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Featured Fellow Series: An Interview with Amy Robinson

BALLE Fellow Amy Robinson shares new definitions of “local” and “sustainable,” the entrepreneurial spirit that distinguishes Vancouver, BC from the rest of Canada, and the four areas of work that have her most energized.

BALLE: What was your personal path to doing sustainable local business work? Was there a defining moment that turned your life in this direction?

Amy Robinson: I worked for a while in the environmental field and ended up working with businesses of all sizes – a local dairy (now Saputo), BC Hydro, and then overseas with the UN Industrial Development Organization. As the concept of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) began to take hold, I began to ask myself whether or not the world would really be that much better if a place if Walmart and other big corporations were as “sustainable” as they could be. I saw Judy Wicks speak and she inspired me to think about the economic and social sides of sustainability. I turned towards small businesses – and discovered the unsung heroes of sustainability – the hard working local business owners who devote their lives to building community and prosperity in their places.

BALLE: There are lots of different notions about what makes a business sustainable, versus not sustainable. What specifically distinguishes sustainable businesses from unsustainable businesses from your perspective?

AR: I’m pretty done with the word “sustainability.” Sustainability is so often equated with green initiatives, and what inspires me is the people behind a business. The social and economic aspects – and the aspirations of sustainability – get lost in our current understanding of it. Right now it’s all about managing risk and doing less bad rather than creating more of what we want to see in the world.

The best businesses I know are those that have a sense of purpose, who are determined to strengthen their communities and support other great businesses through partnering or purchasing. They are helping to retool the future with a vision for something better. Sustainability is a useful framework to ensure that businesses are addressing all their impacts, but it isn’t often used as an inspiration for what we want to see more of in the world. I think if we had more businesses that deeply cared about their employees and their communities, they would naturally look at the resources they use, the waste and emissions they create. I’m not sure it’s as easy to build in a deep sense of caring for people – one of our businesses got evicted from his retail space of 27 years and even in his devastation found the 5 employees he had to fire jobs elsewhere; another wouldn’t accept the resignation of an employee with baby twins and found a way to create work-life balance that benefitted them both (she still works for him 17 years later). When we celebrate those businesses, it’s a lot easier to convince them to do the green improvements. That can flow from a celebration of hard work on the social and economic side of sustainability.

BALLE: What is unique about the political and economic climate in Vancouver, and in British Columbia, that distinguishes it from the rest of Canada in terms of sustainable local business work? What distinguishes your context from that of The United States? Is there some historical background to Vancouver and British Columbia that make them more or less open to this kind of work?

AR: They say mountains make good fences, and so I suppose we’re a little distant from the rest of Canada in some ways. We’re certainly influenced by our wild surroundings, so I think we have a greater sense of freedom and possibility, and that helps create a feeling that we can determine the future right now. There’s a bit of the “wild west” mentality, so maybe we’re willing to take more risks. We are the most entrepreneurial province in the country. One thing that’s hard about Vancouver is it never seems to stand still. There is so much development that neighbourhoods are changing so fast – it’s dramatic. We’d like to make sure that local businesses have some affordable spaces and that our city doesn’t get overtaken by chains in the rush to densify.

BALLE: There has been some active debate in your area lately about whether or not ‘Buy Local’ campaigns are helpful or harmful, and what the definition of “local” even is. What are your go-to responses to folks who challenge the value of ‘Local First’ work? How do you define “local”?

AR: We’ve thought our main challenge was to educate consumers about why to buy local, but we realized we’re also teaching businesses how they are local. This is especially true when businesses grow beyond what we think of when we hear the term “local”. We are working to show how businesses big and small create local economic impact-even corporations that make an effort to support local suppliers create local impact. We start with the current economic reality: we live in a globalized world, and many local businesses have global supply chains, and many of them can’t sell only to other small businesses. They need large customers. Every local food producer seems to dream of selling to Whole Foods, so how can we leave them out of our work? We’ve developed a working definition that includes three degrees of local and includes large companies that make a commitment to support local business. We base this on many studies that show where the multiplier effect of local businesses comes from (see our infographic below). We specifically haven’t included local supply chains because we’re trying to drive the understanding of ownership and employment, but you can imagine if a business also has a local supply chain, the benefits are huge.

BALLE: Is LOCO BC an acronym for something? Any secret meaning behind the name, or is it just catchy?

AR: It stands for Local Company (Co.). Given that Lululemon and Hootsuite are from Vancouver, we thought we’d follow suit and pick an acronym that everyone might not get right away, but would become synonymous with local company. We know it means crazy in Spanish. Maybe we’re a little of that too.

BALLE: What are you working on that is getting you down?

AR: We need research to have a deeper understanding of the value that local businesses create, and how businesses of all sizes can create local impact and support local businesses. It’s frustrating, however, how little funding there is for research. It seems that some foundations share our goals, but since we’re not a charity, we can’t apply for their funds. We produced the first Canadian research on the multiplier effect of local suppliers in 2013. It took more than two years to put together a partnership to deliver that research, and even then we had to pony up our own operating funds for a portion of that work.

Related to our work on the definition of local, there is some movement in purchasing around local food in Vancouver and BC. Unfortunately, though, there seems to be very little concern about the ownership of the companies that supply that food. Most often it is big distribution companies. Those who are showing leadership on local food are ignoring the potential for economic impact that comes along with any purchase.

BALLE: What are you working on right now that has you most energized?

AR: We are working on four important areas – defining “local” based on economic impact, promoting economic development through institutional purchasing, research on the economic impacts of certain businesses/sectors, and ensuring that development and “eco”-density provides affordable spaces for local businesses to maintain a place in our economy. It’s an exciting direction that has us learning every day, seeking new partners and working on new and different sources of funding. We’re also excited to introduce some of the first programs to our 200+ members to help them measure their local impact and work to reduce their environmental impact by moving towards zero waste.

Amy Robinson is a 2013 BALLE Local Economy Fellow and the founder of Vancouver-based LOCO BC, an organization that engages local businesses in building an economy based on relationships and self-reliance.

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