It’s safe to say that 2020 has been a challenging year for us all, but as the year draws to a close, a widespread sigh of relief transcends the chaos. The start of the festive season brings a welcome distraction, and, at long last, a reason to celebrate. It also, however, presents an invaluable opportunity to support the small, independent businesses that have been hit so hard by the pandemic. So, if you’re planning on celebrating this Christmas – albeit unconventionally – here are some of the reasons why, now more than ever, independent businesses need your support.

First and foremost, we need to support independent businesses because they provide the economic and cultural fabric of our local communities. In other words, we need them as much as they need us. Selfishly speaking, from a city that boasts having the street with the most independent shops, cafes and restaurants anywhere in the UK, we must preserve the places that bring colour and creativity to our high streets, giving each town or city a sense of character and authenticity, a reflection of its own unique inhabitants.

However, the need for these businesses spreads far beyond the realm of entertainment – they are also our best hope for a socially just and environmentally sustainable future. From a social perspective, independent businesses have the ability to strengthen local economies, offering a tangible means of sending money straight back into the community. By prioritising local trade wherever possible, we can support real people in their provision of a service they specialise in.

Furthermore, the majority of small enterprises can offer more transparency in the running of their business, whether regarding staff working conditions, or details of their supply chain. The latter is particularly important when it comes to food retail. In an increasingly industrial, globalised food system, it can be challenging to ascertain the full extent of where our food comes from, who produced it or the environmental and human impacts of the production methods. A blurred supply chain, combined with a notoriously misleading labelling system, contribute towards keeping consumers in the dark when it comes to their own impact on climate chaos – as was highlighted by the recent report on British supermarkets stocking chicken linked to the deforestation of the Brazilian Cerrado.

The benefit of buying from local eateries and food retailers, on the other hand, is that we can talk to them about where the food comes from. Most – though, admittedly, not all – are likely to care more about the quality and provenance of their food, thus supporting agricultural systems that are less damaging to the environment, as well as our health, than the industrial-scale production systems favoured by their supermarket equivalents. Chosen carefully, local businesses can therefore help reconnect consumers to our food systems, shortening supply chains and supporting small- and medium-scale farmers who use environmentally sound agricultural practices and provide high animal welfare.

Despite their vital role in society, the majority of small businesses are currently extremely vulnerable, after almost a year of chaos and uncertainty. It is worth noting, however, that this is not true for all independent businesses – vegetable box schemes witnessed a dramatic rise in demand earlier this year, and anyone with a garden knows how busy garden centres were over the summer. A considerable proportion of retailers have therefore reported that lockdown has had a positive impact on sales, a success that can be linked to a variety of factors, in particular their ability to pivot, responding quickly to changes and expanding online. Geographical location was also important, with businesses in smaller towns and suburbs doing better than those in urban centres (dependent, nevertheless, on what they supply).

That said, overall, it is clear that the pandemic has had, and is still having, devastating repercussions on independently run businesses across the UK. One study found that up to two-thirds of business owners fear their venture may not survive the pressures of COVID-19, with over half worried that they will run out of funds within the next year. The area that seems to have been hit the hardest is the hospitality sector. Starting with the first lockdown, then the 10 pm curfew, followed by a second round of regional lockdowns, trade has been sparse and unpredictable. A wave of permanent closures is predicted over the next few months, which will not only affect the business owners but their employees and long list of suppliers as well.

Moreover, December tends to be one of the busiest months of the year for hospitality. The ‘Christmas rush’ marks a peak in bookings for restaurants and bars across the country, as friends and colleagues gather for their annual Christmas parties. It goes without saying that this year, such celebrations are unimaginable – the majority of bars and restaurants are closed, or working at a limited capacity, and the possibility of mixing indoors with other households is still highly limited for most of the country. But could we show our solidarity to independent food businesses in a different way this year, to compensate for the monumental financial disruption the extended lockdown has caused? More broadly, how can we support all small businesses as we move towards the new year?

What you can do to help…

  • Delay your Christmas gatherings, rather than cancelling them altogether

While many of us will be relying on Zoom for our annual celebrations, why not postpone in-person gatherings until the warmer months next year, when we have hopefully regained some sense of normality? Giving small businesses a boost once they are allowed to operate as usual will enable them to get back on track, and the face-to-face interactions will be much needed after such an isolating year. This is particularly relevant for places like Bristol, which are still in Tier 3 (ed.note: Bristol has just been moved down to Tier 2), and where mixing indoors therefore remains strictly prohibited, and pubs, cafes and restaurants must stay closed. In the meantime, however, most venues are offering gift vouchers, or take-away goodies – a perfect alternative to spread some festive cheer.

  • Shop locally for your Christmas gifts

As the majority of trade has shifted online this year, Christmas shopping will be more virtual than ever before. This presents an exciting opportunity for independent shops and artisan makers to showcase their products to a wider audience, if they can get past the multinational giants that have already made it onto most of our screens. Of course, corporations such as Amazon provide a tempting option – easy, affordable, with the possibility of next-day delivery if necessary. For disorganised shoppers like myself, it can seem hard to resist. However, Amazon had been widely criticised for its unethical practices, such as tax avoidance and poor working conditions. As ever, the cheap price tag shown at the checkout fails to include the range of external human and environmental costs, invariably hidden from the consumer’s view.

Avoiding Amazon, on the other hand, can help level the playing field and support smaller, more ethical and environmentally conscious businesses. Besides, the online shopping experience can be much more creative and interesting if we delve a little deeper, sourcing shops or artists that have caught our eye in the past. Chances are, they will have an online platform. If not, Etsy is a great starting point to find local, hand-made gifts of all kinds.

  • Sustainable feasting

Possibly the best part of this time of year – in my opinion, at least – is the complete abandonment of all sense of discipline when it comes to food and drink. The long, cold winter provides the perfect excuse for indulgence, as we temporarily enter blissful hibernation. But can we combine the joys of this festive feasting with a consciousness of our impact on the environment?

This year, more than ever, we have been reminded of the vulnerabilities of our food systems. Daily news is peppered with proof of the damage caused by industrial agriculture, both on the environment and on human health, and we are increasingly warned that it is time to reshape our relationship with food. But where should we start?

Local shops, delis and food markets are all celebrating seasonal, locally produced food at this time, which is a great place to start. If you want to go a step further, you can try sourcing food directly from farmers, to gain a maximum understanding of the ways in which they produce their food, and the agricultural methods they support in that process. What you may find is that there is a growing movement of small-scale producers who are passionate about making positive change through sustainable agriculture. So, whether you choose to buy veg from local, organic growers, or pasture-fed meat from regenerative farmers, the key is to question how your food is being produced, and the impact these farming techniques have on the wider environment. As James Rebanks wrote in his article earlier this year, ‘there’s no such thing as a one-size-fits-all global sustainable diet that will solve the ecological crisis at one fell swoop’ – but if we can start to reconnect with our farmers and our land, then we are one step closer to the transition towards sustainable food systems.

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This time last year, the SFT team was excited to celebrate our annual Christmas party at Bristol’s newly-opened restaurant and wine bar, Marmo. The owners, Lily and Cosmo, champion seasonal food through an ever-changing menu, alongside a range of organic and biodynamic wines, from producers farming in harmony with their environment. We thought it would be nice to check in with Lily and Cosmo, to see how they are and how the pandemic has affected their business this year.

‘At the start of the first lockdown in March,’ explains Lily, ‘along with everyone else, we were completely blind-sided. We had only opened our doors in August 2019 and to be closing them indefinitely eight months later was devastating for the whole team. That said, the totality of the initial lockdown coupled with a decision that a take-away/delivery service would not work for our offering, meant that there was little we could do but sit tight and wait it out. 

On the other hand, the ambiguity and frequent alteration of policies since the end of the first lockdown has proved the biggest challenge for us so far. From social distancing limiting covers to around 50% of pre-lockdown capacity, the ‘rule of 6’, the logistics of fluctuating between the Eat Out to Help Out scheme to be quickly replaced by a 10 pm curfew, and finally waiting anxiously to know which tier we would land in, has definitely taken its toll. 

Despite these challenges, we were really overwhelmed by the support and patience of our customers, both regular and new, during the months that we were able to operate since July and also by those who have bought gift vouchers or off-sale wine in periods of closure. While we are hopeful that things will return to normal as early as possible in 2021, we are also conscious that we will likely be reopening during the coldest months with no mixing of households indoors. In order to support independent restaurants that have managed to survive this far through what will hopefully be the last hurdle, we would encourage people to reverse the trend of ‘dry January’ and general austerity of a typical new year and embrace being able to eat out, even under whichever restrictions remain. Not only because this support is vital for maintaining independent restaurants’ role in local communities but also because many of these restaurants work with small suppliers practicing sustainable farming who have also felt the knock-on effects from the hospitality industry, which poses a bigger and more long-term threat to society at large and the environment.’

Thank you, Lily and Cosmo, for your generous contribution to this piece.

Photograph: Ed Webster