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Benefits of Buying "Local"?

Exploding the myths, presumptions,
and pretensions of the "buy local" bullies.

illustration by Daniel Horowitz
illustration by Daniel Horowitz

One of my favorite British sitcoms of the last decade, The League of Gentlemen, features the characters Edward and Tubbs, a couple that owns a local shop descriptively but unimaginatively called the Local Shop. "Are you local?" they inquire ominously when prospective customers enter to browse. "This is a local shop for local people." Inevitably, in nearly every episode, the customer is an out-of-towner, and the couple murders him in a grisly fashion — for not being local.

Maybe it's from too much exposure to the show, but when I see exclamation-mark-laden signs in neighborhood stores demanding that I "buy local," I can't help but think that death and dismemberment are implied if I don't buy the sweater knit by area hipsters or locally grown produce. At the very least, I risk a condescending eye roll when I protest, "It's a cheaper and identical tomato."

The ostensible economic benefits of buying local are fairly simple: It cuts out the middleman, puts more money into the local economy, and reduces transportation costs and environment-destroying, energy-wasting long hauls.

The best defense of buying local is probably the last one. I'm not going to argue that energy conservation isn't better for everyone. Except, well, long-haul truck drivers.

The other arguments fall apart easily enough under the pressure of a gentle poking with comfy pillows (to borrow another British comedy motif). For starters, the middleman doesn't live in Middle Earth. He's often local and dependent upon large companies with better economies of scale to provide him with products he can afford to buy wholesale and for which there is a large enough market to resell profitably.

As for local money staying in the local economy, when you walk into your least-favorite national chain store, no one working behind the counter is likely to be, as Edward and Tubbs would sneer, nonlocal. Nor are the recipients of its property taxes or many of the vendors that service it.

In urban enclaves such as my neighborhood in Brooklyn, where people are overeducated and generally have liberal sympathies, the buy-local hordes seem completely oblivious to much of the actual local economy, which is partially, if not mostly, supported by the companies the movement most enjoys deriding. The same people who are horrified by the xenophobic implications of "buy American" campaigns also engage in a different sort of provincialism when it comes to their own consumption choices.

Why? Let's face it, much of the buy-local movement has nothing to do with geography. The emotional tenor, at least, is much more about shunning corporate behemoths. If the farmer next door happens to be Monsanto, you rethink buying local. What buying local really means is buying boutique-branded artisanal products that are crafted with tender loving care by actual human beings.

Or that merely appear to be. Witness the success of the slightly-more-expensive-but-supposedly-made-with-love-by-seemingly-small-companies Muir Glen, Kashi, and Odwalla — owned by General Mills, Kellogg, and Coca-Cola, respectively. Large corporations certainly aren't unaware of local appeal and are happy to exploit it as a marketing tool. Every gargantuan retail-financial institution in the country declares itself your "friendly neighborhood bank." And one of the first steps in Starbucks's reinvention was to put signs on the door that say, "Come in for the neighborhood's best espresso."

The challenge for the socially conscious consumer is to determine whether a "local" purchase actually achieves what it's supposed to achieve — a decision that should be made without fear of death and dismemberment.

A version of this article appeared in the June 2008 issue of Fast Company magazine.

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