The five Ws of buying local, Part 1

The five Ws of buying local, Part 1

In their last Business News update, Rivermark Community Credit Union encourages me to consider how my purchases support local businesses and to buy local. Of course, buying local features prominently in sustainable marketing, so my credit union calling to buy local got me thinking. Why is buying local good? Just what is local? Are there any rules to buying local? I decided to take a closer look.

(As with everything, buying local can be argued both ways, and while I lean strongly in favor of buying local, I can’t overlook its shortcomings. Hence 5W+1H over two posts.)

WHY buy local?

There are essentially three arguments for buying local. First, buying local means more money stays and circulates in your community, supporting jobs and tax revenue. According to one Oregon economist, a “dollar spent at a locally owned store is usually spent 6 to 15 times before it leaves the community. From $1, you create $5 to $14 in value within that community. Spend $1 at a national chain store, and 80% leaves town immediately.” I’ve seen variations of these statements circulating in my community.

Of course, when national chains locate their stores in your community, they employ local people and do business with local suppliers or vendors. Which they do on a much bigger scale than your neighborhood store. So while your dollar may not be circulated as much when you buy chain, some spillover from chain activity definitely exists. Nevertheless, local does seem to hold the advantage here.

Perhaps the most tangible benefit of buying local is said to be energy and resource savings from reduced transportation. Distance may not be the main consideration, however. For example, shipping a wine bottle from Chile to LA by ship has lesser footprint than trucking one from Napa. Or, I hear, driving to my local store for a head of lettuce makes for a bigger footprint per that item than when that same item is shipped from Southern California (for the record, we grow lettuce in our back yard). Again, scale is the issue here, as is the transportation part of the total product life cycle.

  1. Buying local may actually have less to do with an actual financial or ecological impact than with the symbolism of sticking it to the faceless corporation. Let me rephrase: Buying local cultivates economic diversity and healthy neighborhoods. It feels good – more authentic – to know the actual person who grew or made what you buy, or at least their story. Being a part of a community where your stuff comes from provides for closer connections to your neighbors and for a greater sense of responsibility to them. Buying local is an identity thing.

WHERE is local?

The major issue with buying local is determining what local is, both in terms of product origins and of the point of sale. Clearly, local relates to geography: local is here, in my community, as opposed to someplace else. But how far does local stretch?

I once asked the buyer of New Seasons Market, which is Portland’s show case of a sustainable locally-owned and locally-sourcing business, what local means to them. He couldn’t give me a straight answer, settling finally on defining local as, “as close as we can get it”. They do follow this rule, but questions remain.

Initiatives like the 100-Mile Diet have attempted to put a metric on local. Once again, how local does a place 100 miles away feel? Is an item from 101 miles away no longer local? What if I buy something from the farm down the road at Costco? It’s an arbitrary, round number that’s easy to sell.

Therein lies the main flaw of buying local. Local is whatever you want it to be; if I’m a citizen of the world, the whole world is local for me. As with the reasons for buying local, the location of local may be a mindset. Moreover, if you were to forgo purchasing non-local items or items from non-local companies, whatever either may be, what would life look like?

It seems to be much easier to determine what local isn’t, or where not to buy it. Multinational corporations: not local. But isn’t Wal-Mart local in Bentonville, Arkansas? Chain stores: not local. But isn’t every store located in a local community of some kind?

One of Oregon’s two Fortune 500 companies Nike (NYSE: NKE) has a Beaverton, Oregon, address – a Portland suburb. I suspect the proponents of buying local would hardly endorse my buying Nike products, even if I bought them at the employee store. Local seems to include both supply chains and total ownership.

The “non-local” companies have recognized the power of local and attempted to co-opt it for their marketing. The most obvious examples of huge corporations using the local angle in sales and promotions have sparked charges of local-washing.

Local is probably headed the same way as natural or green (or sustainable, for that matter): an overused, devalued, and meaningless buzzword.

Next up: WHO, WHAT, WHEN and HOW of buying local.


This commentary can be found originally at: Sustainable Marketing Blog by Peter Korchnak.  Better triple bottom line.