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Is Buying Local Really Good?


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Every now and then, a principle I take for granted suddenly presents itself to me as something I don’t understand as well as I thought I did. The axiom “buy local? is one such principle. Progressive media and environmental activists have successfully indoctrinated us green-minded folks to believe that “buying local? is a good thing. But is it really as simple as that? Uncomfortable as it is to question received truths, I set out to investigate if “buying local? is as good and virtuous as I’d been led to believe.

Consider the farmer’s market. Sure, it’s a pleasure to roam the stalls selecting super fresh carrots with the dirt still clinging to them and a ball of yarn spun by the hands that receive your cash. You get to make eye contact with the very soul that cultivated your purchase. It feels like a real community, whole and rich and warm. The gap between the consumer and the producer is about as narrow as it gets – it’s a direct exchange.

But is shopping the farmer’s market really environmentally friendly? Is that hand-spun yarn really worth the extra cost? It feels good, but is it really good?

There is an ecological and an environmental argument to be made for why buying local is actually NOT a good thing. Let’s use the example of a pair of shoes. A small-scale local shoemaker can make you a high-quality, custom pair of kicks. He can order a little leather, nails, and rubber and you can drive to their location for fittings and to pick up your purchase. And since the production of your custom shoes is very inefficient, you will pay a premium for them.

On the other hand, you can also buy an adequate pair of shoes at a department store for much less. Sure, they’re not one-of-a-kind and you’re not supporting a local guy trying to make a living at an anachronistic vocation. But consider this: those department store shoes were mass-produced overseas at a very low cost-per-pair, then shipped in a container and trucked to your local mall for pennies per pair. Because of the enormous scale at which those foreign-made shoes are moved, they require far fewer carbon emissions per pair to get to you. And on top of that, they’re cheaper for you to buy, too.

Granted, the gap between the producer and the consumer is much, much greater with the department store shoes than with the locally made shoes. Who knows what happens to the workers who make them, package them, transport them, stock them, and sell them? Who knows what environmental precautions are taken in their manufacturing, and what happens with the waste created from their production? There are a lot more wild cards in play.

When you buy local, you are dealing with far fewer wild cards. You can know (and ask questions directly to the producer if you don’t know) about all the factors that are important to you. Plus you get to enjoy the human connection you make with the person who crafted or grew or sewed your purchase.

But given that the foreign-made shoes are cheaper to buy, cheaper to make, and less polluting to transport, why do we think that “buying local? is such a “green? practice? Isn’t it actually more polluting? Not only that, isn’t it really only an option for those who have enough money to afford the luxury of the inefficient, locally produced items? Is buying local elitist?

At the end of all this questioning (and this is just the beginning), I’m left with only more questions. Of course there are myriad arguments for why buying local is better than the corporate alternative (see here, here, here, here, and here). But I also see that what’s important is that we not take ideas like “buy local? for granted. We know we can’t blindly trust the word “organic? when it’s printed on the side of a milk carton, and we cannot assume that “buy local? is always better, either.

I'm not about to abandon the farmer's market for the conventional supermarket any time soon, much less stop buying wares made by local artisans. But I will question received truths, for we must be ever mindful and make dollar votes accordingly for the world we want to live in.

What do you think?

Photo by Ricardo Machado

Comments

Farmers markets keep the bioregion green and small, usually more biodiverse farms strong, plus you get much fresher seasonal produce with fewer transport impacts, convivality and open air refreshment.

Beyond food, see the BALLE website at LivingEconomies.org - it provides some other benefits of buying local:

In Bellingham, business leaders created a “Local First? campaign to encourage citizens to buy from locally owned businesses whenever possible to keep money circulating within the community.

In Vermont, members of the network employ 8 percent of the state’s workforce and lobby for increased support for renewable energy and healthcare.

Through its Social Venture Institute, the Philadelphia network trains new social entrepreneurs in the business skills they need to be successful.

In community after community, BALLE networks are proving that a coordinated group of locally owned companies can stand up to some of the harmful effects of globalization and foster the health and vitality of a region.

Find more online...there's no NYC chapter yet, but perhaps someone going to the upcoming national conference will get the ball rolling here. BTW, I'm on the Advisory Council, and see BALLE & its networks doing more on sustainability/Worldchanging issues all the time....

Posted by: Wendy Brawer on February 7, 2007 8:52 PM

So, from what you're saying, there are valid economic arguments for buying locally. The ecological improvements include greater diversity in local agriculture. But does this hold up for products across the board? As Amy notes, it may more atmospheric harm per pair of shoes to buy from a local maker than to buy a mass-produced pair at the discount store.

I agree that it's good to question the received wisdom of earlier generations.

Posted by: Emily Gertz on February 8, 2007 1:49 PM

As Wendy says, the whole 'buy local' movement goes way beyond the ecological footprint of a purchase (which it sounds to me you haven't looked at thoroughly anyhow) and lends itself towards creating viable, vibrant, local economies that are better-suited to a healthy, just, and sustainable world. In addition to locally owned businesses keeping that money local, they are also more rooted in the community and thus have a bigger stake and take on more responsibility.

Unfortunately current policy is set so heavily against small-scale local economies that we are subsidizing the oil-dependent, earth-ravaging globalization model. It's not ACTUALLY cheaper to ship that sneaker in from China (let alone the other human and environmental catastrophes involved). We just pay the cost in other ways than at the register. True-cost accounting would immediately reverse your perception of "cheap". You also seem to think that something being cheaper means its greener. You assume there's less emission involved in the mass-manufacture and global transport of that shoe... but what do you base this on?

Anyway, I recommend writing to the Ask Umbra section of Grist Magazine to get a more robust answer:
http://www.grist.org/advice/ask/2005/10/26/faqs/index.html

Posted by: Eli B. on February 9, 2007 12:18 AM

If you're really interested in the eco-nomics of buying local, I recommend checking out some of the analysis by the BioRegional folks. I'd lend you my copy of "BioRegional Solutions for living on one planet", but it's currently on loan in Virginia.

Anyway, as you pointed out with your straw man, some products are best made in bulk, even it it was far away. Another example would include microchips. The most obvious ecological advantage of buying locally is the reduction or elimination of transportation pollution. Food is one of the most obvious places where this shines, given its low market value per shipping energy required. The BioRegional folks have had some success localizing other sectors, such as paper and charcoal. Like food, these are inexpensive products that are heavy and/or bulky. If made in a 3rd world country, a huge percentage of their ecological footprint and retail cost comes from the transportation of these items. BioRegional is able to stay price competitive while using 1st world labor and realizing significant ecological benefits.

So, of course you're right, it's not always best to buy local. However, for the majority of our consumption (by pound and cubic foot, at least), it's far better to buy local.

Posted by: Jeremiah Blatz on February 10, 2007 8:35 AM

The buy local vs. global trade question is one of great interest. It s clearly not one or the other, all or nothing. Finding a delicate balance between what makes sense to buy locally, esp. food, and what might make more sense to buy from further afield is worth a deeper look. Nutmeg is certainly never going to be available locally in New England, nor is coffee or chocolate. But strawberries in January? Personal choice can't be denied. Regulation is a big part of this questioning process and sometimes the zealot can do more harm than good in promoting local production vs. a democratic/free society. The layers are multiple,to be sure. Good for the few vs. good for the many...

As for goods, I am a proponant of local production on many fronts and for myriad reasons. As a potter, I participate in production both as a satisfying vocation, one that I have been able to pursue over a lifetime. Developing a skill set rarer in the industrial mass production model we have enjoyed for 150 years must be continued. Mass production has raised the standard of living for more poeple in a shorter period of time than any other in history. China and India are begining to reap serious social benefits from industrial and mass production. But, here again, a local component must be integrated into social development in order to contiue to nurture cultural evolution. Young people may be more inspired by an economy that supports individual expression as well as industries which create the wealth necessary to provide markets for the handmade, the custom/bespoke quality of a master craftsmen and artist. Wealth is an important aspect of a culturally rich society and well being is certainly the antithesis of poverty.

Excellent start to very big qustion, Amy. I admire your willingness to look it in the eye.

Posted by: Mary Anne Davis on February 12, 2007 9:44 AM

I wanted to quickly comment on one thing that Amy said: "We know we can’t blindly trust the word “organic? when it’s printed on the side of a milk carton" I am absolutly not an expert on this matter, but maybe someone else who reads this can elaborate on the subject more. But from my understanding the Organic industry has very strict guidelines that actually make it difficult for a lot of farmers to certifiy their food, keeping them in a limbo of a "transition" period.

My mother owns a small dairy outside of Bellingham, WA. where they produce Organic Cheese and when the recent regulations passed on what was considered organic and what was not was a very politically charged debate within the organic community.

Again, I'm no expert, but I think you can be assured that when a milk carton says organic, it's about as organic as it can get in the Unite States.... unless someone else wants to correct me?

Posted by: faythe on February 12, 2007 2:06 PM

The author replies:

I have read that under USDA regulations an organic dairy farm can purchase cows that served on conventional farms (eating GM feed, taking BGH and antibiotics, etc.) and start producing "organic" product with little or no transition time. I wrote about this a while back in my blog:
http://greenjeansbrooklyn.blogspot.com/2006/07/consumer-culture-organic-buyer-beware.html

I suspect the culprits of these loophole squeezes are mostly large corporate-owned agribusiness feed lots, since organic farming isn't limited to small operations.

As it turns out, your comment points to a very good reason to buy food locally: you can ask the farmer directly about the source of the cows and not have to guess that the word "organic" means what you think it should!

Thank you!

Posted by: Amy on February 12, 2007 2:21 PM