from the July 24, 2006 edition -
Is buying local always best?
Small shops and farmers benefit. But that may be outweighed by
other parts of the world.
By G. Jeffrey MacDonald | Correspondent of The Christian Science
To buy or not to buy from local farmers, stores, and craftspeople -
that is the moral question. It's stirring sharp debate about what it
means to do the right thing at the cash register.
The question has roots in a fast-growing "buy local" movement. About
36 cities and towns, from Seattle to Salt Lake City to Tampa, Fla.,
have over the past five years adopted systems to label and promote
locally owned businesses. Since 1999, about 5,000 farms have
registered with LocalHarvest.org, a website that connects consumers
with their local growers. In Austin, Texas, where local merchants
year marked the week of July 4 as "Celebrate Your Independents
stickers reading "I Bought Local" have become a popular statement of
dissent against proliferating chains.
As these efforts gain momentum, "buy local" activists are
arguing that their cause is about more than preserving a place's
unique character. It's also a moral issue, they say, because local
businesses are more visible and therefore more accountable on issues
from employment to the environment than are competitors with
headquarters and operations in faraway places.
"If it's done locally, you have some sense of what the ethics are of
its production" methods, says Stacy Mitchell, senior researcher
Minneapolis-based Institute for Local Self-Reliance and author of
Box Swindle: The True Cost of Mega-Retailers and the Fight for
America's Independent Businesses."
For instance, if goods "are produced in our community, we're
know if there are 11-year-olds working in that factory," she says.
Others, however, question on an ethical level the wisdom of
local production and consumption. A local focus can breed an
provincialism and lead to practices that harm both the
the poor in developing nations, according to John Clark, a social
development specialist for East Asia at the World Bank and author of
"Worlds Apart: Civil Society and the Battle for Ethical
For example, he notes, an estimated 50,000 Bangladeshi children lost
precious garment industry jobs as a result of a 1996 boycott by
Western shoppers who sought other sources for clothing. An ethic of
buying local, he says, runs the risk of multiplying similar, albeit
unintended, consequences overseas. "What are sweatshops to us may
dream job there" in Bangladesh, Mr. Clark says. "But all that
the window if we only buy local.... I think we need more
sophistication than just, 'buy local.' "
On multiple fronts, advocates of consumer-driven social change
odds over buying local. Whether the benefits to small-scale,
producers and merchants outweigh the costs to the world's poor
environment is a matter of spirited debate. In the end,
consumers may need to choose a group to support, whether it's local
shopkeepers or foreign craftspeople or someone else, and then find
effective channels to put dollars in their pockets. If the planet is
the chosen cause, the task involves deciphering the true impact
systems are having on the environment.
On the environmental issue, "buy local" proponents argue that their
approach is ecofriendly. That's because the average plate of food on
an American dinner table travels about 1,500 miles from points of
harvest, according to Aley Kent, Northeast field coordinator for
Heifer International. People concerned about global warming and high
fuel costs, she says, can do the world a favor by buying food
farms within 50 or 100 miles of where they live.
"Maybe we might not be as dependent on a fossil-fuel economy for our
food" if Americans make a point to buy it locally, Ms. Kent says.
But here critics push back. Thanks to superefficient shipping
the amount of fuel used per unit of food is "minuscule," says Alex
Avery, director of global food research at the Hudson Institute in
Washington, D.C. He suggests the best way to minimize
agriculture-related emissions is to buy food from the world region
where it grows best.
"Efficiency is what makes the difference for the environment,"
it reduces total carbon output, Mr. Avery says. "If you can leave an
acre wild [by making other acreage more efficient], that's a
Clark takes the point one step further. He says biases in favor of
local production techniques can lead not only to wasteful energy
systems such as growing bananas in domestic hothouses, but also to a
mistaken idea that techniques most familiar to consumers are also
If local farmers "are using tractors, as they most certainly will
then probably right from the start that means the food is less
efficient in terms of oil use than hand-plow or ox-plow
a developing country," Clark says. "And so it can be very
say that because it's local, it's avoiding all of these problems."
Whether buying local brings more social benefit than detriment is
another point of contention. Proponents of the practice insist it is
critical for maintaining strong communities, connected by
shops and sustained by their region's crops, in an age of
fragmentation and alienation from one another.
A lack of connectedness "is probably why we have so much
says Guillermo Payet, founder and president of LocalHarvest, an
Internet-based clearinghouse where small-scale farmers and consumers
find one another.
To the notion that farmers overseas likewise need American
keep their communities strong, Mr. Payet counters with recollections
from his native Peru: "Stuff that's grown for export just goes to
enrich the elites down there."
What's more, Ms. Mitchell says, to patronize local businesses is to
support those companies that give most generously, per dollar in
revenue, to local charities. The practice also enhances diverse
thinking in a community because it supports retailers who carry
movies, and music that aren't available in national chain stores.
Others, however, wonder about the cost - in terms of Americans' ties
to foreign communities - of shunning goods made far away and, in
cases, marketed via national chains. Among those concerned is Roy
Jacobowitz, senior vice president for development and communications
at Acción International, a Boston-based nonprofit lender to
micro-entrepreneurs in developing nations.
"The 'buy locally' argument is an isolationist argument, which I
is a dangerous one," Mr. Jacobowitz says. The danger, he says, comes
in shutting the door to the reality: "Poor entrepreneurs in the
emerging world need the opportunity to sell into markets that can
fair prices for their goods." But if American consumers insist on
buying local, he says, dreamers in the developing world will never
reach their goals.
Voices in this debate admit few consumers stick 100 percent to any
shopping policy. Avery, for instance, believes in supporting
large-scale agricultural efficiencies, but he also supports one
local cattle ranchers near Stanton, Va., by joining three neighbors
and buying all the meat from one steer each year. But although he's
intentionally supporting a local farm, he admits it isn't for
"I don't want to see the Shenandoah Valley become another northern
Virginia" in terms of converting farmland to development, he says.
"It's very selfish. Am I really acting ethically if I'm acting