LETS – short for Local Exchange Trading Systems – is a community enterprise using local trade tokens in place of money for goods and services. It both helps to save money, and enables wealth to stay within the area.
How LETS started
LETS are commonly traced back to Comox, British Columbia. Local trade tokens were introduced there in 1983 by Michael Linton – not as his invention but as his application of an idea that had existed for centuries. Their association with him is mainly because he documented his use of them so thoroughly.
His Comox innovation thrived, with a local dentist being a particularly enthusiastic user – but then the dentist moved away, and the scheme dwindled.
Linton blamed the end of the Comox scheme on his own failure to communicate the idea. But he went on to found several more such schemes personally, and his public speaking in support of them led to a wave of them being set up in the UK in the 1990s. Peter Pope, Co-Chair of CamLETS – Cambridge’s local exchange scheme – recalls how Linton was associated with the scheme’s setup in 1993.
“I’d been to a talk organised by the New Economics Foundation in London, which introduced me to LETS. I was self-employed at the time, and I could arrange my hours. We were able to assemble a core group of seven people within weeks. And when we did our public launch, Michael Linton happened to be on tour in the UK. So he came to the Friends’ Meeting House in Cambridge, and I launched us well and truly!”
How it works
CamLETS is a closed online forum for trading goods and services. Standing offers include clothing, plants and childcare. Members use the organisation’s website to record their payments to each other. The price of goods is negotiable; services are charged at a flat rate of 10 CamLETS an hour, regardless of the nature of the nature of the job.
An online forum is not suitable for everybody. Some members don’t have email addresses; some don’t have regular access to the internet; some are resolute that they wish to avoid the internet, or computers, altogether. Help for these people is in the form of ‘buddies’ – friendly, approachable members who are also experienced users of the website and so able to bridge the gap between it and anyone for whom such a gap exists.
How it’s going
I spoke with several CamLETS members at one of their trading meetings. More than one of them told of how a benefit of the scheme was its connection with things like friendship and socialising.
“It builds community. A lot of us have known each other for a very long time. And you tend to meet like-minded people, people who are prepared to be a bit alternative and try out something new.”
“I think trading was a by-product of socialising. People too. I had quite a lonely patch recently. And I was glad to be coming to this because I knew I’d meet people that I knew and we could just sit about and chat.”
Another linked LETS to her environmental concerns:
“It’s a question of the values that we hold, the way that we behave in things like reduced meat eating, support for charities like Compassion in World Farming, and any, anything that supports wildlife.”
That had most to do with coincidence of like-minded members. Nothing in the operation, or the policy, of CamLETS is intrinsically about wildlife. This point was made in 1998 by the late Gordon Rhead, who founded of OnlyConnect, a second LETS in Cambridge. In an interview Rhead said:
“We’re not trying to solve legal problems or address green issues – we just want people to join the scheme and use it.”
Limitations of LETS
A result of a scheme that puts people in touch with like-minded individuals can be a lack of diversity. Peter Pope again:
“We’re not a cross section of society. We tend to be middle-class, white, Guardian-reading individuals (I can think of one strong exception to that). Also, the gender balance is not brilliant. There are far more women in CamLETS than men. The skills more conventionally regarded as masculine tend to be in short supply, for example plumbing.”
Plumbing or its lack tends often to be mentioned as an objection to LETS, though Gordon Rhead in 1998 proudly claimed that by paying in tokens rather than sterling:
“I’ve just saved myself several hundred pounds by getting one of our members to work in this kitchen. He’s a plumber with research qualifications.”
He was explicit about barring some activities from his organisation’s remit:
“In OnlyConnect, we exclude anything that is involved with counselling or therapy, as you can’t professionally counsel or give therapy to your friends (there are all the problems of transference etc.).”
Where to now?
The enthusiasm of a group of friends thirty years ago won’t keep CamLETS going indefinitely. 442 members joined in the 1990s; 168 in the noughties; 162 in the decade 2010-2019; and in the 2020s, now a quarter through, only 26 so far. The number of current members is 126.
Peter North’s 2007 study Money and liberation: the micropolitics of alternative currency movements explores movements of this kind in the United Kingdom, Hungary, New Zealand and Argentina. The tone of the book is wistful. North examines movements that have come and gone, noting that in many cases their time has been one of economic transition or even economic meltdown.
An example is Argentina’s redes de trueque in 2000-2003 – literally “barter networks” but actually involving unofficial currency. The networks didn’t permanently take the place of Argentina’s peso, but they enabled buying and selling of some kind to go on despite government restrictions on cash withdrawal from banks at the time.
Let’s hope that UK 2022 doesn’t get that bad. Readers in our region who’d like to see what LETS could do for them can peruse this map to see what’s available.
Disclosure. Aidan Baker has been a member of CamLETS since 2009, but active only infrequently. The interviews with CamLETS members were recorded on 3 September 2022. The interview with Gordon Rhead was conducted by Clare Baker and published in Streetwise 32, autumn 1998.
CamLETS will hold a trading meeting on Sunday 3 October, 3-5pm, 28 Birdwood Road, Cambridge CB1 3SU. Guests welcome.