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Column: Buy local, sustainable this holiday season

ST. PAUL -- Most Minnesota households are pondering final gift selections for another holiday season with little thought of their decision's economic or environmental impact.

This is an understandable oversight. But consumers wield a tremendous amount of market power to influence their local merchants. They can do themselves and their neighbors a lot of good demanding locally-made and sustainable products, when available.

For instance, retail industry studies show that on average 68 cents of the consumer's dollar stay and work in the local community when spent at locally owned retail stores while only 43 cents on the dollar stay at home when spent at "big box" chain stores based outside Minnesota.

Going even further, when locally made or grown products are involved, upwards of 90 cents on the dollar stay at home and multiply in value when working through the local economy.

This economic research has been part of the last three Minnesota 2020 annual holiday shopping reports. Each report explores different issues small business face and how "buying local" keeps money at home, working in our counties and state economy. In addition, Minnesota 2020 has compiled an online listing,, of local companies for shoppers interested in supporting neighborhood merchants.

Some of the featured "Gift Guide" Worthington shops include Indian Lake Berry Farm and Buffalo Billfold Company.

This year, Made in Minnesota 2010 took the buy local concept one step further with the Strategies for Growing Sustainable Small Businesses report.

Aided by undergraduate researcher fellows from Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota 2020 surveyed more than 400 local entrepreneurs featured in the online Gift Guide. They found a large number of makers and sellers of unique local products follow what can generally be called "sustainable," or "green" business practices.

In some cases, developing sustainable business strategies was a conscious decision by an artisan, manufacturer or retailer based on his or her values. In other cases, sustainability came about almost as an afterthought, as businesses sought products more unique than rival products on the market.

In many cases, however, decisions were made with economic objectives in mind, such as reducing energy costs, waste disposal costs and expenses for items such as packaging and ingredients.

Regardless of a manufacturer or seller's internal motivation in becoming sustainable or reducing environmental impacts, he or she represents only two parts of the supply chain. The fate of most sustainable business decisions depends on the market consumers create.

Research findings cited in the report note both "carrot and stick" approaches to making businesses more sustainable. Some academics emphasize regulations, fines and penalties for not becoming sustainable or setting up eco-friendly infrastructure -- the stick. Others look at the importance of creating a marketplace for consumer demand from community or social pressures and the economic payoff that results -- the carrot.

One place that has explored these consumer strategies is Denmark. Danish researchers examined what they call a "political consumer," a shopper who makes conscious decisions to buy locally grown food, when possible; purchase from merchants and their employees who live and work in their communities; and buy products or buy from people who intentionally strive to reduce commerce's negative environmental consequences.

In other words, the "political consumer" purchases based on social values, not price.

These consumers have not been carefully studied in Minnesota or elsewhere in America, but there is strong evidence that they exist. Huge, multinational companies are increasingly adding and promoting products that are considered "green," and local entrepreneurs are reporting success in promoting products that are both eco-friendly and local to customers seeking such products.

So, if you are still looking to pick up a "little something" for Aunt Millie this holiday season, be aware that you have both economic and environmental influence on the health of your community and your own quality of life.

Economists would call that a real multiplier effect. Your friends at the coffee shop would say you are putting your money where your mouth is. In either case, you would be helping Minnesota and your community move forward.