This past weekend I went to the 5th annual BALLE conference--that's the Business Alliance for Local Living Economies. They're a network of groups throughout the US and Canada that works to promote local, socially responsible, and environmentally responsible businesses. I wasn't previously familiar with them, but one of the speakers described how big they are: they have over 15,000 member businesses worth over $30 billion--that's twice the market cap of Nike and Apple combined. We usually think of local businesses as small players on the economic stage, because the companies themselves are small and scattered; but organizations like BALLE can start to bring them together to exert a strategic influence on the market. They've certainly caused local economies to thrive where they've formed active chapters.
The conference had your usual slew of keynotes and break-out sessions, but here are a few highlights:
Van Jones, co-founder of the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights was an amazing speaker. I can't remember the last time I was at a conference where the entire audience leapt to their feet in a standing ovation. He gave, as he put it, "the speech Al Gore would give if he were black," combining the oratory of a Baptist preacher with the rigor of a public intellectual. He works to bring together poverty-fighting groups and environmental groups to kill two birds with the same stone. He talked about how 2007 will be known as the tipping-point year, where the US returns to the hope of the 1960's; but now the hard part begins, because those who have been green "when green was freak, not chic" have to ramp up. It's easy to be on the margins and say you'd fix everything if you were in charge, but now that this movement is going from the fringe toward the center, we have the challenge of actually being in charge, and we need to use the opportunity to get things done. One of the challenges of rising to power is you have to decide who you bring with you and who you leave behind. Jones wants to make sure that no races or economic classes will be left behind, avoiding "eco-apartheid", not only because of the morality issues, but because a system like that won't work. As he put it, "an economy that is green for the top ten percent is just a speed bump on the road to disaster." Van Jones is a man to watch.
Our own Gil Friend moderated a panel on embedding sustainability and local-economy concerns in manufacturing firms. The fair-trade textile company Indigenous Designs described their challenges in getting adequate quality-control and scheduling for US markets by scattered fair-trade artisans in Ecuador, and some difficulties sourcing sustainable materials local to the artisans. The organic food company Nature's Path described their eco-industrial network aimed at achieving zero waste by closing resource loops within the local area, partnering with other businesses to find uses for waste streams. (e.g. food spills becoming cattle feed, food waste becoming parts of dog biscuits, etc.) Eco-paper seller New Leaf Paper (on whose paper the Worldchanging book was printed) talked about being in an industry that is fundamentally non-local, high-volume, low-margin, and trying to turn it into a greener, more local industry. They are shifting the paper industry not by owning paper mills themselves (which requires enormous capital), but by steering existing manufacturers to produce greener paper. The final audience question was notable in that it stumped the panel--how to get businesses to not have zero environmental impact, but to have positive environmental impact. The panelists speculated that although they don't have good answers now, hopefully once the things they are pioneering are status quo, there will be new ideas and ways of making that happen.
Don Shafter, executive director of BALLE, talked about the emerging concept of a "B-corporation": a category of company (like a "C-corporation" or an "S-corporation") that is private enterprise for public benefit (the "B" is for benefit). This is basically a way of formalizing what it means to be a social entrepreneur. As he said, 70% of the US economy is private enterprise, so if we want to make change effective, we need to repurpose the corporation. The motivation for the creation of the "B-corp" classification is threefold: First, though many socially responsible companies have been created in recent years, there is no market clarity--no definition to distinguish a truly socially & environmentally responsible company from a greenwashing one. Second, current corporate law almost prohibits a company from doing anything other than blindly maximizing shareholder profit; social and environmental returns do not have the same legal protection, much less a mandate; a different set of rules must be created that responsible companies will operate by. Third, the businesses that do prioritize social and eco-responsibility should join together as a market sector, so they can have more clout in the economy, both by acting together and being measured together.
Michelle Long of Sustainable Connections (the Bellingham, Washington chapter of BALLE) described the transformation they caused in their region: In just a few years, 3/5 of the people in the city have changed their spending habits to prefer local goods and businesses, Bellingham city government buildings are running on 100% renewable power, and the city as a whole has switched to 11% renewable power. (Especially good, considering their goal was 2%.) What's more, there has been a 40% reduction in the price of green energy because of the greater usage. One point she made is that local economy movements can be a great laboratory for global change. It's both difficult and risky to make deep systemic changes to an enormous system like the global economy, but it is easy to change smaller-scale systems, and when a successful one emerges you can use its lessons on the larger scale.
One panel was on "Sustainable biodiesel", which I was happy to see, because it shows that alternative fuels are starting to become successful enough that we can take the next step and examine the true sustainability of them, and delineate the differences between bio-fuels that may not benefit people and the planet compared to those that will. For instance, the moderator was not a proponent of burning straight vegetable oil in cars because it has two problematic factors: it leaves a residue on the inside of engines (which damages the vehicle over time), and its emissions include burned glycerin whose chemical composition is similar to a pesticide. They mentioned that a certification standard is being developed by the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy that will measure the sustainability of a biofuel, similar to LEED or FSC certification. It would give biofuel producers a score based on the energy return of the crop, the greenhouse emissions, not clearing virgin land to farm feedstock, local ownership of refineries, and other factors.
Paul Hawken talked about his new book, Blessed Unrest, a history of the environmental and social-justice movement which argues that this is the largest social movement in the history of humanity. He talked about how many people are waiting for a leader, like the Dalai Lama or Martin Luther King, to make the movement happen, but really the movement is already here, and we should be grateful that it is a movement with no one in charge. He said that of the million-plus organizations he's cataloged, 99% are about diffusing power rather than consolidating it, and are creating solutions rather than decrying problems. He sketched a history of the social justice movement over the last 70 years, and how many of the big names and big events we remember (like MLK) rose on the shoulders of smaller names and organizations you're never heard of. What he did not mention, but should have, is that a movement without leaders is far more robust than a movement with them--like the internet, killing or isolating a few nodes does not bring the whole network down. We should not even look for heroes, he said -- we should connect and collaborate with each other. Today.
On the whole, the BALLE conference was very good. Culturally it felt a bit on the hippie side compared to the conferences I normally go to, but that's certainly not true of everyone there. Van Jones and Jack Stack are anything but. In any case, BALLE is clearly an up-and-coming organization that's making big changes in local economies. It will be interesting to see where it goes from here.
Great summary of the conference for those that could not attend.
I am curious if you have evidence for your assertion that "They've certainly caused local economies to thrive where they've formed active chapters."
Michelle sites any interesting statistic about spending habits changing - but is there any data to back up the 3/5's number? And do we have any reason to know if that has effected the local economy?
I would be very interested because last I checked our economy was driven by the recent construction boom.
Bill: Look on the Bellingham network's website, sconnect.org, for the results of a survey of Bellingham residents and how their spending habits have been affected by the work of Sustainable Connections.
Check out the website that stems from Paul Hawken's new book (Blessed Unrest) - www.WiserEarth.org - it already has a directory of almost 106,000 organizations (just part of the estimated one million + that Hawken believes exists). The website is set up in a similar way to Wikipedia to allow anyone to create or edit entries. Hawken is inviting the global online community to help map out this incredible movement of people working towards social and environmental restoration by adding and editing entries of nonprofits that they know of or work with.