Growing Local Value

Mark Lakeman’s recent series of blog posts about the City Repair project reminds me of the surging interest in localism these days. This can be seen in the growing popularity of slow food, farmers’ markets, “buy local” campaigns, municipal wi-fi projects, anti-Wal-Mart activism and land trusts. Another important player in this trend is the Business Alliance for a Local Living Economy, or BALLE, a group of progressive-minded entrepreneurs that has pioneered a number of socially innovative initiatives. BALLE has sought to transcend the Chamber of Commerce’s stodgy, politically regressive agenda, and develop a new paradigm for local businesses.

Now there is a new book that brings together some of the lessons that exemplary local businesses have learned. Growing Local Value, by Laury Hammel and Gun Denhart, features strategies and anecdotes about “how to build business partnerships that strengthen your community.” The book is a welcome reminder that successful businesses do not need to emulate the predatory strategies of large corporations, but can make business success and community development complementary. The key difference may be the smaller scale and private ownership of locally committed businesses.

Laury Hammel is one of the co-founders of BALLE (with Judy Wicks of Philadelphia’s White Dog Care), and the founder of The Longfellow Clubs, a group of fitness clubs in the Boston area. Gun Denhart is the delightful co-founder of Hanna Andersson, a children’s clothing company. I met Gun years ago when her company was just starting out; I profiled her company in my book Aiming Higher. I was also a happy customer of her company’s colorful, durable clothes.

Hammel and Denhart do not offer formulas for business success; they tell stories. Most of them feature entrepreneurs struggling to bring their personal journeys into alignment with business challenges and community life. We hear, for example, about The Longfellows Clubs’ role in helping breathe new life into an ailing inner-city tennis club founded by African-Americans.

We hear about Joie de Vivre Hospitality, a chain of 30 boutique hotels in the Bay Area, that rejects the sameness and homogeneous branding of conventional hotels. The hotel asks guests to round up their bill and contribute that amount to the social service agency next door that feeds homeless people. The books tells wonderful stories about the White Dog Cafe partnering with local farmers to develop an alternative food system of humanely raised, hormone-free meat and organic produce.

Since the book is something of a “how-to” guide for entrepreneurs, it does not delve into the reasons why large, publicly traded companies tend to be much less responsive to communities, and less innovative. It does not explore the vexing dilemmas posed by small companies that start to lose their soul when they go public or expand rapidly (e.g., Stonybrook Farms deciding to sell its yogurt through Wal-Mart, and Ben & Jerry’s becoming a socially progressive brand at Unilever). At a certain point, the appearance of socially minded leadership tends to replace the actual risk-taking and community commitment that small entrepreneurs are more likely to show. “Cause-oriented marketing” eclipses the personal and social concerns that are paramount for the local entrepreneur.

Still, the stories in this book are refreshing because they show how small businesses can honor the local. They show how socially innovative ideas can be integrated into a business enterprise. The stories demonstrate that the market and the commons can fruitfully enliven each other with their different capacities, if only businesses can be mindful enough to recognize the commons in the first place.