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Can local currencies help the environment?

Melissa Chemam
August 12, 2019

Many places around the world are looking for ways to become more environmentally-friendly. In the UK city of Bristol, members of the Green Party have introduced a local currency. Does it work?

England lokale Währung Bristol Pound
Image: DW/M. Chemam

Long known for its hippie vibe, urban farms and politically aware artists like Banksy, the UK city of Bristol has more recently become famed for the introduction of its own tender. 

At one of the city's many organic stores, the people who use the Bristol pound told DW they use it a lot.

"If you think about economics, you keep money in an area, it ends up circulating in one area," a shopper who works in a café at a local city farm told DW. "So to me it makes complete sense and it supports independent businesses."

One of those businesses is Werburgh City Farm, which is located in a bohemian district where inhabitants have been growing organic vegetables in small allotments since the 1970s.

Besides being used in the on-site café, Bristol's brand of cash is regularly used by other local ventures that buy the farm's produce. Sarah Flint, a training manager at the farm, is enthusiastic.

"It's one of those things that's growing and growing and it certainly has made people think, 'I've got this money, I'm going to spend locally,'" she said. "And it's so important to get that locality idea."

England lokale Währung Bristol Pound
In many local stores in Bristol, people can pay with a local currency called Bristol PoundImage: DW/M. Chemam

Riotous inspiration

Local currencies, which are often used as tools in "transition towns" — grassroots community projects aimed at increasing self-sufficiency and reducing climate destruction — avoid importing what doesn't need to come from far away. And that has benefits for the environment.

Ciaran Mundy, one of the creators of the Bristol pound, now used by a network of 2,000 individuals and businesses, says to create a green society you have to change structures and people's behavior.

"To localize supply of food and other products, and avoid energy to transport them from all over the world, you need a systemic intervention, across different sectors of the economy," she told DW. "That's one of the reasons the Bristol pound was born."

It was introduced into circulation after the 2011 riots in which residents of Stokes Croft, a neighborhood known for its strong counterculture scene, protested the opening of a store run by Tesco — the UK's biggest supermarket chain.

Ongoing progress

A 20-minute walk from Werburgh City Farm is Gloucester Road, one of the UK's longest streets of independent shops. Although most accept the local currency, many residents say they don't actually use it.

"I thought about it," Carlotta, who is relatively new to the city, told DW. "But sometimes you're busy with your life, so you don't do it."

Her friend, Fatima, thinks it hasn't caught on more widely because "you have to think about where you're going to find it."

Others are more aware of the goal of the currency. "I buy locally anyway," Laura told DW. "It keeps the money generated in the city inside the city, rather than to see it go to multinational firms."

Read more: Local currencies replace euro in Bavaria

Besides being legal tender in hundreds of shops and businesses, employees of Bristol City Council can opt to be paid in the local currency. Most notably, former Mayor George Ferguson's entire salary was paid in Bristol pounds, from 2012 to 2016.

Werburgh City Farm sign
At Werburgh City Farm, locals have been growing organic vegetables in small allotments since the 1970sImage: DW/M. Chemam

An inspiration for new forms of city to country relations

The creators of the Bristol pound claim it helped the city to win the titles of European Green Capital in 2015 and researcher Coco Kanters, who has been studying community currencies since 2013, says it has become the "largest and most institutionalized [local currency] in Europe".

Since its inception in 2012, the Bristol pound has generated 5.79 million euros ($6.49 million) of spending.

Bristol walks away from cars

A number of other places, such as Lewes and Totnes in the UK, Exeter and Baltimore in the US and places in Greece have their own local currency, and others are in the making.

In his 1984 essay The Role of Local Currency In Regional Economic Development, Robert Swann, founder of the US Schumacher Center for a New Economics, said once regions begin "issuing their own currencies, we will have taken great strides toward regional self-reliance, greater security, full employment and an economy of permanence."

But Jo Michell, associate professor of economics at Bristol's University of West England, says that in order for local currencies to have a meaningful impact they have to alter people's behavior in some way.

"It isn't clear to me that this is the case," he told DW. "My suspicion is that the people who shop locally using Bristol pounds would shop locally without the Bristol pound."

Nonetheless, the number of businesses willing to accept the local currency and thereby promote both sustainable economic and environmental practices continues to grow.

And that is no mean feat in a country with a reputation for clinging so dearly to its national tender.