The Beauty - and Power - of Small Business

Like many entrepreneurs, I started my business for the freedom it gave me to do things my own way. I was more individualistic than cooperative, and had a lone ranger mentality.  But I wanted to do the right thing and be a sustainable business. At first my goal was to have the best possible practices – recycling, composting, solar hot water, renewable electricity, buying fair trade, paying a living wage – within my company. What could be better?

In the 1980s when my restaurant began buying from local farmers, my intention was to develop a network of farmers to supply my restaurant with pasture-raised meat and poultry, and organic fruits and vegetables. As the only restaurant offering an abundance of humane and sustainably grown local farm products, this would be our market niche, our competitive advantage. But in a transformational moment, I realized that there is no such thing as one sustainable business, no matter how hard we might try. We can only be part of a sustainable system.

Envisioning a whole regional food system that incorporated the values I upheld, I began helping other restaurants, even my competitors, to buy from an expanding network of local farmers. Rather than focusing only on the short-term interests of my own business, I turned my attention to the long-term economic sustainability of my region by working to build a local economy that benefited everyone – family farmers, farm animals, local businesses, rural and urban citizens, and the quality of our soil, air, and water. And, of course, it benefited the long-term interests of my business, too. Transitioning to a just and sustainable economic system, I discovered, requires cooperation and sharing.

By 2001, when I co-founded BALLE, I realized that the freedom I so valued when I began my business was being threatened by an overpowering force. It was not the communist threat I had been taught to fear as a child in the 50s, but rather American capitalism gone amok.  It was clear that multi-national corporations were largely controlling the food we eat, the clothes we wear, the fuel we burn, the news we hear and even the government we depend upon to protect the common good.  

Centralized production has made communities around the world dependent on long distance supply chains to deliver basic needs like food, clothing, and energy from faraway corporations. This industrialized economic system has destroyed local economies, drained wealth from our communities, and left people jobless. It has also made us less happy.  Local businesses – the butcher, the baker, the candlestick maker – once provided the personal relationships that formed the foundation for community life.

Though it’s called “economic development,” those on the production side of the supply chains in developing countries, indigenous communities and low-income populations are often forced into bleak, soulless jobs in sweatshops and factories, factory farms and plantations, drilling and mining sites and billowing refineries that are destroying the local culture and natural environment.  No happiness here.

A decentralized economy not only creates more business ownership and job opportunities in our own communities, but also increases food and energy security. The role of small business owners is crucial in producing, distributing, and retailing basic needs locally.  By working together, small businesses, local governments and citizens can create an alternative to corporate-controlled globalization and the destruction and inequality it brings – an alternative that builds long-term community wealth, protects our local eco-system, creates meaningful jobs, and brings greater happiness. 

In these challenging times of climate change there is urgency. Not only is local production reducing the carbon of long distance shipping, we are preparing our communities for the inevitable consequences of climate change by decreasing our dependence on global supply chains easily disrupted by erratic weather, social upheaval, rising transportation costs, and the fluctuations of prices in the global marketplace.

Across the continent, networks of local businesses are cooperating to build local supply chains, replacing imports and building local self-reliance in an interdependent local economy of human-scale businesses. Not only are local farms providing fresh produce in farmers markets and grocery stores, but local food enterprises are stocking the middle aisles of our grocery stores year round with a wide array of products from canned and jarred goods to pasta and locally-milled heritage grains.  We can now put our local cheese on a locally made cracker and wash it down with local beer, wine, or even a martini made with locally-distilled gin.

Fibersheds are producing and processing local wool, cotton, and increasingly hemp into textiles and clothing in a dirt-to-shirt movement. Local designers, sewers, makers, and retailers are bringing unique character and identity to towns and cities. Local green builders and architects, weatherization companies, renewable energy suppliers, and rooftop solar installers are transforming the industry to meet the challenge of climate change.

But this new economy is not only local.  It’s about building a global network of local economies that produce basic needs locally, export the surplus, import (through fair trade practices) goods not available locally, and develop products unique to the region for exchange in the global marketplace – be it a fashion design, fine wine or cheese, artwork, or entrepreneurial innovation.

Since freedom has always been important to me, I now work collaboratively in my local business network to defend our democratic rights as many other business leaders are doing across the country. Using the collective voice of small business, we are challenging public policies that favors corporate control and demanding legislation that supports the emergence of an economy that works for all, while protecting the natural environment for future generations.

Making a living by doing something we love is a way to express our deepest values, live up to our full potential, and find purpose and meaning. I witness this on the shining faces of a local boutique owner when she shows me a dress she designed, and the farmer coming in the back door of a restaurant with a flat of organic strawberries, or a young man who has been trained in a green jobs program to install solar panels on my roof. Business is beautiful when we put our energy, creativity, and care into producing a product or service that our community needs.  Shine on beautiful businesses, shine on!

Can also be read on