PHOTO: North Charleston/Flickr
With “Locally Grown” stickers on the products of grocery-store shelves, “[Fill in your state] Proud” labels at the farmers market and Small Business Saturday events, the buy local message is hard to avoid. But despite the rally around supporting the local economy, it’s important to think critically about whether choosing a locally produced item is really better than something grown or manufactured from afar—and this might happen for you on a product by product basis.
If you’re concerned, as I am, about environmental responsibility and human rights, buying locally allows you to carry out your values. Food produced locally travels fewer food miles, which reduces the use of resources required for transportation. U.S.-manufactured goods must follow basic labor laws that protect workers from unsafe and unsanitary conditions. The closer a grower or producer is to you, the more likely it is that you’ll visit or hear news about the company’s ethics, which you can choose to support or protest with your purchases.
Buying locally means everything to your local farmer, crafter or producer. These are people in your community who turn your dollars into tax revenue for schools and parks, support for local charities and improvements to the neighborhood. On average, small businesses recirculate money locally at three times the rate of national chains. Wealth built locally benefits the local community.
A couple hundred years ago, most items available for purchase were grown or made locally. They had to be, and as such, communities were drawn together by seasonal abundance and scarcity. Now, with advances in transportation, everything is available all the time. Apples from Chile, gourmet salt from Hawaii, and fresh fish from around the world can be had at any moment.
I believe that the astonishing number of choices presented to consumers often feels overwhelming and removes the special quality of seasonal living. When oranges were only available in the winter, they became a welcome treat in a Christmas stocking. Now that they are available year-round, families turn to more and more exotic fruits, like pomegranates, to create holiday cheer.
Stick with buying locally and you’ll truly appreciate when asparagus returns to season or tomatoes are abundant. You’ll be rewarded with a quality difference, too—fresh produce not subjected to cross-country shipping nearly always tastes better.
Some people take buying locally to an extreme, and this actually might not be better by many measures. Choosing a shoddily produced local tool instead of a high-quality European version will likely be frustrating and potentially dangerous. Those who limit their food sourcing to 100 miles deprive themselves of some of the best flavors—most Americans couldn’t drink coffee or tea! And it’s entirely possible that supporting a big-box store with strong employee rights might be morally advantageous if your other choice is a local business that mistreats labor.
Buying local food and goods can be a rewarding and enriching way to add mindfulness to consumption. What you find nearby is most often better quality and less resource-intensive, but it’s important to do your research so that you can continue to make purchases according to your values.