Local Economy in a Global World

Entrepreneur, activist, and White Dog Café founder, Judy Wicks provided a different perspective at the 2013 IGEL conference at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania.

While other panelists spoke of global cooperation, scientific and technological innovation towards mitigating salient economic, social, and environmental issues, Judy advocated for “local living economies”. This idea means putting emphasis on locality: businesses, the environment, and valuing human well-being alongside commerce- the basis of sustainability; yet her goal is to push this at a local, community level, with cooperation among various actors, including farmers, restaurants, community groups, individuals etc. She envisions business as a means to fulfill the needs of a community, not an impersonal entity which focuses on ever increasing growth and profit, placing less importance on operating holistically. As a platform to foster this movement, Judy founded Business Alliance for Local Living Economies (BALLE), which offers entrepreneurs a network to develop successful businesses and encourage a positive gain to their local area.

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Judy freely shares her innovative ideas with competitors in an effort to grow the idea of sustainability. For her own restaurant, the White Dog Café, she expressed her belief that buying from local farmers kept economic growth within the community that produced the capital, created a market for responsible products, provided food security to that area, and decreased dependence on chain stores, cutting drastically the amount of carbon needed to transport goods.

Below, I attempt to discover some of Judy’s motivations, of small, responsible business, and the question of big corporate scale versus local scale affecting change towards sustainability. For more insight into her story and on the local movement, see her book Good Morning, Beautiful Business, released this year. It tells the story of Judy’s evolution as a business entrepreneur- starting out in the industry with her first store being run like a non-profit. “By that we simply meant we planned to make just enough to earn a living, but not more than we needed.” (Wicks, 2013) She asks the question, “How much is enough?”

1) What was the moment that inspired you to pursue actions which would foster the “living economy”? (If you could also explain “living economy”)

A living economy is one that supports healthy natural life and community life, while also supporting long term healthy financial life.  It was through interest in sustainable agriculture that I was first inspired to build a local living economy in our region.  I was concerned about the poisoning of our water, air, soil and food from pesticides and chemical fertilizers, as well as the concentrated manure of factory farms.
As I mentioned in my talk, at first I saw this simply something I wanted to do in my own restaurant and saw that as a way to promote my business – my competitive advantage in being the only restaurant that served only humanely and sustainably raised meat and animal products.  But then I realized that if I really cared about the farm animals, the rural communities, the poisoned environment, and the health of the consumer, that I would try to get many restaurant – my competitors – to due the same. I realized that there was no such thing as one sustainable business; we can only be part of a sustainable system and we must cooperate in order to build one.  So I made the decision to help my competitors buy from local farmers as I did.  I hired someone to provide free consulting to the other restaurants and gave them a booklet of local farmers and their contact info that we had developed at the white dog over the years.

I started a non-profit – white dog cafe foundation (later called white dog community enterprises) – and put 20% of our business profits into the non-profit to support our projects.  The first project was called fair food, which after a number of years became its own non-profit organization and now has about ten employees and 15 volunteers, with a number of programs including the fair food farmstand.

The other thing I immediately did was to loan $30,000 to the farmer who was bringing us pastured pork and chicken so that he could buy a refrigerated truck in order to pick up meat from many farms and deliver to many more restaurants. Between this farmer and Fair Food we began to build a local food system, constantly adding more farmers, restaurants and stores into the network and producing a Local Food Guide for consumers that listed all the farmers markets, community supported agriculture (CSA), and restaurants and stores that bought local food.

Then in 1999, I became inspired to work on a localization movement nationally.  The two things that inspired me were the Battle of Seattle and the sale of Ben & Jerry’s.  These events made me realize the danger of large corporations controlling not only our food system, but most everything we need to live as well as the media and the government.  I saw this as a threat to democracy.  I was particularly driven by the increasing destruction of the environment and increasing inequality.  So in 2001 I cofounded the Business Alliance for Local Living Economies (BALLE), which now has a network of 30,000 local independent businesses in about 80-90 communities in the US and Canada.  These businesses are committed to the triple bottom line of people, planet and profit and are largely in the industries that we call the building blocks of local economies – food, renewable energy, sustainable fashion, green building, local manufacturing, alternative transportation, independent retail, health & well-being, local arts and culture, independent media, community capital (local banks, etc).

2) You’re a big proponent of the small business and community based living, and oppose big corporations. Being (wonderfully) a bit out of place in terms of providing a different perspective to the other representatives from (predominantly) large corporations, how do you feel about their ability to enact big change impact because of their size and power as a brand? What are the differences between small businesses and/or non-profits and large, global corporations in terms of bettering the environment and human well-being towards sustainability? Who has the better platform?

I believe that we need both.  Especially in our race against time to stop climate change. I like to say that there are two fronts on the movement for responsible and sustainable business – the first are the reformers of large corporations. They are trying to reform the current corporate controlled economy. And it is true that if you get huge companies to change their practices you have a huge impact.

The other front of the movement, the local living economy supporters, is building an alternative economy that is locally based, as well as green and fair.  To increase equality, we need to decentralize ownership, the more owners the more spreading of wealth and political power, the more equality.  Local economies produce basic needs locally – food, energy, clothing, building materials – bringing economic power and greater security to local communities.  This cuts down on the carbon emissions of long distance shipping.  Local businesses owned by people in the community are more easily held accountable by the community and more likely to care about building a more fair and green economy because the owners live there.  There is civic engagement and relationships that build a closer community. There is a short distance between the owners of local companies and those affected by their business decisions – employees, customers, neighbors, suppliers and the natural and manmade environments. These direct relationships influence locally owned business to make decisions in the common good as much as possible.  The CEOs of large companies rarely see those affected by their decision.

Also, by law, publicly traded corporations must make decisions in the best financial interests of the stockholders rather than the interest of the other stakeholders. Local business owners often play important leadership roles in local economies that the management of chains do not. Knowing who grows our food, bakes our bread, brews our beer, sews our clothes, builds our furniture builds community and greater happiness.

3) You founded Free People, which provided the foundation for a big company, Urban Outfitters. Are you still involved currently with the company? If not, was there a decision to disengage due to no longer standing as a small non-chain company?

I am cofounder of the Free Peoples Store in 1970 along with Dick Hayne, my husband at that time.  I left within two years for personal reasons – I was leaving the marriage. You will have to read the book to understand my decision, but it was long before Urban Outfitters became a chain and had nothing to do with what the business eventually became. I am no longer affiliated in any way. After I left the business, my ex-husband changed the name and grew the business into a chain, and eventually started the Free People chain, as well as other brands.

Article by Leah Khaler

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One thought on “Local Economy in a Global World

  1. Pingback: The 2013 Wharton IGEL Conference Workshop | IGEL @ Wharton

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