Working Together Toward Sustainable Business

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The Community Food Co-op in Bellingham, Wash., is one of 400 members of Sustainable Connections.

Like many co-ops of the 1970s, the Community Food Co-op in Bellingham, Washington, began as a small natural-foods store, idealism fueling its birth and early growth. The store outgrew its 900 square feet in 1981, outgrew its 5,000 square feet in 1994, currently occupies 17,000 square feet (10,000 in retail) in downtown Bellingham, and is planning on opening a second location within the next few years. Membership has grown apace; when we moved into the current location just over a decade ago, we had 3,000 members. Today, that number is 10,200.

Bellingham is a town of 70,000 (plus 10,000 college students) located 100 miles north of Seattle on Bellingham Bay, part of Puget Sound. With the bay at its feet, hills sprinkled throughout, and the Cascade mountains at its back, Bellingham is a mecca for outdoor enthusiasts. The town is booming, which in turn is bringing fine restaurants, a growing arts scene, and a professional, educated population—people concerned about food, community, and environmental issues.

While this is not a story about growth per se, the above illustrates what has happened as Community Food Co-op listened to its members and expanded its product offering through the years, while those who ate more conventionally slowly woke up to natural and organic foods and began beating a path to our door. As these two worlds began intersecting, the perception of the co-op’s place in the community began to shift. No longer “the hippie store,” the co-op has become a de facto leader in the community, where our values—buying local when possible, living the principles of cooperation, minimizing our environmental impact, and giving back to the community—are setting an example for how all business ought to be accomplished.

In 2003, one of those values hurtled into the local conscience through a campaign called “Think Local, Buy Local, Be Local.” Launched by an organization called Sustainable Connections, the Buy Local campaign made clearly visible the benefits—such as increased economic multipliers, increased charitable giving and helping to keep the community unique—of keeping local dollars in the community. The Buy Local campaign caused the Bellingham community light bulb to go on: you could hear the “Aha!” echoing up and down the streets. Suddenly, buying local was chic, and Sustainable Connections accomplished in just a few months what the co-op had been working toward for years: a larger understanding by the greater community of how and why buying local has great meaning.

Sustainable Connections was established a few years before its Buy Local campaign, and Buy Local is far from the only program it has. But the campaign put Sustainable Connections on the map and thrust the co-op’s values onto center stage in our community. This, then, is the story of the Community Food Co-op’s values writ large upon Bellingham, thanks in part to the presence of Sustainable Connections and the vision of its savvy and down-to-earth directors Derek and Michelle Long.

Sustainable Connections is a nonprofit business network based in Northwest Washington with a goal to establish and support a local living economy that sustains itself, our community, and a healthy environment. The organization’s mission is to empower business and consumer behavior that promotes a vital community and a healthy environment. Members of the network are locally owned businesses, farms, nonprofit organizations, and supportive individuals. Sustainable Connections’ programs build upon the natural stewardship that local business owners have for their community. In just three short years, the network has grown to nearly 400 members with the respect and partnership of other business associations, local government, area foundations, and the public at large.

Sustainable Connections is helping to promote the same values the co-op holds dear to the rest of the business community, through program areas such as sustainable practices, green building and sustainable design, and food and farming. Here is a quick rundown on these programs and how they interact with the Community Food Co-op.

Sustainable practices: provides technical assistance to businesses as they set goals to reduce environmental impact, increase local purchases to support the local economy, create meaningful workplaces, and maximize community benefit.

Green building and sustainable design: promotes resource efficiency and healthy building strategies in design and construction of homes and commercial buildings; this program is particularly relevant as the co-op gets ever closer to developing a second store under a strict policy to meet nationally recognized green building standards.

Food and farming: focuses on promoting and facilitating purchases of locally produced food through the launch of the “Think Local, Buy FRESH, Be Local” campaign, as well as providing food for the hungry and training and market access to new organic farmers by administering the Community Food Co-op’s “Food to Bank on” program.

The Community Food Co-op has been a supporter of Sustainable Connections from its first day, and the co-op continues to play an active role today in several ways. The co-op and its staff are actively engaged in multiple programs in an advisory role, as a promoter, a sponsor, and an enthusiastic participant. For example, throughout the store shoppers find that items produced within a several-county area are distinguished with a shelf tag using the “Think Local” logo or a “Local Item” sign. Members of the finance team are now doing an analysis of how local and regional purchasing has changed over the past two-year period. Our promotional efforts include regular features in the co-op’s widely read newsletter and prominent display of posters that let our members know about opportunities to participate in Sustainable Connections’ events.

This partnership between the Community Food Co-op and Sustainable Connections has been rewarding for both. The co-op benefits from program-specific technical assistance, higher visibility as a model local business, and increased customer loyalty from the Think Local campaign. Sustainable Connections benefits from co-op staff members as program advisors, promoters of events, and valuable fundraising supporters—
and from having a great local business to study and share great business practices with the rest of its membership.


For those interested in learning more, feel free to visit www.sustainableconnections.org and www.communityfood.coop.

You may also be interested in how to help start a network like Sustainable Connections in your community. If so, pay a visit to www.livingeconomies.org, e-mail [email protected], or call 415-348-6284 to talk with a representative of the Business Alliance for Local Living Economies (BALLE), a national organization helping to establish new networks.

*** In Bellingham, Washington, Derek Long was program and development director at Sustainable Connections, and Ginger Oppenheimer was the membership and marketing manager at Community Food Co-op.

See other articles from this issue: #118 May - June - 2005