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Questioning the Triple Bottom Line: Observations of the Local First Sustainable Business Conference

April 30, 2010

(Christy Mello contributed to this article)

Local First hosted an all day conference at Aquinas College this past Wednesday, and those able to pay the registration cost of $75 were welcome to attend.  The majority of people in attendance were mostly people in business attire and there on behalf of their businesses.  Vendors aligned the parameter of the main conference room and the majority of the booths showcased their services to aid businesses.  These services included payroll accounting, wealth management, data backup, printer supplies, and banking, just to name a few.

Local First is a non-profit group who creates a network of businesses who pay membership dues to receive the Local First logo and become part of this network.  This is a powerful marketing strategy for businesses in order to aid in promoting their services or products.

At this conference, people learned effective business practices, which appeal to people’s need to make humanitarian purchasing choices when they believe a business’s products are “local,” “sustainable,” or helping the “environment.”  The morning keynote speakers as well as workshops through out the day utilized these terms that convey positive imagery.

Nevertheless, people asked questions indicating their confusion over what is meant by the “local” in Local First.  According to one of the keynote speakers, it turns out that they define local as any business located in Kent County including businesses owned by stakeholders outside of Kent County.  This was a transparent admission by Local First, and the conference was evidently devoted to economic development strategies.  For example, Local First has done a study indicating that if one out of ten dollars are spent locally, this would create 1600 new jobs.  Although, which non-local groups invest money in to these efforts and how much money still leaves the area?  One should also ask what type of jobs would be created and available to whom.

It is important to ask critical questions around whether or not these often misleading discursive terms are being put into practice and to what degree.  Businesses tap into people’s concerns over these issues with the use of this ideological language that diverts one’s attention from the fact that they may have or support destructive environmental practices.  Many examples were apparent at this conference.

For example, the first keynote speaker was with the local software company known as Atomic Object. Some of the clients that Atomic Object works with are Priority One Health, Whirlpool, Amway and even the World Bank. One would have to ask how these companies practices sustainability, particularly in regards to environmental practices and how they treat their employees.

How is it that a company like Amway, which is based on a pyramid system can be considered sustainable? Amway has also been eliminating local jobs and sending them to China and Costa Rica in recent years, something which seems to conflict with part of the triple bottom line – how we treat people part. The Whirlpool Corporations has also been sending jobs abroad for years and the World Bank has funded projects that have displaced millions of people over the years.

When talking about the increased interest in local food it was interesting that Meijer was cited as a local food business. Meijer did start in West Michigan, but it is hard to see how a company which sells a majority of products not from the area, can still be considered local. One could argue that most of the food items that Meijer sells is not healthy for human consumption nor environmental sustainability.

However, there were examples such as a bakery in Ann Arbor that composts, buys and butchers grass fed cows, buys their food locally, and etc.  Examples such as these, presumably, makes one feel that Local First’s primary objective is to choose businesses whose triple bottom line focuses more on the social and environmental rather that the economic component.

However, one should question the percentage that businesses utilize these components or if they do to a minimal degree as an advertisement for their products or services.  Furthermore, Local First’s study revealed that a denser square footage of businesses increases profits.  These businesses are flourishing in the Wealthy Street Business District, for example with several new restaurants in the past 12 months.  Although maybe not intentionally, these development and revitalization efforts have been pushing out small business owners and further gentrifying this area of the city.

In one breakout session we attended on social capital, the presenter gave an example of a business in Michigan, which purchased hand-sewn goods from Nicaragua. The products were made by a worker run, women’s cooperative, which allowed the Michigan business to buy these products at a fairly low price and then sell them as Fair Trade items. What seemed to make this a “success” story was the fact that there was a worker run women’s cooperative, an economic model that was not discussed or encouraged by any of the presenters throughout the day.

In fact, this made us think about why with all the emphasis on food these days there were no formal food cooperatives in Grand Rapids like there were in the past. Grand Rapids used to have two food co-ops, one is Eastown and one on the Westside. Is it because traditional food co-ops are not privately held businesses?

At the end of the day we were left with more questions than answers about how Local First promotes sustainability with the businesses that are members of the non-profit organization. There was limited discussion about concrete and measureable practices that promoted the human and environmental aspects of the triple bottom line, with most of the focus being on how to make a profit if your business is “green” and getting people to buy “green” products.

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