CONSCIOUS CONSUMERISM

CONSCIOUS CONSUMERISM

The biggest piece of the puzzle?

By Anitra D. Brown

When Maggie Anderson visited New Orleans last summer to talk about the experiment she and her husband John embarked upon about four years ago – pledging to patronize Black-owned businesses for all of their family’s needs whenever possible, she had this to say while speaking to a small group that had gathered at Community Book Center on Bayou Road:

“It’s not profound. It’s not new,” she says, “It’s a conversation that Black people have every day.”

She was right. In fact, it is a conversation that dates as far back as the turn of the 20th century, when organizations like the National Negro Business League formed in 1900 to not only promote Black-owned businesses to African-Americans, but to American society in general. The group also spoke on the need for Black businesses to support one another in an effort to grow collectively.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., broached the topic during his famous “mountaintop” speech in Memphis in 1968. King first encouraged listeners to boycott companies whose hiring practices and treatment of Black workers were unfair. And then he said this:

“But not only that, we’ve got to strengthen Black institutions. I call upon you to take your money out of the banks downtown and deposit your money in Tri-State Bank. We want a ‘bank-in’ movement in Memphis. Go by the savings and loan association. I’m not asking you something that we don’t do ourselves at SCLC. Judge Hooks and others will tell you that we have an account here in the savings and loan association from the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. We are telling you to follow what we are doing. Put your money there. You have six or seven Black insurance companies here in the city of Memphis. Take out your insurance there. We want to have an ‘insurance-in’. Now these are some practical things that we can do. We begin the process of building a greater economic base. And at the same time, we are putting pressure where it really hurts. I ask you to follow through here.”

In the 1980’s, national journalist and businessman Tony Brown launched his “Buy Freedom” campaign when he founded the Council for the Economic Development of Black Americans. Through the “Buy Freedom” slogan he encouraged Blacks to patronize businesses displaying the “Freedom Seal,” which let consumers know that the business had a Black owner who had agreed to be courteous, offer competitive prices, provide employment, reasonable prices and stay involved in the community.

The New Orleans Tribune and The New Orleans BlackBook have long promoted the importance of buying Black—supporting Black businesses and entrepreneurs while also encouraging those businesses to find ways to give back to and support the community. Through the monthly Tribune and the annual BlackBook , McKenna Publishing profiles successful Black businesses and their owners, highlights emerging entrepreneurs, encourages consumer support and urges business owners to provide quality goods and services, offer competitive wages and share business opportunities.

So in a way, the Andersons’ Black year was nothing more than one family’s small-scale version of a practice that has been championed in the Black community for more than 100 years.

12 Cents Goes a Long Way

But the Andersons are doing it now, and surely there are others who either already espouse the practice or who, like the Andersons, will have an economic epiphany.

Unfortunately, the available statistics indicate that many Black-owned businesses across the country have hardly benefited from a swell in Black patronage despite appeals that have spanned decades.

For instance, only six percent of money spent by African-Americans each year is spent with Black-owned businesses, according to National Black Business Trade Association as well as the University of Georgia’s Selig Center at the Terry College of Business.

And while Black-owned businesses in certain industries such as healthcare and the and skin/hair/nail industries enjoy a great deal of support from Black consumers, there is not a single business category in which Black-owned businesses get more than 50 percent of all Black spending. Also, only about one percent of the roughly two million Black-owned businesses in this country can boast annual sales of near, at or above $1 million, compared to five percent for all U.S. businesses.

While these facts may leave some Black business owners checking the thermostat on their ice makers, some pundits and experts in the mainstream have picked up on the notion that an economic boost for Black-owned businesses may be exactly what the doctor ordered for not only stimulating and reviving the Black community, but America’s overall economy. And an increase in Black consumer support of Black business may be just the way to do it.

Consider that by the end of 2012, nearly $1.1 trillion moved through Black hands—buying, spending, and splurging. Now this: only six percent of that or about $66 billion went to Black-owned business. Still, Black spending accounted for 26 percent of the collective revenue for the nation’s Black-owned businesses. In other words, about 94 cents of every dollars that African-Americans spend never make it to a Black-owned business; yet spending by Black consumers and other Black businesses still manages to account for more than 25 percent of the revenue earned by Black firms. With those facts, the Selig Center provides conjecture on what could happen if spending by Black consumers and businesses at Black-owned businesses increased by 100 percent, meaning that if instead of six cents of every dollar, Black consumers spent just 12 cents of every dollar with Black businesses. First, it would add another $66 billion to the overall revenue for Black firms nationwide.

According to the Selig Center, more than 64 percent or 589,460 of the 921,032 workers employed by Black owned businesses are Black. The Selig Center contends that if Black spending at Black-owned businesses doubled to 12 cents of every dollar, Black owned firms would be able to employ another 589,460 Black employees and reduce the unemployment rate among African-Americans by more than three percent.

Notable is the fact that only 10 percent or about 200,000 of the nation’s more nearly two million Black-owned businesses are responsible for employing the more than 921,000 individuals. Nonetheless, the Selig Center’s general reasoning on the matter seems sound—that if Black business owners could count on increased support from other Black businesses and Black consumers they could at least provide more jobs to African-Americans, whose unemployment rate outrageously out paces that of Whites.

Bringing Conscious Consumerism to the National Conscious

To be sure, when John and Maggie Anderson hypothesized that helping to boost the bottom line for Black owned businesses could help improve communities, they were on to something.

And Anderson decided that “we needed someone to push that message into the national dialogue in a unique and compelling way.”

Part of what made the Andersons’ experiment so appealing to the mainstream media is that they could not be painted or perceived as fringe extremists, growing their own food and making their own clothes. In fact, they were the very epitome of the best this country had to offer – a young Black family, who through self-improvement and hard work, were arguably living the American dream. With their fine educations and their conventional, even bourgeois lifestyles, they simply decided that deliberately spending their money with business owners that looked like them might do some good for the Black community.

Today, nearly four years after the experiment began, Maggie Anderson’s message and method have expanded from calling on consumers to support Black businesses to a more rounded approach that focuses on supplier diversity, consumer education, and exploring ways to increase entrepreneurship within the Black community.

In addition to the book, Our Black Year, Anderson has turned the empowerment experiment into a major cause. As CEO and co-founder of The Empowerment Experiment (EE) Foundation, a 501©3 that researches, she promotes and tracks the power of conscious consumerism, strategic entrepreneurship, and substantive supplier diversity.

And the evidence of her family’s commitment to the pledge is visible and ongoing. On the day she visited Community Book Center, she wore a simple summer dress purchased at a Black-owned boutique in Chicago that it took her five months to find. She encouraged those that attended her speaking engagement to do more to support Black owned businesses like the bookstore that served as the setting of the event.

“How dare I pass by Community Book Center every day, and go to Barnes & Noble,” she says demonstratively.

While in town as a part of the National Urban League Conference that met in the city in July 2012, Anderson vowed to support local Black-owned businesses. She started by stopping next door at CoCo Hut, a Caribbean restaurant on Bayou Road to grab lunch to go before whisking off to her next appointment.

Anderson also talked about some of the grief she has endured because of their decision to think about how and where they spend their money and to encourage others to do the same. She has been called a racist and a Nazi, she says, and has even received death threats “because I decided to spend my money in a conscious way.”

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