When law meets sustainability: an interview with Janelle Orsi

Tonight at Asheville Green Drinks, Janelle Orsi, director of the Sustainable Economies Law Center, will discuss ways to make sharing practical in the modern world. Orsi talks with Xpress about using the law to make local, sustainable enterprises a reality.

Xpress: So what’s the purpose of the events in Asheville?

Orsi: Basically to give people — both lawyers and laypeople — the tools they need to create new kinds of organizations and projects that we consider to be essential to a more sustainable economy. So some of those types of organizations are social enterprise, businesses that are earning a profit while doing something good for the world. It might be cooperatives that are owned by the people who use them or who work for them. It might be things like car-sharing clubs, people who jointly own cars. It might be a housing cooperative.

I understand Asheville is kind of a hotbed for solutions like this. I’m from the Bay Area, where stuff like this is happening all the time. I get clients all the time in my law practice all the time who will say “ok, here’s what we’re going to do” and I hear about it and I think “that’s just the greatest idea ever, it’s going to help people make money, it’s going to do something good for the world, it’s going to provide for people, it’s going to make our community a better place!” Then I go “Aw, shoot, it’s totally illegal” or I say “there’s just no legal category that’s going to fit what you want to do.”

So over the last few years I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about these activities and finding ways to either help people get around some of those barriers, reshape their activities a little bit or comply with them. That’s some of the things we’re going to talk about it.

What’s a common example of “This is a great idea, but it’s totally illegal”?

If somebody wants to start a coffee shop and instead of getting an investor — like one big venture capitalist — they want to get 400 people from the local community, it’s so difficult to do that without doing a direct public offering, and that requires a ton of paperwork, disclosures, and jumping through a lot of legal hoops that if you’re just going to be a small coffee shop it’s going to be too much work, especially if you’re trying to raise a small amount of money.

Another example is if you want to start a cooperative, and let’s say it’s going to be a food cooperative, where people are forming an organization to collectively buy food, divvy it up and purchase at cost. It gets pretty big and you want every members to volunteer say, three hours a month. It makes sense to the people that do this, but it actually violates labor laws. Whenever you’re doing work for a commercial enterprise that’s work that an employee would normally have to do, you need to have worker’s comp, you need to pay minimum wage. Because those are the laws that were designed to protect people from being exploited. There are two grocery cooperatives that have actually been cracked down on. It’s a barrier that people need to be aware of, there are ways to get around it, and it dictates how you should structure your organization.

How did you end up coming from the Bay Area to Asheville to talk about this?

People from Asheville kept contacting me, or I kept hearing about them. Then I got this picture of Asheville as just being this incredible utopia of amazing solutions. I know you have a local currency here, the Smoky Mountain Hollers, I know about the Earthaven eco-village. About three years ago I wrote the Sharing Solution, since then a lot of people have reached out.

I actually got a couple law schools in Nashville and Orlando flying me out, so I thought I’d swing by and give a talk in Asheville.

So the talk’s going to be a 101 with information so people can pursue projects further?

It’s going to look at what are some of the solutions we feel are necessary, what are some of the barriers, and what are some of the tools people can use to get around them.

You bring up the issue that people keep running into hurdles. Is there any sort of advocacy that can be done, laws that need to be changed?

With the coffee shop example I gave you: we need to change securities law. There’s a bill that’s already passed the House and now is in the Senate, it’s HR 2930. It’s called the crowdfunding bill, it’s going to allow people to more easily make small investments. People think of Kickstarter and online donation campaigns, but this can be used by a local business to get local owners. That’s exciting and that kind of advocacy needs to happen in every state, not just on a federal level.

On a more local level, I’m trying to get a cottage food law passed in California. North Carolina actually has one already, and it allows people to sell certain foods they make at home. At California, you can’t make food at home and sell it. Creating exemptions for small-scale economic activity that’s relatively un-risky is important.

A big barrier in the Bay Area is that people grow food in their back yards, want to sell it, and run into zoning laws, the same laws that say you live in a residential neighborhood, so operating an agricultural or commercial activity is not appropriate. On the local levels, we’re getting laws passed that allow people to do urban farming.

What’s your definition of the more sustainable world this is leading to?

I think our local economies need to be a lot more self-sufficient, as far as purchasing things made locally instead of purchasing from chain businesses where the money gets sucked out of our community, because I feel like that’s contributing to the unsustainability of our economy. Also: doing a lot more to create our own jobs. So many people rely on jobs for their livelihood and most of those jobs are created by other people and often companies outside our community. The solutions are lots of locally-owned, small-scale enterprise or cooperatively-owned enterprise. If it’s a cooperative, your job is a lot more stable: you’re not going to suddenly lay everyone off and outsource yourselves to India.

Growing up, all the bread I ate was owned by one corporation. Everybody eats bread, that’s something we could so easily produce locally on a small scale. We need to get back to spending locally. Right now, every dime we spend on bread goes somewhere else.

Janelle Orsi will speak at Asheville Green Drinks tonight at Posana Cafe (1 Biltmore Ave.), event begins at 5:30 p.m., the talk begins at 6 p.m.


Thanks for reading through to the end…

We share your inclination to get the whole story. For the past 25 years, Xpress has been committed to in-depth, balanced reporting about the greater Asheville area. We want everyone to have access to our stories. That’s a big part of why we've never charged for the paper or put up a paywall.

We’re pretty sure that you know journalism faces big challenges these days. Advertising no longer pays the whole cost. Media outlets around the country are asking their readers to chip in. Xpress needs help, too. We hope you’ll consider signing up to be a member of Xpress. For as little as $5 a month — the cost of a craft beer or kombucha — you can help keep local journalism strong. It only takes a moment.

Before you comment

The comments section is here to provide a platform for civil dialogue on the issues we face together as a local community. Xpress is committed to offering this platform for all voices, but when the tone of the discussion gets nasty or strays off topic, we believe many people choose not to participate. Xpress editors are determined to moderate comments to ensure a constructive interchange is maintained. All comments judged not to be in keeping with the spirit of civil discourse will be removed and repeat violators will be banned. See here for our terms of service. Thank you for being part of this effort to promote respectful discussion.

Leave a Reply

To leave a reply you may Login with your Mountain Xpress account, connect socially or enter your name and e-mail. Your e-mail address will not be published. All fields are required.