Stacy Mitchell is a senior researcher with the New Rules Project at the Institute for Local Self Reliance (ISLR), an organization started in 1974 to work with citizens, activists, policy makers and entrepreneurs to help communities improve their economies, reduce waste, manage local infrastructure and provide better overall living environments.
The New Rules Project “challenges the wisdom and inevitability of economic consolidation and works to advance policies that support strong local economies and vibrant communities.” In a nutshell, she works to advance many of the same things that Etsy stands for — handmade, local, independent production, and a connection to communities and producers.
I’ve had the pleasure of speaking with Stacy about the growth of local and independent businesses over the past several years, which many people attribute to both a backlash against “big box” retail and an appreciation for knowing one’s maker. Stacy took some time to talk to us about these issues, and her latest book, Big-Box Swindle: The True Cost of Mega-Retailers and the Fight for America’s Independent Businesses, goes into much more detail.
Tell us a bit about the New Rules Project.
The New Rules Project is a national initiative started by the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. The project’s mission is to make the case that bigger isn’t necessarily better — that small-scale production and independent businesses nurture community and create a more sustainable and democratic economy.
Our focus is on changing public policy. If you look at the laws and regulations in place today, many of them actively favor big corporations. Federal farm policies subsidize big agribusiness; local zoning rules favor Wal-Mart; banking regulations aid big banks; and the list goes on.
We’re calling for New Rules: public policies that support local economies and build strong, self-governing communities.
How did you get involved in the organization and what do you do?
I started working for the New Rules Project when it was founded in 1997. Much of my focus has been looking at the consequences of the rise of big retail chains, like Wal-Mart, Home Depot, and Barnes & Noble. These companies have taken over much of our economy with the promise of delivering good deals, but it turns out that the big-box model has been incredibly expensive. In my recent book, Big-Box Swindle, I document how these companies are fueling many of our most pressing problems, from the shrinking middle class to rising greenhouse gas emissions.
The good news is that there’s now a widespread backlash. The New Rules Project has helped hundreds of grassroots groups stop big-box development projects and enact new policies that keep the chains at bay and support local businesses instead.
Even more encouraging, our research is finding growing public support for locally produced goods and independent businesses. Local food is soaring in popularity. Over the last four years, we’ve seen increasing numbers of new independent businesses, from bookstores to food markets, opening across the country.
Local business alliances — like Stay Local New Orleans, Local First in Salt Lake City, and Portland Buy Local in Portland, Maine — have now formed in over 130 cities and collectively count some 30,000 businesses as members. These alliances are running very creative “buy local” campaigns that are not only changing people’s shopping habits, but engaging them in a conversation about community and how to transition to a more sustainable future.
Why should people shop local this holiday season?
One reason is that shopping at an independent business, instead of a chain, generates far more benefit for your local economy. Several recent studies have found that a dollar spent at a locally owned business generates 2-3 times as much local economic activity as a dollar spent at a chain and supports many more local jobs.
Another compelling reason to go local this year is to make the holidays fun again. Who wants to sit in traffic at the mall? It’s so much more rewarding to stroll through the small stores in your neighborhood or downtown. You’ll not only find unusual gifts that don’t come from a sweatshop, but you’re bound to run into friends, get into an interesting conversation, enjoy the beauty of historic buildings decked out in lights, take time to savor a hot chocolate at the local café — in short, you’ll have a chance to really experience and celebrate the place in which you live.
Of course, you can’t always find everything you’re looking for in your own backyard, and that’s why sites like Etsy and Indiebound are a great way to take advantage of the convenience and diversity of the web while still supporting independent artists and small businesses.
What kind of impact does supporting the local arts have on a community at large?
Buying anything produced locally — food, art, music, fashion — has a sizeable economic benefit for your community. The money you spend stays in the local area and helps to keep your neighbors employed.
These creative professions also contribute to the welfare of the community in so many other ways. They make the places we live interesting. They create focal points for reflection and community.
Artists and craftspeople are great problem-solvers too. As we grapple with big challenges, like climate change, we need their special abilities to help us envision a different way of living.
Do you have any specific examples of cities or towns that are experiencing a positive change?
Thanks largely to the work of Sustainable Connections, a coalition of about 500 local businesses in and around Bellingham, Washington, that community has made huge strides in incubating new businesses, expanding regional food production, and reducing the carbon footprint of buildings.
Local First Utah has changed how residents and elected officials in Salt Lake City think about economic development. A recent survey found that three-quarters of residents want fewer chains in their neighborhoods and more local businesses.
Arizona Local First was instrumental in convincing the state legislature to outlaw the kinds of subsidies that are commonly provided to big-box development projects.
Here in my hometown of Portland, Maine, many local business owners say that Portland Buy Local has made a big difference in terms of galvanizing public support and helping them survive the recession.
What are you doing to support your local community in Portland, ME?
I’m one of many volunteers with Portland Buy Local, which has about 280 members, including local businesses, artists, and nonprofits. We create new poster and advertising campaigns every couple of months that highlight the value of independent businesses and encourage people to support them.
Our posters, which are displayed on hundreds of storefronts all over the city and reproduced as ads in local newspapers, are all designed by local artists, so they are very eye-catching as well as incredibly varied in their style.
Steve Darnley and Arielle Walrath, for example, designed this gorgeous poster (pictured below) for our holiday campaign last year. Sean Wilkinson produced a very powerful graphic for one of our economic messages (shown above).
Poster by Steve Darnley and Arielle Walrath
Etsy seller pineconeandchickadee created this amazing Valentine’s Day poster, which was so popular that we turned it into T-shirts that have been selling like hotcakes.
Poster by pineconechickadee
Our latest poster series, by photographer Nathan Eldridge, emphasizes the wide range of products — from the unusual to the everyday — that are available from independent businesses.
How should people get involved with New Rules?
The best way to keep up with what we’re doing and learn how you can start some of these initiatives in your own community is to sign up for our monthly email newsletter, The Hometown Advantage.
We publish lots of useful research and information on our website. Take a look and, if you find an idea or an article you like, please forward it to your friends, your neighbors, your elected officials, your local newspaper. We’re a small organization, so we need all the help we can get to make our research and ideas part of the public discussion.
Lastly, like any nonprofit, we are dependent almost entirely on donations to keep the lights on and our staff fed. Contributions of any size are gratefully appreciated.
Any Etsy sellers you’re particularly fond of?
I adore ferdinandhome — terrific T-shirts, my favorite greeting cards, and fabulous potholders made from vintage fabric.
Another favorite is pineconeandchickadee. I’m smitten with Amy Teh’s designs.
I hope my husband is reading this, because one thing I’d be super happy to find under my tree this year is a messenger bag from bobbinstudio.
And, lastly, there’s a real gem of a little business in my neighborhood that just became an Etsy seller a few weeks ago: HomegrownHerbandTea. Sarah Richards is a skilled herbalist who has been blending teas for both health and pleasure at her tea shop here on Munjoy Hill for several years. She just made the leap online and her teas are definitely worth checking out.
The Institute for Local Self-Reliance (ILSR) proposes a set of new rules that builds community by supporting humanly scaled politics and economics. The rules call for:
- Decisions made by those impacted
- Communities accepting responsibility for the welfare of their members and the next generation
- Households and communities possessing or owning sufficient productive capacity to generate real wealth
NewRules.org discusses the importance of rules and catalogs the best. We make the rules and the rules make us.
The Related Items below are all from Stacy’s native Maine!