In the city of Bristol — two hours west of London by train — the mayor takes 100 percent of his salary in its local currency. The “Bristol Pound” can be used on buses and at more than 650 businesses, from record stores, to bike shops, to salons. It can even be used to pay some local taxes.
What would it take for you to take part of your salary in a “Sea-Town Pound” or something similar?
Imagine if we could get to a $15 an hour minimum wage in months rather than years if it came in part as local currency, guaranteed to stay in the community and support local business. Can a local currency help employment? Would it reduce the cost of goods and services? Build a sense of community?
In Bristol, they believe it already has.
The Bristol Pound started just two years ago, but the concept of complimentary or alternative currencies has been around awhile. It’s been attempted in many different forms, most of which have failed. The Bitcoin boom and bust drew renewed attention to alternative currencies, each with a unique intention, design and outcome.
At its essence, a local currency is intended to be traded only in a small area to promote localism. For Bristol, a city of more than 400,000 and the European Green Capitol for 2015, their currency is vaguely defined by local ownership and being able to locate the business within city limits.
When I met with Stephen Clarke, the Bristol Pound’s Director in May, he described turning down a request from EasyJet, the UK’s largest airline, to join the currency network. He also noted that anyone can accept the currency if they choose, but only Bristol Pound members can convert the digital form back to national government-backed Sterling.
The Bristol Pound is particularly unique because it can be used to pay some local taxes, including commercial property tax, which may be a first among local currency efforts that often attract only small or alternative businesses. Local government backing gives businesses and customers alike confidence that they can unload their Bristol Pounds when they want to, and that it will stick around for awhile.
The Bristol Pound feels legit when you hold it between your fingers.
It is also accepted as a digital currency in addition to its paper format and managed by a regulated financial institution. Users set up an account at the local credit union and can then pay Bristol Pound associated vendors by text message.
Walking around town, I saw the Bristol Pound logo on all sorts of shops. Using it gave me feeling of being part of something good and special, something local, in addition to just a means of transaction. I wondered if it could work in Seattle.
While the recent minimum wage may have put pressure on the relationship between Seattle workers, businesses, and consumers, I suspect most Seattlities support the idea of strengthening local business.
And although large corporations like Microsoft and Starbucks dominate our global reputation, Seattle takes pride in our community businesses. From becoming community partners with the Chinook Book, to neighborhood chambers of commerce promoting events like Plate of Nations, to the well circulated “Think Local” campaign by the Seattle Good Business Network, it’s easy to see that pride manifest.
Is there a place for local currency in Seattle? At worst, it’s a fun thought experiment to imagine paying your City Light bill in local currency. Or in the process of raising the city pay scale, putting in an option to accept direct deposit in a local currency.
And it wouldn’t hurt to get people to think a bit more about where money comes from in the first place.
The Bristol Pound has built the software for online banking in local currency and an organization to support its operations. They are hoping to replicate their model both domestically and globally.
And while the Bristol Pound had impressive outputs (it’s projected that $2 million in Bristol Pound will be spent in the next year), its outcomes are unclear and lack metrics. Does it increase consumer’s share of local spending, spending overall, bring in new local enthusiasts, or is it just a substitution for existing spending?
In other words, is it enough to give local businesses a competitive edge?
According to Christine Hanna, Seattle Good Business Network co-founder, “there have been various small scale [local currency] attempts — none of which have gotten much traction.” She doubts that a local currency network could grow to scale in Seattle and attract mainstream local businesses and their customers.
“Critical mass is key,” she notes.
Meanwhile, the Bristol Pound team seems pleased that they are building community pride and recognition, and what they have built is impressive.
Each transaction is a commitment to pass on the desire to buy local, says Clarke. So while the currency may never make up a significant share of local transactions, the Bristol Pound is doing its part to build a spirit of localism that is reflected in the images of the community printed on each pound.