about Lowcountry Local First last year when Haley came to shop. Osborne had seen those "Buy Local" bumper stickers, and now she connected the dots and soon became a member (paying $100 a year to the alliance). Since then, she has attended workshops and fundraisers and events to raise awareness.
The alliance provides Osborne and other merchants with promotional support and networking opportunities, she said.
"We make up the lifeblood of the city," Osborne said of small business owners. "Charleston, S.C., is what it is because of the local businesses."
Osborne is one of the alliance's most vocal advocates. She is constantly pitching the idea of local sustainability to customers, handing out brochures and bumper stickers, telling them about the upcoming public announcement, about the support the initiative has received from three mayors, about the launch party scheduled for July 10.
"This is not a one-time blitz, but an ongoing effort," she said.
Next spring, the eighth annual BALLE Conference will be held in Charleston. Visit www.livingeconomies.org for more information.