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From Bali to Rome, a wacky global green experiment

September 10, 2011

Every year over 100 million containers move from port to port around the globe, bringing stuff from places where it is produced cheaply to places where it is sold to end consumers at inflated prices. While “shipping” (in the literal sense, by sea-fairing vessel) has far less environmental impact than air or land travel, especially when carried out on a massive scale, there are ramifications to the planetary ecosystem, the global economy and cultural identity.On the one hand, the ability for innovative and energetic producers in the developing world to reach discerning buyers in the developed one levels out the playing field, giving consumers more choice. This does not have to be as simple as the choice to get whatever is cheapest, ignoring the conditions of its production, or as writer Douglas Rushkoff says, outsourcing to “Little Brown People Over There, Somewhere” ( It could actually be a way of voting with our pocketbooks to support productive activities which earn our support through quality, ethical behavior, and environmental responsibility. This is the objective of “fair trade”.We have long since overcome the tyranny of the local, when we had no choice but to buy from the local supplier and they knew it, occasionally treating customers who had little choice as a necessary nuisance more than a market to be cultivated. Many of us in Italy have had this experience, especially where the local and the global come into direct contact such as the food vendors outside tourist destinations (when you’re hungry and tired, the most important food is that which is available, regardless of price or quality, and unscrupulous vendors know this). We would like to give back to our local community but only when we admire its practices, not when it is corrupt or unethical. It’s easy to recite the mantra of “buy local” or “think globally, act locally”, but EVERYTHING IS LOCAL SOMEWHERE.Web 2.0 is starting to give us the possibility of acting globally as if locally. I can follow a community action project in Ghana as easily as one in my own neighborhood in Rome, and contribute to it directly through Paypal and numerous philanthropic web-based services more easily than making an official contribution in Italy where payment is so often mired in red tape. While in the past acting at a distance has most often been a way of externalizing the negative impact of our actions, the toxic waste and suffering child-laborors that so often permit us our inexpensive playthings, some of us are starting to wake up to the fact that on a finite planet such as Earth there is no ”over there” left. So we might as well start acting globally, privileging those producers who do the right thing, and boycotting those, local or not, who don’t. Sure, certain things just work better locally, like food and energy which lose value as we transmit them. And the feedback loops of local communities are still important; the people we see on a daily basis have more of a vested interest in our well-being because chances are we provide a service for them in return. But the globalized world isn’t going to go away entirely so we should look for ways to manage it ethically.My friends Steve and Linda recently launched an experiment in “local globalism” or “global localism” (glocalism?). Owners of a hip, successful, green B&B and hostel in Rome, after spending two years on sabbatical in Bali, they are returning to Rome and want to bring some of Bali with them. Their project raised funds to finance the purchase of furniture to upgrade and expand their Rome facilities. Some have criticized them on sustainability grounds, saying they should instead support local, Italian artisans. But in fact, my friends have lived in the Balinese community for long enough that it is local for them; they know the producers and have a vested interest in supporting them, even if they won’t be staying on or keeping their purchases in the community.

I talked with Steve (via email and in person) a while back and asked him a few questions about this project and, more in general, about his experience in Italy.

Both Rome and Bali are “foreign” cultures to you. How did you feel received by them as an outsider, and what challenges did you face in adapting? What were some key differences?

A few thoughts jump to mind. One is that Bali is much more efficient than Italy, which is very disturbing. My neighbors in the village I live have a dirt floor and no running water, but I can get things done faster here and there is more openness and transparency about what drives commerce and motivates people. As with most places in the world, people want to work and get things done and when they find opportunities where they can do so, the natural progression is to perfect the system so that it’s easier to get product to market, and person to market, and make the exchange between the buyer and seller. In Italy, this basic principle of commerce is always overcomplicated by government and as a result (or maybe as the cause) the culture doesn’t really understand how to integrate commerce into life. I was often baffled to see the small shop selling doodads in Rome still open after 10 years with no customers – and yet, no ambition to change with the times, modernize, try and understand what people want and deliver it to them. Or when my attempts to give business to someone only to find my inquiries are a disturbance. Sometimes in Italy it is clear that people don’t want to work. Most Italians, when it comes to manual labor jobs, or things that are just sort of ‘messy’, will suggest you find a few polacchi who are willing to do it for you. Statistics I’ve seen shows that there is plenty of opportunity in Italy (just as much as Italians believe there is in America) but that they are unwilling to move to a different city to get it or unwilling to perform the tasks requested. I think it’s great that Italy is not entirely driven by a need to get ahead and produce and accumulate wealth, but it’s always seemed silly to me that people who are clearly in business for themselves can’t be bothered to ‘do business’. And then to hear young Italians complain about how little opportunity there is for them shows how little they really understand the cause of their predicament. There isn’t more opportunity elsewhere – there is more willingness. To protect those that are unwilling to do things, under the disguise of nationalism, is really the wrong message to those who do want to do things – even if they are on the other side of the world.

As for being received, Bali is a place where the westerner has no anonymity. We have expat friends who have lived here for decades and will never be treated as a local. Their children will never be Balinese. The Balinese are very tribal and they put up a wall between you and them culturally. They are very amiable and friendly, but it’s on a very superficial level. I’ve always felt accepted in italy – sometimes to point where they don’t consider me the extra-communitario that I am. My children are Italianized. It is the one place I’ve ever felt at home at.
Do you think there is a risk of diluting geographic identity by spreading it thinly across the globe? What is the difference between your use of Balinese furniture in Rome and the presence of Italian restaurants in London?
The only risk I’ve seen from globalization is from the Mcdonaldization of the world. The idea that when I’m in Toyko or Toronto I want to find an identical, cheap hamburger, is what undermines the particularities of an individual place. Bringing those particularities elsewhere, such as Balinese furniture to Italy or Italian food to London, spreads what is truly valuable in those cultures. What should spread is what is greatest about each unique place. The opposite is when a multi-national imposes their products, and thus – their way of life, by way of leveraging their costs and offering something cheaper that what is produced locally using tradition and better qualities. If I want olive oil in Bali, there is no local version to choose from. I see nothing wrong with having Italian olive oil available in Bali, but I see no point in buying rice from another part of the world that is made cheaper through dubious methods of genetic engineering when there is local rice right here.
The beehive has never tried to evoke a typical Italian atmosphere, and yet has emerged as an authentic Roman institution. Did you ever have any second thoughts about your aesthetic choices? Have visitors ever expressed disappointment at your not meeting their expectations or preconceptions of Italy (you know, checkered table-clothes, Chianti in straw flasks, fat ladies in black…)?
Our choices in Italy always seem dictated by the confines of what’s available and at what cost. Between Ikea and Minotti there is a nothing. We have Indonesian and other ethnic furniture that was bought long before we ever even considered coming here that was the only non-Ikea option still in our budget – that you could purchase and walk away from. Ikea is hugely popular not just because of the price, but because you don’t have to order it and wait 30 days for them to make it. If you want to buy Kartell furniture, you can’t even buy it direct from Kartell. You have to go through company who sells it but doesn’t even have it in stock. You have to write them with what you want and wait for a preventivo. It’s absurd. So no, we’ve never regretted it. We never wanted to do something akin to the “antica trattoria” look, and even if we did, I don’t know how easy that would have been either. Ever try to buy chianti bottles in straw flasks? Do you know where to buy those checkered table-clothes? I have no idea where they come from. Probably there is one supplier and he has one item.
By eliciting donations for the purchase of furniture are you experimenting with an alternative monetary model, one that bypasses the banks to favor a community-based currency, one through which instead of paying interest to an anonymous corporate bank you pay back your friends in less tangible but more focused, tailored ways? Or are you just hoping to get good stuff cheap?
When I first found out about crowdfunding I thought it was very cool and wanted to do it even though I didn’t have a project to fund. I just loved the idea. At some point we had to decide whether to get rid of the things we’ve acquired here (some furniture we bought for the house we live in, books, etc) or if we had enough to justify a shipping container, at which point we’d then have enough space already paid for to justify bringing things back. We new we’d need help and that if we didn’t raise some money that we’d pay for our things to ship back in a mostly-empty container, which is hugely wasteful. Banks aren’t particularly generous with me, nor are they easy to work with or speedy, so that was never considered. Initially, we feared that this would be seen as us basically asking for money, but really I think we’re offering enough rewards that are valuable on different levels that what we’re doing is seeking a fair exchange. We’re trying to raise some money, just like you’d do at a garage sale. Maybe the exact price asked isn’t completely comparable, but we’re also offering an opportunity for people who have enjoyed staying with us, or might someday stay with us, to be a part of our growth and their own comfort. We want people to feel as though their contributions were valuable despite what they got in return.
My parents owned a small grocery store that had been in my family for a few generations. In the 80′s I remember it was really fashionable to shop at big, mega stores (which if you compare them to today’s megastores are pretty small). My parents sold the business as they couldn’t compete. Now, in 2011, with main street dead, people realize that they liked buying things from the guy who knew their name. Part of the appeal of Italy is that main street never died there for a series of cultural and architectural reasons. So I see the world – and I mean the modern, Anglo world – as having a huge appetite for things that are bought from a real family business – something that many American kids under 20 years old have never really experienced. Now, when you pay for something at a big, impersonal store, you get the thing you paid for – and most times because of volume, you get it for less than what you’d pay at the family run business. But when you know that family, and you know your money is helping them pay for their kids’ education, or that the money is then going into the other family’s pocket who owns the bakery, you start to feel a benefit that is impossible to quantify and monetize from being part of an economy that grows more than just pieces of green paper. For me, crowdfunding and the kind of web commerce 2.0 you mention allows us to be global but always buy local and see the impact of where our money is going.
What strategies do you have for telling the story of Bali in the Beehive in Rome that will distinguish your project from the simple purchase of cheap foreign furniture?
Well the furniture certainly less expensive here than it is in Italy, but for good reason. When you add the costs of shipping, the cost of duty and IVA, the cost of transport from the Italian port to wherever it’s going (which is more than from Bali to Italy actually), and you put it in a shop and a pay a few people to stay there when the door is open, you end up having a price to the end user that is totally justified. For us, the benefit of buying it here ourselves is that we are bringing a container anyway, and are cutting out the costs involved in selling furniture as a business. But this is much different than buying cheap tomatoes in California that come from Mexico. In that scenario, they’re cheaper because someone is getting screwed. I don’t think we’re exploiting the Balinese or the situation, or even really capitalizing on a great opportunity. If that were the case, I’d bring back furniture and sell it. The story of what we’re doing is that we love it here and we love our hotel and we know that once we get back to Italy, and the half-empty container gets emptied and goes back to the port, the Beehive will be restricted to the Italian lack of choice at uncompetitive prices (because when there’s no choice, there’s no competition) and we’d end up buying ethnic, interesting, unique furniture anyway at prices that reflect the trouble someone else had to go through to get them there.
But what message is conveyed by Balinese furnishings in an American-run hostel in the Italian capital? I would argue that it is an honest, contemporary message of a consciously globalized world, more meaningful than the faux-localism that one sees increasingly in Rome, plastic souvenirs of the Colosseum (or, why not, the Eiffel Tower, since for many tourists it’s all one big foreign soup) made in China, sold by struggling immigrants. At least Steve and Linda are bringing a personal connection to the furniture from Bali, not the vacant convenience of a purchase made in a big box at the edge of town.
One Comment leave one →
  1. September 11, 2011 11:43

    I really enjoyed reading this post and it raises a series of very important issues and considerations. I think it is already very rewarding that people are thinking this way … thoughts always precede action. Anyway, well done and thank you …


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