Emerald Group Publishing Limited
Copyright © 2004, Emerald Group Publishing Limited
Trusting in the human scale
Trusting in the human scale
AbstractThe trend towards large-scale businesses is creating dangerous levels of impersonality in commercial relationships. This has profound social and ecological implications, divorcing businesses, however well meaning, from local communities and their concerns, including environmental concerns. Largeness of scale erodes social solidarity and ultimately undermines the principles of choice, efficiency and flexibility on which a market economy should be founded. To encourage economy of scale and conserve local businesses, this paper proposes the establishment of a Community Trust. The proposals relate to the UK, but apply equally to other European countries, including Central and Eastern Europe.
Keywords: Business ethics, Local economies, Small enterprises
In the past six months a greengrocer and a hardware store have disappeared from our row of local shops. Now there is little choice but to drive to the local supermarket for vegetables, and B&Q to buy a pack of something when only one item is needed. The same pattern is being repeated across the land and, once a shop has gone, it is rarely replaced in kind. Our local resources will soon be restricted to estate agents, charity shops and restaurants.
The National Trust was founded in 1895 as a response to the effect that an uncontrolled urban sprawl was having on the English countryside. Using the same approach, is it not time to do something to protect our local shops from the relentless tide of supermarkets and out of town malls? Should not each community at least have access to locally based greengrocers, bread shops and butchers, where produce could be sourced as locally and ethically as possible?
Such facilities would have to operate in a commercial world that is not kind to small-scale enterprise. That was why our vegetable shop went out of business, so the obvious question is, “can they be run viably in this day and age”? A greengrocer’s main costs include the food itself, and sourcing produce locally is likely to be more expensive than the supermarket equivalent, despite reduced transport costs – the Guardian recently ran an excellent Food guide and gave the example of a dinner lady who approached local farmers and now uses 100 per cent fresh, local produce; she spends approximately 50 per cent more, but the price to the children remains the same because there are no administrators, etc. involved.
How to absorb such an increase in costs? It doesn’t look hopeful until you realise that both the National Trust and most of our charity shops are run on volunteer labour, mainly the retired. When you consider that this is precisely the group who would recognise the value of local, fresh food, you have a huge potential source of willing and committed helpers. There would be a need for limited, paid expertise, someone who could spend time with the farmers and negotiate deals that were good for both them and the community (and that might include volunteers from the community working on the farm to reduce costs further), but that would be relatively inexpensive in the scheme of things. As well as local produce, such shops might also sell a range of fair trade goods.
The other major cost is the premises, whether these are owned or rented. And that is where the Community Trust would come in. Opportunities to purchase properties do not come up often so there is a need to act quickly. Once the idea of the Trust had taken hold, groups of local people already aware of its potential would act as an early warning system and identify suitable properties – it may even be that traditional traders would pass their premises on, rather than risk them falling into the hands of the estate agents and money lenders. Over time the local community would buy the property from the Trust through the issue of community shares – which could be bought and sold only within the community (many precedents for this approach already exist) – and the money would be used to finance further initiatives.
How to get the ball rolling? The same people who currently make bequests to the National Trust and other charities might be taken with the idea of saving local shops as their gift to posterity. It would only take a few such donations to make the purchase of the first property feasible. Wider publicity could be then be based on a successful venture. It might just be the start of the long overdue reaction to the mass culture that is ripping the heart out of our communities.
A key question is how the Community Trust might operate in practice? It is at this point that the highly centralised character of the National Trust ceases to provide any kind of role model. The emphasis would be on local sovereignty, with any central functions serving the needs of the membership, rather than vice versa. Apart from finance, the Trust could provide education, training and a range of other expertise (including partnerships with fair trade organisations) that might be valuable to the on going development of local communities. But, and it is a big but, whatever the Trust provides should be what the membership wants, and the constitution must allow changes to the focus to be made at any time and relatively easily. Its very way of working would thus provide an alternative to the increasingly hierarchical and remote way in which our world is organised.
One of the things that would be needed to hold the membership together (and provide a guarantee of commitment to a shared vision) would be acceptance of an agreed set of fundamental principles. These would emphasise the importance of locality and the importance of people. An example of such human scale principles would be:
relationships – based on mutuality;
communities – based on love and personal responsibility;
local food/local work/local exchange/local energy – based on creativity;
identification with place – based on oneness with nature;
local decision making – based on consensus; and
living with uncertainty – based on spirituality.
Discussion of local initiatives could then focus on which options might be most likely to further these principles, rather than decided by those who talk longest or loudest.
It would nevertheless be important that mechanisms were in place that not only allowed the membership to change its constitution (whether on the basis of a one hundred per cent or simple majority vote of members), but also the underlying values themselves. Times change and people move on. Other priorities emerge and have to be solved by those facing them. Relying on tablets handed down from the past is rarely satisfactory and the debates engendered over values are likely to be the most significant of them all.
People only value something when they’ve lost it. We have taken local shops for granted because they’ve always been there. By contrast, supermarkets are a relatively recent phenomenon and their growth phenomenal. An initiative such as the Community Trust offers the potential to re-establish local shops, selling local produce as quickly. Only, this time we’ll make sure we don’t lose them again.
Chris WrightAction for Sustainable Living, Altrincham, UK
AcknowledgementsChris Wright’s novel, Sod ’Em At Gomorrah is available from New European Publications, 14-16 Carroun Road, London SW8 1JT, UK. Price £10.