Editor’s Note: Find out why buying local food as often as you can is a great idea.
Buying local is all the rage, but it means different things to different people. Learn what being a locavore means to the economy, the environment, your health, and your community to find out where you fall on the go-local scale.
Sometimes trends become so popular so fast that we don’t have time to figure out what they actually mean and if they’re a good idea. Buying local is the perfect example. It’s so roll-off-the-tongue catchy that it’s become synonymous with supporting the economy, environment, and community. And if you’re talking about food, it sounds healthy, too. But just what does it really mean?
“Belonging or relating to a particular area or neighborhood, typically exclusively so” —Google
Definitely vague. What’s a “particular area?” Is it a district? A city? How big a city? What about a province or state? What about a country or even a continent?
For better or worse, vague definitions are dependent on context. To me, going local is eating food from nearby farmers; to you, it could be buying things from your neighbor’s store; to someone else, it’s investing in Canadian start-ups. Our definitions are based on our experiences, our desires, and our exposure to marketing. It’s okay that our perspectives are different, though, because “local” varies from place to place. It has to – by definition.
Now that we know that we’re working with a moving definition, we can take a more flexible view of how going local might affect our economy, our environment, our community, and our health.
Big Business vs. Mom and Pop
Big box stores come with appealing benefits: cheaper prices, a greater choice of products, and a consistent look, feel, and quality across the country – even around the world. They also employ local people, use local services, pay local taxes, purchase local supplies, and make donations to local communities. Sounds pretty local. But the difference between a chain and a locally owned and operated company is the proportion of money that stays local, how quickly money is circulated, and the number of local jobs it creates.
Thinking Outside the Big Box
Unsurprisingly, independent companies spend a higher proportion of their money locally, but how would they increase the number of local jobs and wages? Because while independent stores may employ a smaller number of people than the big chains, they also channel money to other local companies – suppliers, accountants, lawyers, marketers, and website developers. Chains usually take care of these jobs at headquarters and funnel the profits to shareholders, so fewer locals get their hands on the money (unless they’ve invested in the company, of course). So while it’s nice to buy that doodad for a bit less at a chain, a similar doodad bought at the farmers’ market might reap unseen and indirect benefits.
The globalization of the economy has meant that we can get our hands on almost anything, even if it’s produced on the other side of the world. This has expanded our culinary and technological horizons immensely, but at a cost. There’s always a cost. In this case, it’s the environmental cost of moving products across vast distances.
Shipping by air is by far the worst polluter. But it’s a very popular method, because we not only want things from the other side of the world, we want them yesterday. In contrast, shipping by truck, train, and sea leave a smaller carbon footprint. Ultimately the best choice would be to walk down to the public orchard and pluck an apple off a tree, but that’s unrealistic. To find the right balance, investigate your purchasing options and consider the environmental cost along with the sticker price.
Economies of Scale and Carbon Footprints
Remember those appealing prices at the big box stores? One of the main reasons they can undercut the little guys is because they buy and ship in bulk. The more they buy, the cheaper it is, and for a worldwide chain, that translates into a serious discount. Big businesses are able to leverage their size to reduce the cost per unit produced to a very low level. Because consumers will always pay a base price for everything they buy (affected by supply and demand), these cost savings will only positively affect the company’s finances. As you can see in the illustration on economies of scale, this principle results in profits ballooning as production increases.
The space between the line of “price consumer pays”, and “cost per unit for the company,” is the profit margin for the company. The incentive to increase production exists because profits will increase at a decreasing rate. The prime level of production lies just as the curve flattens out – profits are maximized and no more production is needed.
Economies of scale are good in principle, and the company is not to be blamed for being successful. The choice simply lies with the consumer. Now that you know the money you spend at these big businesses is being directed elsewhere, and that local business will retain more money in the local economy, you can wisely choose where you spend your hard earned dollars.
Yet, if individuals were to join forces to increase their buying power, we would see the same scale principle help out consumers. That’s why purchasing co-ops are so popular. Buying in bulk with your community saves money and reduces the environmental load. But the biggest factor contributing to environmental cost is simply the distance travelled. The carbon footprint per unit from big business could potentially be much lower than what Joe and Jane Local could achieve for the same item, but as you can see in the illustration below, that doesn’t end up being the case.
This is because of globalized trade, which big business has the power to leverage, and as in the case below, the local seller often does not. Globalization can mean that some regions will have advantages over others when it comes to producing goods, manufacturing, and services. For example, Idaho has a great advantage for producing potatoes. That is why its farmers send them all over the world. But when you live 2,000 miles away from Idaho, that potato has clocked a lot of road time, and a lot of emissions, to get to you. And, that potato may only be available at chain supermarkets. With local businesses, you will probably have the option of purchasing items that did not travel halfway around the world to get to you. The closer the source to the destination, the lower the overall carbon footprint will be, even if the mode of transport is less efficient.
Going local can apply to all kinds of businesses and products, but one of the most common is food. One-hundred-mile diets (which are more practical in some places than others!), CSAs, and farmers’ markets are the pride of every locavore, but is locally grown food really healthier, or just lower impact? Food goes through the same process from farm to table whether it’s local or from a distant industrial farm. The difference in food quality lies in the details of implementing the production process. Here’s a look at the stages of food production and some of the decisions along the way that can affect food quality.
For food, time is nutrients. So while there are no guarantees that the farmers at the market have superior produce, the deck is certainly stacked in their favor.
Everyone’s a Local
One aspect of the local movement is the intangible effect of building and linking communities. Networking is big business and it’s crucial for little business, too. But you don’t have to buy local to be a local. By getting involved and engaging with your community, you can strengthen the bonds that support your community, which will help strengthen your city, your province or state, and your country in turn. Everyone’s a local, but for some, engaging in the community and feeling like a local can be difficult. Here are some ideas to get started.
- Participate in a community garden
- Attend community events and festivals
- Visit that new local shop
The Big Picture
We are a global society, but we spend our time on a very small portion of that globe. So while it’s important to reap the benefits of what the entire world has to offer, we still need to keep one eye in our back yard. Local and global are not mutually exclusive. Buying local can do global good by building strong communities from the ground up. What we want to find is the balance between local and global that will keep the economy, environment, and communities healthy as life goes on. What we want is sustainability.
Sustainability is not a trend, it’s a necessity. Buying local is simply the message behind a greater goal of a sustainable future. It’s one part of the answer to the questions of how to maintain job growth, food quality, and community engagement while reducing pollution. So, check out that new vendor down the street who might hire your son as their accountant, buy your broccoli at the farmers’ market and ask how the drive was, and give what you can to your community so it can give back to you in kind. Start buying in to buying local.
Andrea Moore is a keen traveler and has studied biology, languages, and sailing. She works in Halifax, Nova Scotia, as a marine biologist, writer, and editor.