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.

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, 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.

But here critics push back. Thanks to superefficient shipping systems, 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," because it reduces total carbon output, Mr. Avery says. "If you can leave an acre wild [by making other acreage more efficient], that's a conservation tool."

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 ecofriendly.

If local farmers "are using tractors, as they most certainly will be, then probably right from the start that means the food is less energy efficient in terms of oil use than hand-plow or ox-plow production in a developing country," Clark says. "And so it can be very deceptive to 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 neighborhood 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 depression," 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 dollars to 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 books, 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 some 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 think 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 pay 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 of his 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 ethical reasons.

"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 selfishly?"

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