Is buying local always best?
Small shops and farmers benefit. But that may be outweighed by cost to other parts of the world.
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.Skip to next paragraph
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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 this year marked the week of July 4 as "Celebrate Your Independents Week," stickers reading "I Bought Local" have become a popular statement of dissent against proliferating chains.
As these efforts gain momentum, "buy local" activists are increasingly 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 at the Minneapolis-based Institute for Local Self-Reliance and author of "Big 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 going to know if there are 11-year-olds working in that factory," she says.
Others, however, question on an ethical level the wisdom of maximizing local production and consumption. A local focus can breed an unhealthy provincialism and lead to practices that harm both the environment and 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 Globalization."
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 be a dream job there" in Bangladesh, Mr. Clark says. "But all that goes out 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 are at odds over buying local. Whether the benefits to small-scale, domestic producers and merchants outweigh the costs to the world's poor and the environment is a matter of spirited debate. In the end, conscientious 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 local 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 grown on 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.