People flock to the Berkshires in Massachusetts to ski, hike and spend their money in the low-lying mountain range's quaint shops. But forget the bucks: there's a new currency on the block — BerkShares.

BerkShares — money accepted only in the southern Berkshires — is the brainchild of the E. F. Schumacher Society, a group devoted to social and environmental sustainability in small communities. More than 300 businesses accept the cash; food from farmers markets and eateries are the most popular purchases. Organizers hope the currency will boost the economy and environmental thinking by encouraging residents to buy local, reducing their communities' carbon footprint from transportation and imports. More than 1.5 million BerkShares have circulated since the program launched in 2006.

"Consumers see how goods are produced and that they're done in an ecologically responsible manner," says Susan Witt, the program's administrator. Witt hopes BerkShares will eventually offer no-interest loans for local businesses and draw more services to the area.

While residents are not required to use BerkShares, there is an economic incentive: they are issued at a 10 percent discount to the U.S. dollar (so 90 cents gets one BerkShare worth a dollar). The program is geared toward locals, but some offering banks say tourists request them, too.

BerkShares have inspired towns like Newark, N.J., and New Orleans to consider similar ideas. Keep an eye — and a wallet — open for community currencies near you.

Story by Joshua Payne. This article originally appeared in Plenty in June 2008. The story was added to MNN.com.

Copyright Environ Press 2008