illustration by Daniel Horowitz

Benefits of Buying "Local"?

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

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.

illustration by Daniel Horowitz

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  • waterflaws denver

    Wow! Who's the שלעגער, Elizabeth!

    Editorial, "yes", objective and balanced "no", sensationalist "YES!".

  • Cinda Baxter

    What was I thinking, supporting my local, independently owned retail stores???

    Instead, we should collectively shun them so they have to close, forcing the owners to sell off assets for pennies on the dollar, putting them deeper in debt or bankruptcy...

    ...so that the landlord (also, likely local) can sit on an empty space for as long as his savings holds out, in hopes it can be leased to someone new during rough economic times....

    ....until he’s completely tapped out, unable to continue making payments (including property taxes), which forces the building into foreclosure or receivership...

    ...which then results in the bank (again, probably local) getting stuck with a piece of property that they really didn’t want, which drags down their numbers....

    Yeah, you’re right. Those locally owned stores are killing us. We should get rid of ‘em all before they allow any more prosperity to sully our neighborhoods and communities.

    (Don’t even get me started on the amount of money, volunteer hours, and non-profit support locally owned retailers contribute...what beasts....)

  • Jay Tatum

    Well, after all theses compelling lectures in blog, this issue really seems to have struck a nerve! Well done, Ms Spiers!

  • Arthur Brock

    Seriously? You think you've exploded any myths in this article? It seems you’ve just created your own new set of bloody ones. You’ve got the whole buy local thing backwards in far too many ways. By the way, it doesn't mean only "locals" are allowed in your store.

    Continuing your upside-down analysis, it's actually the large corporations who cut out the middlemen. They have their own direct-purchase supply chains, in-house legal/marketing/advertising, their own distribution channels, and typically high-volume, high-discount purchasing of imported goods.

    When you buy from a local restaurant, let's look at the kind of things they’re likely getting from a local supplier (your so-called middleman):
    - Local construction, remodeling, & labor
    - Furnishings and artwork
    - Kitchen appliances/equipment/cookware/dishware
    - Cleaning or rental of uniforms & linen
    - Legal advice
    - Accounting services
    - Marketing and advertising services, ad placement via local media
    - Locally grown food, local micro-brews, other local products

    When you buy from McDonalds, Starbucks or Wal-Mart you get... well... none of that. All of those things are provided through the main corporation channels. So not only does that money not go into the local economy, but the profits don't go to local owners and recirculate in the local economy either.

    Studies show that 300% to 500% percent more of your money stays in the local economy when spent at a local store. That's money for other local jobs that we don’t have to try to attract into the local economy again.

    It isn't about sounding like a quaint little company. You know all of your examples (Kashi, Muir Glen, Odwalla) started out as smaller, local enterprises and were acquired by those big corporations as a part of their local-washing, green-washing, organic-washing marketing strategies. Of course there have been many more like Ben & Jerry's, Horizon Dairy, etc. You can see a nice animation showing how the organic food industry has been gobbled up by the big corps at https://www.msu.edu/~howardp/o.... Not all the founders of those companies were thrilled about it either.

    Your article assumes that "buy local" is a kind of anti-corporatism. You realize that local businesses are corporations too, don’t you? You might consider that it's about relationship and responsibility. Can any business that is not rooted in some community ever be a responsible business? Consider the management of a large corporation far from the community in which they have a store. What kind of relationship do you think they have to local people? How can they be responsive to the needs of that community? How can people even communicate those needs and be heard?

    You call the "buy local" people bullies. Apparently you don't consider the behavior of large corporations like Wal-Mart, who aggressively underprice goods to put the small-town Main Street competition out of business, then raise their prices again after destroying the local economy and supply-chains. How exactly are the locals bullying the big guys again?

    It's a good thing those poor, bullied, multi-national corporations receiving tax-subsidies, international investments, higher profit margins, and record earnings have you to protect them from those bloodthirsty mom & pop shops. What a hero!

  • Kellee K. Sikes

    Different models like buying local, Organic, Green, etc help organizations and individuals get at responsible principles more easily, but the onus is still on each of us to be asking alert and precise questions that provide answers and change.

    In sharing the models and principals of socially responsible business and the conscious consumer, we ask organizations and individuals alike to consider Fair Trade principles when buying. When Fair Trade is not possible we suggest buying local in a context where you can talk with the retailer or producer who knows the provenance of the good or service.

    By speaking with someone local connected to a short and/or transparent supply chain, a conscious consumer can determine if they are participating in a fair trade. In its essence a fair trade should reflect true cost providing a living wage (not a sweatshop or slave labor wage) to all who had a hand in producing the good. A true cost also reflects care for a factors of environmental sustainability. This is complicated. For many of us it will require an evolution in the way we select and consume goods.

    Questions Conscious Consumers should ask:

    1 Transparency and Accountability: is it possible for me to learn where the materials to make the good came from and who made, transported, distributed, and retails the good? Can I contact anyone of these organizations if I want to learn more?

    2 Capacity Building: is this good helping to build the economies of where it is made and sold or is it holding those economies, workers, or consumers hostage in some way?

    3 Payment of a Fair Price: is each person in the process of making and getting this good to me paid a fair price in the local context agreed through dialogue and participation?

    4 Gender Equity: if women participate in this process, is women’s work is properly valued and rewarded?

    5 Working Conditions: is each person in the process able to work in a safe and healthy working environment?

    6 Child Labor: if children of working age are working, are the children’s well-being, security, educational requirements and need for play met?

    7 The Environment: is each person in the process of making and getting this good to me using and encouraging better environmental practices and responsible methods of production?

    8 Trade Relations: is each person in the process of making and getting this good to me being paid on time and able to learn what I am paying for the good as the end consumer if they choose to investigate?

    -- Adapted from the IFAT Fair Trade Principles by PTC

    If everyone began to participate in the conscious consumer movement by focusing on just one good each – would buying local be a focus? If everyone were being paid a fair trade wage, would buying local be a topic of discussion and concern? While you enjoy your next sip of coffee, in your favorite t-shirt and savor a nip of your favorite chocolate bar will it be at the expense of the chance for a happy and productive life for the grower, the habitat of an animal, or a school education for a child?

    ----- Kellee K. Sikes, serving social entrepreneurs and social enterprise

    The Business of Social Responsibility Fast Company magazine blog


  • Jay Tatum

    Interestingly, some of the few places left to buy local are the farmer's markets that set up at select places on the outskirts of town or along the roadsides. I suspect that even those that encourage "Buy Local First," recognize that in the global economy has developed to the point of taking no prisoners when it comes to sales. Even those faithful local producers that spent generations supplying the local communities with goods and services, sold out to the huge discount stores that "demand" their goods and services. It is almost like "The Little Shop of Horror" or a really bad addiction that takes over when it comes to the delicate balance between the local shopkeepers and the local producers. Everybody wants to make a profit to remain in business, they just don't want to compete with someone who has a better business plan. At some point we will awaken from our long ignorant slumber and discover that the global village market is more normative than the mistaken belief that we are alone without competition. And while this may seem completely out of place, the next time you go to fill up you vehicle with gasoline at the last bastian of locally owned gas stations, ask from where their gas supply comes.

  • Mike Worthington

    It's too simplistic to assume that buying local "reduces transportation costs and environment-destroying, energy-wasting long hauls". Goods transported by long haul are transported in bulk which can be more energy efficient. It is often possible to source goods from the other side of the globe and still consume less energy per pound of goods delivered than can be achieved by sourcing locally.

  • Megan DaGata

    Buying locally is a goal I think many people have, but I don't think that financially many people can afford it. They need to have a fairly awesome farmer's market and meat market closeby and in Houston, in all of Houston, there are only a handfull of these markets. Everything else is bought and sold at large chain stores and sold for much less.
    We do have the option of shopping at HEB stores which buy and stock only local produce and import only a fraction of what we can't grow in Texas. This keeps the money in our economy and not elsewhere while maintaining the products that we have grown to expect from the larger national chains.
    Another option is the local Mexican markets that only stock local produce and meats because of their reduced wholesale price, but then half the money you spend at the store isn't even staying in our country. While someone seemingly local did benefit in it, the profit is being shipped south of our border.

  • Michael Shuman

    Elizabeth, let me offer an apology on behalf of locavores across the country. We're truly sorry you were made to feel bad about your shopping habits. You should never have to "risk a condescending eye roll when I protest, 'It's a cheaper and identical tomato.'"

    But, methinks you protest too much.

    You may "see exclamation-mark-laden signs in neighborhood stores that 'I buy local,'" but these kinds of signs are actually increasingly rare. The more common phrase is "Think Local First," deployed precisely to calm folks like yourself who have limited resistance to Big Box temptations.

    We don't seek perfection. We just want you to become a smarter shopper, to find cheaper produce that's also locally grown, to realize that your Starbucks latte is almost never your cheapest cup of Joe (or, in New York City, remotely your tastiest), and to make modest shifts in your purchasing behavior that can benefit your personal and your community's bottom lines.

    Elizabeth, I'm disappointed you didn't talk to a single person who promotes local when writing your piece. I don't know how else to explain the absence of "Think Local First" from your discussion. Plus, you don’t seem to know what "local" means.

    "The emotional tenor," you write "is much more about shunning corporate behemoths. If the farmer next door happens to be Monsanto, you rethink buying local." But local business refers to local ownership, not proximity.

    And where do you get economic arguments like the following? "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 [...] nonlocal. Nor are the recipients of its property taxes or many of the vendors that service it."

    Elizabeth, research was apparently not your best subject at school. No problem. Let's review some studies that carry more weight than your opinion....

    FOR MORE OF THIS REBUTTAL, CHECK OUT http://www.small-mart.org/fast...

  • Anthony Nicalo

    The real "challenge" for the consumer can only be solved by truly understanding the provenance of goods. Often, it makes more sense to support a small farm that might be outside of your neighborhood. Especially when considering products that have been traded for millenia and travel well- spices, wine, cured meats, etc. These are often made by small farms in harmony with nature and with love.

  • Jason Northerg

    I can't even tell if you're joking when you point out that the cashier at the big box retailer is local. Most of the money is not going to that worker. Most of the money is going out to the corporate owners and investors. And they're not generally living in my local community. When I support a local store, I'm directly supporting the people I can actually meet and live with. When I buy food grown by local farmers, I'm supporting folks more near to my environs. And the environmental cost of flying products all over the world is very significant.

  • Eric A. Aldrette

    I don’t think is fair enough to reduce the reality that is happening in many communities trough the country to simplistic economic and environmental benefits like you described “…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”. Or “…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.”

    In our experience is also the desire to preserve the character and uniqueness of our community that really had motivated community leaders, business owners and non-profit organization to come together and collectively unify our voice to participate more effectively in the re-development process that is currently underway in our community. The future of the diverse independent and family owned businesses hangs in the balance.

  • Paula Hay

    Many studies have been conducted that demonstrate conclusively that purchasing from locally-owned businesses does circulate more money through the local economy and makes the local pie higher. Many of these are archived at the