As he pays for his drink in a Paris bar with a currency that he launched just days before, 20-year-old economics student Lucas Rochette-Berlon looks astonishingly relaxed. So how hard is it, exactly, to invent an entire new monetary system, design and print the notes, and persuade hundreds of small businesses and Parisians themselves to adopt it? “Fairly difficult,” he smiles, “but not insurmountable.”
The new money is called “la pêche” – a reference to a historic network of peach trees in Paris. With its slogan “think global, act local” the currency also plays on the French expression “avoir la pêche,” meaning to have lots of energy and enthusiasm.
While admitting that he hasn’t slept much for the last two years as his organization, Une Monnaie Pour Paris (A Currency for Paris), has gained traction, Rochette-Berlon is still high on enthusiasm for a project that he feels tackles social, economic, environmental and democratic inequalities in one neat package.
La pêche went live in Paris on May 12 this year, after a successful and ongoing rollout in the suburbs in 2014. Like hundreds of other community currencies gaining influence worldwide it is pegged to, and operates alongside, the official national money. One euro, in this case, buys you one Parisian pêche. And 100 euros gives you 103 pêches, with the purchaser then free to pocket the extra three, donate them to the charity of his or her choice, or put them back into the pot as ‘community pêches’ which can then be given freely to anyone in need.
For Rochette-Berlon, even in this digital age of bitcoin and blockchain, having paper money that you can physically touch and exchange is vital as “it allows those who do not have access to that technology or even to banks, such as the homeless or immigrants or other disadvantaged groups, to benefit from the system, and remain part of society.”
The Brixton pound
As la pêche continues to grow, Paris is set to be the first major capital with its own citywide alternative currency. Across the Channel, in the financial powerhouse of London, distinct currencies have been appearing in different areas. The first one, the Brixton pound, launched in 2009, one year after the global financial crash sent shivers through the City and prompted growing popular distrust of the big banks, especially among millennials who were starting to wonder how, and where, to spend their cash. The Brixton pound aims to “support and build diversity and resilience in the local Brixton economy in light of difficult economic times” and to stop “80p of every £1 spent locally from leaving the area.” Over 250 local businesses in South London now accept it. And putting Brixton-born David Bowie, and not the Queen, on your 10-pound note adds the kind of cool that money can’t buy.
Colu digital wallet
A year ago, East London got in on the act with an entirely digital local pound – the fourth launch for the Israeli startup Colu which is successfully running community currency projects in Tel Aviv, Haifa and the English port city of Liverpool, and handling some USD 2 million in transactions every month.
Sitting barely two kilometers away from the traditional enclaves of the City, Ollie Warne is the first accountant in London to accept this virtual money alongside regular sterling. Now his firm, Cottons, has several clients regularly paying with the Colu app on their smartphones, including a local ice cream maker, Hackney Gelato. For Warne, “the fact that you have to be an independent business to be on it is a major selling point for me.”
When you pay your accountant, your hairdresser or your favorite boutique owner via your Colu digital wallet, a message flashes on your phone congratulating you for being a “local superhero.” In a single tap your purchase becomes part of an alternative economic system supporting what Colu calls “the new triple bottom line: people, cities and businesses.”
In less than two years of operations, 33-year-old Colu co-founder and CEO Amos Meiri has witnessed this consumer revolution take off: “We really see people are becoming more aware of their consumption patterns and of the circulation (or waste) of money in their community.”
Advocates of community currencies all point to an increase in both financial and social capital among users. The business of knowing and trusting your suppliers and customers, buying locally to reduce food miles, and keeping cash moving within the area rather than leaking away abroad all add up to what is known as the local multiplier effect.
Back in Paris, Rochette-Berlon is carefully sticking a “la pêche accepted here” sign to the bar window, and reflecting on the recent crowdfunding campaign that saw Une Monnaie Pour Paris raise 21,000 euros (USD 24,800) in record time. The cash will enable the organization to hire its first full-time employee and offer coins alongside the beautifully designed banknotes.
As Rochette-Berlon recalls, he and his young team were originally dismissed by everyone they spoke to as “a bunch of kids doing great communication but not much else.” However, he points out, being good at communications is pretty important if you’re trying to get a capital city of over two million inhabitants to localize its supply chains and radically alter the way it spends. Now, he laughs, “City Hall is beating down our door.” And that’s not small change.
Five more alternative currencies to watch:
WIR franc, Switzerland
One of the oldest local currencies, operational since 1934 and founded by two businessmen concerned about currency shortages and global financial stability in the wake of the 1928 Wall Street Crash. WIR is short for ‘Wirtschaftring’ or ‘economic circle,’ and also the German word for ‘we’ – underlining its community ethos. Sixteen local businesses signed up at first; there are now 62,000.
Bristol pound, UK
Launched in 2012 and now the largest alternative currency in the UK with over 800 local businesses and 1,000 users. Local taxes, business fees and energy bills can be paid in Bristol pounds. The former Mayor of Bristol, George Ferguson, accepted his entire salary in the currency.
This mobile phone payment system was launched by Vodafone’s Safaricom 11 years ago to enable people to text small amounts of money to each other. It now has 30 million users in 10 countries and also handles international transfers and loans. Plays a significant role in reducing poverty and enabling millions of the ‘unbanked’ to control their financial future.
A cashless exchange and barter network for goods and services in the port town of Volos, these ‘alternative monetary units’ were established in 2010 following the European sovereign debt crisis and the subsequent severe austerity measures. Supporters say it is a creative response to financial crisis that builds relationships and restores hope and dignity.
Fureai Kippu, Japan
Voluntary time-banking schemes to help Japan meet the needs of its aging population since 1992. Individuals earn time credits by providing care to the elderly or people with disabilities. These credits can then be saved for one’s own future care, or transferred to relatives or friends who need them now. Strong psychological and physical benefits are reported for volunteer carers and recipients.
As he pays for his drink in a Paris bar with a currency that he launched just days before, 20-year-old economics student Lucas Rochette-Berlon looks astonishingly relaxed. So how hard is it, exactly, to invent an entire new monetary system, design and print the notes, and persuade hundreds of small businesses and Parisians themselves to adopt it? “Fairly...