Incubate a Buy Local Strategy

This topic is a convergence of three passions: sustainability, entrepreneurship, and travel/hospitality. There is tremendous potential at the intersection of these, manifested in a "buy local" strategy. I'll share this in the context of a hotel, but this can easily apply to healthcare, retail, restaurants, venues, and more. You can hear more detail in the webinar playback on the Academy page.

The "buy local" movement is hot. It's probably not worth spending much time trying to prove that point. For most people, and businesses, it's about food. Everyone gets that local food has environmental and quality benefits. Local produce tastes better. Why? Because it's picked when it should be and not weeks earlier and left to mature in a chemical bath on a cargo ship.

Simply shopping local has many positive impacts but I want to suggest an approach to buying local that deepens triple bottom line impact and exposes opportunities to differentiate a service offering: partner with local social enterprises.

Traditional entrepreneurs see market opportunities and business problems to solve. Social entrepreneurs see these same opportunities as conduits for solving issues such as homelessness, chronic unemployment, poverty, abuse, addiction, and inequality. This also applies to those with an environmental mission who use a business to combat climate change, reduce waste, conserve biodiversity, clean water, and so on.

Institutional buyers are in a great position to help social enterprises...and vice versa. And by institutional buyers, I do not only mean Fortune 500 companies. A mid-sized, independently owned hotel is an institutional buyer - it may go through 50 bars of soap per day, depending on occupancy and average stay. For a small soap maker, that's a big order!

Let's paint a picture here. I'll use food as the example because, as noted above and in research cited in the webinar, consumers already recognize and are willing to pay a premium for local food. Let's say the general manager of this hotel (we'll call him Paul) wants to better support his local community. And let's say a local social entrepreneur, Jennifer, has a business that offers flexible employment and good benefits to single moms. They partner with local farmers to make blueberry lavender jam, among other unique sauces and condiments.

Paul reads an article about Jennifer in a local newspaper and thinks it would be great to replace the plain national brand of jam he currently offers at breakfast with one of Jennifer's specialty items. They meet and the rest is history.

Of course, it's not actually that simple.

And this is why I say "incubate" a buy local strategy. Jennifer may only sell her products at weekend farmer's markets. She probably changes flavors on a whim or based on what's in season or plentiful that year. She might even run the whole operation out of the kitchen in her house or a church basement! (if local food safety laws permit) Even with a smaller hotel, Paul needs a regular supply of jam, some degree of consistency in flavors, and to feel the order is risk free, relative to other options he has. There could be issues of formulation, packaging, pricing, delivery...

But imagine the possibilities when businesses who have enough buying power to move the needle for a fledgling social enterprise are willing to step out and incubate such ideas. If Paul's business enabled Jennifer to go from employing 3 single moms to 10, think about what that means to those families! Imagine the traveler starting her day reading the story of this partnership at the breakfast table. This would certainly put a smile on my face and further cement the experience of local hospitality I take away from this hotel.

Why don't transactions like this happen more often? People often take the path of least resistance. It's much easier to order jars of jam or bars of soap from an online catalog you've been using for years than it is to take the time to find social enterprises that make the products you need, vet the product quality, build the relationship and trust with the founders/managers, and take on the risk of working with startups and under-served populations. When it comes to a Buy Local strategy and working with entrepreneurs, there are many considerations and challenges:

  • Where is local? Is local always the best option?
  • What is the market opportunity for a local strategy? What sorts of ideas can I start with?
  • How do I shop B2B on a local level? How do I find social enterprises that make the products I need?
  • Will there be sufficient supply for my needs? What if I can't get what I need locally?
  • Is this affordable? Doesn't local tend to cost more?
  • How do I know I'm having an impact?

If you want to learn more, watch the webinar and check out the short course and toolkit coming soon. Or contact me directly to chat about your ideas or leave comments below. I'd love to hear about your success stories, concerns, ideas, and resources.