Learning Globally, Living Locally

If you're looking for "Main Street," take a stroll down the aisles of your local supermarket and you may see all kinds of examples. Hungry for a snack? Try Nabisco's "Main Street Originals" crackers or how about a bag of "Lays Local" potato chips?

What do these products have to do with real places or local produce? Nothing really, except for savvy marketing spin. The power of Main Street and localism has been co-opted not just by Wall Street, but by Madison Avenue as well.

While this type of advertising makes us all a bit cynical, it is also a reflection of a bigger trend that bodes well for the real, local places we want to preserve. Behind this trend is a growing value - borne in the realization of what we have lost in this global world - that living locally is good not just for our economy but for our health and well-being as well.

But just what is "localism"? According to Localism.com, "localism … is a place of meaningful interaction … where neighbors and local merchants share what's happening in their community. Localism makes the world smaller and more personal … and re-establishes the bonds between neighbors."

Sound like Main Street? Yes! But this phenomenon is bigger than Main Street or even the United States. Localism is, ironically, a global phenomenon.  

Seasonal, natural food has become a priority for many consumers in reaction to the multinational merchandising of "fast food."

Credit: Linda S. Glisson

One example of localism is the "Slow Food movement," which uses diverse, seasonal, natural food in reaction to the multinational merchandising of uniform "fast food." The Slow Food movement, which began in Rome in 1986 and has expanded to include 83,000 members in 122 countries, incorporates a series of objectives, including:

  • Preserving and promoting local and traditional food products, along with their lore and preparation;
  • Organizing celebrations of local cuisine within regions; and
  • Encouraging ethical buying in local marketplaces.

The slow foods ethic has taken firm root in American soil as well. Farmers markets are an obvious example as are the farm-to-restaurant programs that help local farmers as well as restaurants.

Another important aspect of localism is the shop local movement. "Buy Independent/Buy Local (BIBL) campaigns can be powerful tools to sustain independent businesses and traditional commercial districts. The ultimate goal of a BIBL campaign is to create a cultural shift through which large numbers of citizens come to identify themselves as "kind of person who supports local independents."

How to Start a Buy Independent/Buy Local Campaign (BIBL)

Start conversations with your neighbors, local business owners, and elected officials to gauge interest in launching a BIBL campaign. After you've identified a diverse group of interested people, the following steps can help you get started:

  • Check with the American Independent Business Alliance (AMIBA) to see if other groups in your area have expressed interest.
  • Draft a simple flyer or brochure with a concise pitch for your campaign and make sure everyone in your core group delivers a consistent message/
  • Arrange a community presentation and training to launch your campaign.

Adapted from Main Street News, July 2009.

"The choice between patronizing a local independent versus a chain or online business is becoming part of people's consciousness in many places," notes Stacy Mitchell of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance.

But beyond shop local campaigns and the slow food movement, something even greater is taking place. The movement has now morphed into "slow cities." In an article about "Slow Foods, Slow Cities, and their Lessons for Rural Preservation in the Spring 2009 issue of Forum Journal, for example, NTHP staffer Anthony Veerkamp notes, in the words of Stanford economist Paul Romer, that "a crisis is a terrible thing to waste."

Rather than trying to "recover" from the current economic crisis, perhaps this is a chance to create a new economy. By focusing on "localism" as an ethic, Main Street can join forces with other movements to bring people and preservation together for a better economy and a better way of life.

For more information about Buy Local campaigns, see "Shop Local – Does it Really Work?.

For more information about the Slow Food movement, visit http://www.slowfood.com/.