Combining Forces: Shopping Locally and Being Green

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In its five years, Buffalo First has grown to work with nearly 400 independent businesses, nonprofit organizations, and area residents. Talking Leaves Books owner, and Buffalo First vice president, Jonathon Welch recently talked about the pros and cons of building an active Local First organization.

Welch was involved from the start, as one of the original board members. Buffalo First, he explained, was launched as an “organization that would educate about and advocate for a local, green, and fair living economy.”

Via the nonprofit, local businesses have been able to organize and shape public policy. “We have achieved a public presence,” Welch said, “and have been active participants in some heated local development issues – a coalition of many groups has stopped, we think/hope permanently, a plan to give millions of dollars and tax abatements to lure a Bass Pro store to downtown Buffalo, at the site where much money has just been spent to restore the terminus of the Erie Canal. It looks now like that project will instead focus on local business development for the site, and will, if only because of scale, be much greener as well.”

Buffalo First continues to raise its visibility by hosting regular events that combine the messages of shopping locally and being green. By focusing on these overlapping issues, the organization found that it draws from a larger contingent of the community. Throughout April, Buffalo First is involved in more than a dozen events, including a tree planting, a Green Expo, and an e-waste collection drive.

The organization brings attention to individual businesses through its collaborative efforts. “For three years, we have produced a Local First coupon book, filled with coupons from local businesses and nonprofits, a business directory, and lots of tips about how to live a more environmentally friendly existence,” said Welch. “Buffalo's mayor wrote the introduction to the books in the second and third years.”

Although there’s an increased awareness of the value of supporting neighborhood businesses, the Local First message is beingco-opted to some extent by many large corporations, he said. “The region's two largest banks, both born here, but now behemoths with far-flung outposts, sell themselves as neighborhood enterprises.”

Maintaining a Local First group offers challenges beyond having its message diluted. Said Welch, “All is not roses.” Running an organization with mostly volunteers who are busy business owners is a struggle, membership ebbs and flows, financial stability is a concern, and the recession has made things difficult for everyone. One bright side, he said, is that the public remains committed to the cause.

“Give for Greatness” is a new initiative that Welch hopes will show what the truly local do for their community. It was created by the area’s alternative paper to raise money for defunded arts and cultural organizations. The campaign is largely directed to individuals, but Welch pledged that Talking Leaves would contribute a percentage of their sales during the two months of the campaign, in part to push people to think about the contributions local businesses groups make, as economic entities, and as businesses, and also to lead the arts and cultural organizations to acknowledge the ways they rely on the local business community.

Welch will talk about the Give for Greatness campaign at the April 26 Booksellers Forum, to be hosted by ABA CEO Oren Teicher and held in conjunction with the New Atlantic Independent Booksellers Association at Talking Leaves. Sarah Bishop, executive director of Buffalo First, will cover some of the things the organization is doing, particularly in the business-to-business arena, and Dave Harter of Green Options Buffalo, a local environmental advocacy group, will talk about a new program to encourage safe cycling that invites local businesses to participate by rewarding safe cyclist shoppers.

For planning purposes, ABA is asking booksellers who will be attending the forum to RSVP to Member Relationship Manager Kaitlin Pitcher by April 21.