“Buy local” has become an increasingly popular mantra in North America. It is often both a social statement and a matter of preference for goods that happen to be locally produced. This has often spilled over into advocacy against large retail chains and foreign made products. The motivations are typically environmental and economic concerns. However, those arguments are very debatable. But there are some purely self-interested reasons why people probably should buy local, at least on occasion.
In response to this growing “locavore” movement, many commentators warn that the pushback against products that aren’t grown, made, or sold locally can have negative unintended consequences.
For example, in The Locavore’s Dilemma, Pierre Desrochers and Hiroko Shimizu wrote that “locavorism can only result in higher costs and increased poverty, greater food insecurity, less food safety, and much more significant environmental damage”.
That sounds counterintuitive until we consider that large scale farming can often produce more food per acre of land while using less energy per output than small scale farming and that having global trade networks distributing food from all over the planet frees people from the vagaries’ of local crop conditions. We shouldn’t starve because there’s a local drought. International networks create resilience.
While consumers shouldn’t simply accept their arguments without further scrutiny, they should more critically evaluate the idea that local is always better.
Even if we don’t accept the environmental and economic arguments for buying local products or shopping at locally owned retail stores, there are at least three selfish reasons why we should buy locally at least sometimes (for those of who can afford to).
Firstly, shopping at local stores helps maintain more convenient amenities. For instance, it is very nice to have a small convenience store in one’s residential neighbourhood (though modern zoning has rendered them increasingly rare). The ability to walk a few hundred meters to pick up a missing ingredient while cooking is a valuable amenity. These stores can only keep the doors open if they have customers.
Second, sometimes local products really are better. A tomato from a local farmers’ market is often better than the tomatoes from a supermarket. Even manufactured products are often better when consumed locally. For instance, many types of beer don’t travel well. Some brewers even forbid sales of their products outside of a small radius. Since hops degrade fairly rapidly, they are concerned that selling beer across the continent will ruin their reputations. And going back to the first argument, having good local breweries and farmers markets are also nice amenities. Moreover, when people are selling their own products, they often take extra care to ensure that they are providing the best quality possible.
Third, buying local often just feels good. Ordering coffee from a barista who has opened her own shop is a more pleasant experience than lining up at a chain coffee shop, as is buying produce right from a farmer rather than picking it off of a pile at a supermarket. Buying directly from someone who has built her own business is gratifying. Their sense of pride and accomplishment is contagious. While we shouldn’t let our emotions get in the way of rational public policy, we have every right as consumers to follow our hearts.
Of course, there are some items that it rarely makes sense to buy at a local shop if you can avoid it. Big box stores like Costco, Walmart, and Superstore can sell bulk paper and canned goods at prices that save consumers hundreds of dollars annually. People shouldn’t feel ashamed of saving money. Especially those who can least afford to pay twice as much for a can of beans or a loaf of bread.
Public policy often nudges us towards or away from various purchasing decisions. But ultimately, it is up to consumers to determine where to spend their money as they see fit. And sometimes buying local just makes consumers better off. That is why local produce, coffee, and beer are booming. Appealing to people’s self-interest will do more to encourage them to buy local than appealing to potentially misplaced fears.