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It Takes a Village: How Small-Town Sustainability Has a Big Future

Small-town sustainability is on the rise as rural areas battle climate change with locally-sourced goods, zero-waste shops, and beyond.

Written by
Shannon Reilly

Driving into Oxford, Ohio, from any direction means crossing through farmlands, only to be briefly interrupted by small towns.

Oxford itself is a college town that feels like a ghost town during Miami University’s breaks—students make up nearly half of the town’s population. The school is known for its business program, so it's easy to overlook the persistent push for small-town sustainability led by a group of town members and students alike.

The close-knit community has experimented with several initiatives to reduce waste. And as a result, they have proven that small, rural towns have secret powers in the pursuit of sustainability.   

In April, the town celebrates ongoing events for EarthFest. Miami University’s Zero-Waste Club and a local co-op are among the organizations that spearhead the effort. Music plays, university organizations have booths, local businesses offer promotions, and students and townspeople stroll the farmers' market.

It's refreshing to see the community come together for the sake of the planet. Here's my experience with small-town sustainability.

How Oxford, Ohio, Puts the Planet and the People First

The town's farmers' market is an example of the advantage rural towns have in terms of sustainability. Local, seasonal fruit and vegetables, organic meat and eggs, and baked goods are offered every Saturday and Tuesday. 

However, my favorite hidden gem in this town is Moon Co-op, a colorful grocery store and cafe owned by a board of townspeople passionate about cultivating relationships between local farms and consumers. A chalkboard map on the wall illustrates the distance the goods traveled to be sold in the store. And some products are coming from mere miles away.

In the corner of the store is a bulk goods section. Shoppers can fill up their reusable containers with a wide range of goods, from coffee beans, granola, nuts, and spices to gummy-shark candy. 

Other than Oxford’s businesses that have leveraged access to locally grown goods, the town and students have also undertaken efforts to reduce waste. Oxford offers locations for residents to drop off compost, a program the town hopes to expand to students.

Miami’s Zero-Waste club also hosts workshops, lectures, and a pop-up thrift shop that facilitates an exchange of students’ clothing—and reaches hundreds of dollars in sales. The club has excelled at finding creative solutions to reducing waste from a range of approaches. 

A highlight of the club's work was a lecture from Bea Johnson, author of Zero Waste Home and a leader in the zero-waste movement. In her lecture, Johnson shared how reducing her family’s waste to less than a mason jar’s worth a month changed their lives. She even praised the organizations at Miami University and the greater Oxford area for their dedication to small-town sustainability. It shows us that with a little ambition, small towns can make a big difference.

Sustainable Shopping in Plain Sight 

As a Miami University student, I was proud of the persistent efforts and thought these efforts were a solitaire model of rural sustainability. But that's not the case. This occurred to me when I visited my hometown and learned of a zero-waste store, FD Market, in Emmaus, Pennsylvania.

The market offers personal care and household goods that not only have little to no packaging but are also affordable eco-friendly alternatives. The market is even growing. It has a new location opening in Easton, demonstrating that the demand for innovative and environmentally friendly alternatives is increasing.

As I explored my hometown, the more I saw sustainability and local goods in plain sight. The Allentown Farmer's Market has been operating for nearly 70 years and is a prime example of the unique offerings that come from partnerships between local growers, businesses, and consumers. Located in a large brick building roughly the size of a football field, it's like the superstore of farmers' markets. 

The rise of locally sourced goods can be seen almost anywhere. A quick Google search confirms farmers' markets and eco-friendly stores are not isolated experiments. Instead, they're a response to consumers' desires for a more sustainable lifestyle.

In other words, many consumers are changing their consumption habits. We're ditching old habits and taking on a new role as conscious consumers. And that means we're living and shopping with intention—and with the planet and the community in mind.

And now, it's becoming a lot easier for those living in rural areas to embrace small-town sustainability. While many cities are home to trendy health foods stores, small towns are close to farms—embracing the locally-sourced lifestyle. 

If you have the chance, venture out and see what "accidentally eco" initiatives your town has to offer. You might be surprised at how many offerings there already are.