Value, community and sustainability are what Mary Hamel talks about when asked what difference it makes if people “buy local.” Hamel, the executive director of the Metro Independent Business Alliance (MetroIBA), spoke recently with the Women’s Press about the impact of the movement to buy local.
A local business is more likely to listen when you request a specific brand of organic tofu or even give you a call when your favorite author has a new book coming out. That’s not what you’d expect from a chain store.
Local, independent businesses add character and diversity to neighborhoods. The owner may live in the neighborhood where the business is located and be more inclined to support the local schools, library or community events. They are also more likely to buy locally themselves, supporting other community businesses and also reducing the environmental impact with less shipping. Independent retailers return three times more to the local economy than chain stores.
Hamel lived this experience firsthand when she started a coffee shop, the May Day Cafe, in Minneapolis in the 1990s with two other entrepreneurs. She was just back from Europe and enchanted with all of the local “ma and pa” businesses there. At the same time, more chain stores were moving into the Twin Cities. She was committed to supporting the kinds of endeavors she wanted to see in her own community.
When the cafe opened, she used a neighborhood artist for the logo, bought furniture from a local shop and hired local painters to do the signage. Over half of the shop’s employees were from the neighborhood. These people turned out to be her customers, too. She saw that multiplier effect. “I saw it firsthand and lived it every day,” Hamel says.
And as her business grew, she realized the neighborhood impact in other ways. Once there was an incident when a few neighborhood kids were throwing pebbles at customers. Instead of calling the police, they called the kids’ parents and had a meeting to talk it over. She realizes this would not have happened with a chain store. She saw that local business owners who worked in their homes were hungry for a gathering place. They gravitated to her cafe to find connection.
Nearly 20 years later, in her leadership role with MetroIBA, Hamel sees even more of the impact of local businesses on communities. Membership in the organization is at an all-time high. There is a newsletter that goes to 4,000 people. According to the locally based Institute for Local Self-Reliance, 6 in 10 people go out of their way to shop local. At chain stores, $14 of every $100 spent stays in the community. While at local, independent businesses, $48 of every $100 spent stays here.
“Our efforts ARE making a difference,” Hamel says.