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  • Getting to Green

    An administrator pushes, on a shoestring budget, to move his university and the world toward a more sustainable equilibrium.

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July 17, 2008 - 10:27am

Yesterday evening, I was listening to NPR while I was driving, and they did a bit about a local bartering exchange. People provide goods and services to others, and receive goods and services they want in return. But, unlike simple barter scenarios, you and I don't each need to have something the other wants to make a deal. The exchange serves as a central recorder of who has earned credits, who has spent credits that they've earned, and how much of each. By having an exchange as a mediator, I can do something for you, and get paid by receiving something from a third party, and over time it all works out.

What caught my ear was that the director of the exchange (Mike Krane, president of Green Apple Barter Services in Pittsburgh) specifically mentioned colleges with "unsold" classroom seats as barter participants. Put some non-cash students into sections which are otherwise undersubscribed and get office supplies, or maintenance services, or whatever in return. The marginal costs are near zero, and the risk of cutting into your traditional (cash, including financial aid) enrollment market is reduced. Pretty smart.

What I realized later, upon reflection, is that barter may be (at least for the present) an easy way to do more business locally. Locally sourced goods and services travel shorter distances (thereby generating fewer emissions), and they contribute to the economic and social strength (sustainability) of the community. Barter exchanges are emerging in many cities and metro areas, but are a long way from operating nationwide, and will probably never reach that point. Businesses which engage in barter are generally small (proprietorships or partnerships) and local -- OfficeDepot and Wal-Mart really aren't likely to ever get involved.

Barter isn't part of the underground economy -- IRS rules require the exchange operator to report annual summaries of transactions, which generate dollar earnings and expenses for tax purposes. And the exchange operator, obviously, has to charge some small fee so the service isn't free. (Of course, banking fees mean that cash exchange isn't free, either.)

I could be totally off my nut, here. (It's happened before.) Still, creating an on-campus barter exchange is a way to increase product reuse within the campus community. Having a campus "currency" increases the sense of community identity, and might be a logical extension of "dining dollars" or other systems already in place. Eventually extending such a system to the local community, including local merchants when they don't compete with your campus auxiliary operations, shouldn't be prohibitively difficult.

Would such an initiative make sense in theory? Might it work at your school? Is anybody already doing something like this?


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