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05.06.09

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Spiritual Shopping?

Going local and the Pearl of Great Price

By Juliane Poirier Locke


Shopping is a religious experience in the United States. In fact, it may be the biggest drink-the-Kool-Aid church of them all. Sadly, it ignores the parable attributed to Jesus of Nazareth, the one about the Pearl of Great Price, which is something inside you that you cannot buy at a mall. But let's not get preachy. We all have to go to the store now and then.

Commercial enterprise is a helpful thing; it just happens I am someone who despises corporate greediness and also hates to shop in multi-acre stores offering styrofoam-packed stuff made with exploited labor in China and bearing environmental footprints bigger than San Bernardino and New Jersey combined. Give me instead a farmers market and a few little mom-and-pop places where there seems to be some real personality and environmental thinking expressed. This is why I am so happy to know that like-minded people across the country are organizing commerce groups that strengthen communities and weaken bad-boy corporations—they are intentionally going local.

In Sonoma County, the hub of this movement is a nonprofit group unambiguously called the Sonoma County Go Local Cooperative (http://sonomacounty.golocal.coop). It works as an empowering organization for county residents and for businesses that are at least 51 percent locally owned. This means that bullies can't join. For example, you will not find among the membership any of the following, recently blacklisted by Green America: Wal-Mart, ExxonMobil, Coca-Cola, Nestle, Monsanto, General Motors, Dominion, Citigroup, Shell Petroleum or McDonald's.

Instead, Go Local has a membership that includes the likes of Redwood Hill Farm, the Post Carbon Institute, Zazu Restaurant and Farm, Village Art Supply and a host of other reasonably sized, mostly locally owned enterprises, most of which have some claim to sustainability. What jumped off the list for me was the Sonoma County Meat Buying Club, a cooperative within a cooperative that will no doubt get a huge boost in membership if this swine flu epidemic is in fact linked to the unsanitary conditions of hog farms that supply meat to chain stores. But this is what going local is all about—knowing where your food comes from and getting services from people who live in your community and want to keep it a nice place.

I was a co-op member in Arcata, before food co-ops in the Bay Area were abandoned in favor of gourmet grocery stores. I perceived it to be a kind of social unraveling, which went along with the Reagan years. And so it was. But in these times the fabric is being mended. I'm encouraged—prompted perhaps by this economic down-spiral—that people are beginning to see all the benefits of boosting togetherness.

"Since cooperatives are organized for the benefit of their members rather than to earn profits for investors," says the Go Local purpose statement, "they tend to take a longer term view with respect to their operations. That is not to say that cooperatives don't look at the bottom line, but rather that they have additional objectives that focus more on the long-term survival of the business and their members."

There's a kind of folksy sweetness to the pledge that coop members are encouraged to make when they join Go Local: "I pledge to become more aware of my impact and contribution to the community, economy and environment. I understand the importance of supporting our independent, locally owned businesses and will 'think local first' when making daily purchasing decisions."

Presently, about 800 million people in 85 countries are served by cooperatives, nongovernment groups presently focusing on recovering from economic crisis around the globe. The localization movement is not only good for business; it's good for community spirit. And maybe it's good for the soul as well. Because when you go local and shop responsibly, you also care for your own community, and you chip away at the corporate superpowers whose unsustainable business practices result in making life so miserable for so many people. Sure, you get stuff, but you also get a better glimpse of the Pearl of Great Price, which is really not for sale.


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