The 3/50 Project: Saving independent businesses

April 13, 2009

I first heard about the 3/50 Project over at De-Victorianization on Division, a house blog out of the Midwest, but I was struck by how wonderfully this national project echoed the work that’s been going on in Oakland over the past few years with campaigns like Shop Oakland, Oakland Unwrapped!, and now Oakland Grown. And I was also struck by the fact that there is not yet a single Oakland business participating in this project—not one!—in spite of the fact that Alameda, Berkeley, San Francisco, and even Walnut Creek and Danville are represented. So it seemed like it was time to spread the word!

The premise of the Minneapolis-based 3/50 Project (brainchild of Cinda Baxter at Always Upward) is that if we each picked three favorite independent businesses and spent a total of $50 across the three, we’d collectively generate $42.6 billion in revenue across the nation. (The numbers are based on the Department of Labor’s most recent employment statistics, and count only those who are currently employed.) The organizers also note the huge impact of buying from locally-owned businesses: for every $100 spent at an independent business, $68 comes back to the community through taxes, payroll, and other expenditures. If you buy from a chain, only $43 comes back—and if you buy online, virtually nothing comes back.

This isn’t news in Oakland, where the effort to encourage residents to buy locally has been underway for some time, and where a 2007 report estimated that the city is losing nearly a billion dollars in sales a year—yes, that’s one BILLION dollars!—to businesses based in nearby cities or online. But it’s one of the first nationally-organized efforts I’ve seen to help spread the word in a clear, easy-to-implement fashion. Buying local and independent isn’t just about the price tag; it’s about investing in your community and keeping local dollars local. Often, it’s also about minimizing your footprint and supporting smaller retailers who carry local products that haven’t been shipped across the ocean to get to you. (It’s worth noting that this is a sticky challenge for a city like Oakland, home to one of the busiest container ports in the world, with thousands of goods arriving daily from China and beyond. But I feel strongly that we can work together with ports across the United States to balance these challenges and mitigate the impact of decreased dependence on foreign goods on local economies and jobs so that we can move forward sustainably.)

Perhaps most importantly, buying local is about strengthening your neighborhood and your city by fostering businesses that employ local residents and generate local tax dollars. In California, this is especially important right now—while I’m not the biggest fan of our new crazy-high sales tax, it’s raising critical revenue for the state, cities, and the many programs we all rely on. (In Alameda County, money from sales tax helps fund BART, essential health care services, and a wide range of roadway, transit, bicycle, and pedestrian projects through ACTIA; local jurisdictions also get one percent of the state’s cut for services, schools, and more.) An online purchase with free shipping and no sales tax may look cheaper—but is it, truly, when you factor in the devastating effect on your neighborhood businesses and your city?

The 3/50 campaign includes badges and posters you can print and hang in your community or display online to build awareness, and local independent businesses can sign up to be listed on the website.

How about it—can you commit to spending $50 across your three favorite local businesses this month?

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