It’s not every day that you get to see a movement take flight. But then again, it’s not every year that your country has the difficult task of tackling drought, devastating bushfires and a pandemic.
If you cast your mind back to October 2019 (I know, it feels like a decade ago) Australia was in the middle of a severe drought. Grace Brennan, a New South Wales woman living on a farm in Warren, saw the impact the brutal conditions were having on rural Aussie communities and decided to kick off a little project in response. She called that project Buy From The Bush (BFTB).
A year on, what began as an Instagram account featuring small bricks-and-mortar stores, has evolved into a social movement inspiring Aussies to shop with home-grown businesses whenever possible.
I chatted with Grace Brennan to learn more about Buy From The Bush’s impressive journey, and to gain some insight into how shopping in Australia has changed throughout 2020.
It all started with a trying drought season
Brennan explained that her initial goal was to connect “businesses in drought-effected communities with a broader audience, and asking people in the city to invest in the businesses through doing their Christmas shopping”.
In its original form, BFTB was a social media-based project that encouraged rural businesses to use a hashtag (#buyfromthebush) on Instagram to help curate a collection of items people could buy from folks in regional Australia.
After just seven weeks, the Instagram account had more than 130,000 followers (today it’s at 253,000), and the activity of the rural post had increased by 30 per cent. People had very quickly come to learn just how much these local businesses had to offer.
As 2020 developed, so too did Buy From The Bush
What Australians discovered over the months that followed October 2019, was that drought was sadly only the beginning for us.
The bushfires of 2019 and early 2020 claimed more than 3,000 homes across NSW, Victoria, Queensland, the ACT, Western Australia and South Australia. Millions of hectares were scorched, lives were lost, and the livelihoods of many rural families went up in smoke.
Then the coronavirus pandemic hit, and businesses encountered an entirely new challenge. Jobs were lost, customers were relegated to their homes, and the country braced itself for months of uncertainty.
It’s been an incredibly difficult year, but what came out of those challenges was a broader commitment by Aussies to spend their money locally.
“I suppose it’s gained new relevance,” Brennan said.
“That appetite for supporting small and knowing where your products are coming from, and that consumer instinct to shop with purpose has probably been an even stronger movement now than it was a year ago when we launched.”
But this isn’t solely about crisis relief
While the drive to support businesses doing it tough is an integral part of BFTB, it’s not the full picture.
“What I want Buy From The Bush to be, and what it’s evolving into, is not something that is about crisis relief. It’s really about long-term, sustainable support for rural communities and really connecting the city and the country in a permanent way,” Brennan said.
Her vision is to see city consumers turning to those talented producers in the bush all year round, not just when disaster strikes.
And if you’ve kept up with the BFTB project over the months, you’ll notice that vision is well on its way. The project has transformed into an online marketplace loaded with vendors from all over Australia.
“That marketplace [which is supported by PayPal] is kind of a way of building infrastructure around the Buy From The Bush movement; ensuring that these businesses can connect with customers in the long term,” Brennan said.
“Buy From The Bush proved that lots of what was produced in the bush and sold in the bush was of value to a much wider audience than just the local community, and it’s really proved the value of growing that online — that digital footprint for lots of small business owners.”
Brennan shared that as a direct result of the success achieved through BFTB, many of these small rural-based businesses developed their own e-commerce platforms. That move has enabled many of them to make it through the worst of the Covid-19 crisis.
What’s clear is that “long-term shifts” are being seen in the way small companies in the bush run their businesses and the way Aussies choose to shop.
“I personally think that that joy of shopping small and knowing that you’re delivering real value to a business owner has always been there, but now, customers just feel so enabled. And I think that’s the big difference,” Brennan said.
But more than ‘good will’ people are shopping because they’re finding great products
Yes, people are becoming more aware of where they shop. And yes, people want to use their money to help people in need. A Government study indicated that 70% of Aussie respondents were “consciously supporting local businesses online” in 2020. And Instagram reports that #Shoplocal spiked by 70% also. But in the end, folks are placing orders because they like what they see.
“The story of the origin of a product is becoming part of the commercial appeal of a product, I believe,” Brennan said.
There’s a real beauty in “connecting with the story and being able to tell people, ‘I found this beautiful handbag from a saddler in Dubbo’.”
How substantial has the impact been?
If you take a peek at the website, you’ll see that in the first four months after BFTB launched, featured businesses raked in $5 million. Twenty per cent of those businesses had to hire more staff, and 98 per cent of them said that BFTB “improved their quality of life”.
It’s worth noting also, that most of these business owners (96%) are women.
“Obviously, many people who live out here live here because their partners are involved in a local industry like agriculture. So, there are a lot of women with skill sets and maybe creative backgrounds who find themselves in remote locations, and there’s a lack of professional career options,” Brennan said.
“In a time of drought, what might have been a supplementary side hustle, becomes the primary income source because they’re not drawing income from agriculture.”
So, the wave of attention brought in by BFTB has quite literally changed lives. Brennan mentioned that one featured artist reached out to her and shared that she had made more money in one night from BFTB than she had in the last financial year. That kind of experience, she explained, was not uncommon.
“Many, many shop owners have said to me that it [BFTB] has allowed them to stay open. And one year on, actually, it’s allowed growth in a way they hadn’t anticipated.”
Now that we’re all happily buying from the bush, Brennan has her eyes set on boosting tourism in remote areas, too. She has launched another project, Stay In The Bush, which is “a website that profiles rural accommodation offerings”.
“It encourages people to get out of the city and connect with rural communities; staying somewhere beautiful, obviously, but also supporting local communities in a face to face way,” she said.
Ultimately, Brennan hopes that while international travel remains unlikely, Aussies will take the opportunity to experience more of what our regional towns have to offer. And as BFTB has shown us, it’s a damn lot.