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The Selfish Economics of Buying Local

2011 January 12

Numerous critics have argued that the success of the ‘buy-local’ campaign is due to it’s pathos; that the mantra ‘shop-local’ somehow strikes a chord with consumers on an emotional level that pertains to both community building and restoring the environment.

But let’s examine the core of the argument.  There are numerous lists of ’10 reasons to buy local’ all over the web, like this one at Sustainable Connections, an organization focusing on solutions for sustainable community building.  According to this and many other lists, the number one reason to buy local is to “support yourself.”

In fact, nearly all of these lists, with so much supposed pathos, seem to be saying the same thing: buying local will enrich your life, it won’t hurt the environment, and despite being forced to pay higher prices for what’s right around corner, the added expense is benefiting the community, and in the final analysis, worth the price.

Some other preachy, “farmy” arguments get away from the me factor, claiming that the chief reason to buy local is for the benefit of the farmer.  In this day and age, however, selfless rhetoric has little public sway.  Sustainable solutions have to start with the question: “what can sustainability do for you?”

This is precisely why corporations have hijacked the sustainability movement: because it has become me-oriented, it is susceptible to the rules that govern the relationship of a regular consumer transaction.  An exchange is inherent.  The purchase of something of value is given for something of equal value.  I buy into sustainability, and in return, I am given the image and label to appropriate as I see fit.

This formula has been further simplified by clever corporations so as to leave out the responsibility of the individual.  Instead of actually having to put in the effort of critical thought and behavioral change, one can simply purchase sustainability with money, and receive all the personal benefits thereof.  In this way, the process is streamlined and seamlessly integrated into our everyday lives; all revolutionary fervor, personal or universal, is lost.

The worst of it is, as with other propaganda campaigns of our time which have declared war on language and meaning, the corporatization of the words “local” and “sustainable” has stripped them of their nuances, transforming them into mere symbols, dangerously simplified representations of complex ideas that are now widely considered tautological rather than theoretical.

The disintegration of “local” has led to a number of strange, dominant imageries.  The most shocking might be the widely held fantasy of restoring a rustic, yet cosmopolitan community that apparently existed before industrialization, an impossibly harmonious cultured village life, which comes into being as soon as one converts to “localism.”   In a similar way, “sustainability” is purported to be an ever-after, an idea which suggests that if we put on our Jesuit caps and make the world realize that they’ve been in the wrong to globalize after all, we can save the environment and wake from this nightmare of landfills and oil spills and lead paint and smog.

The fallacy here is manifold: (1) there is no return without collapse, (2) things don’t change overnight, (3) globalization might be your enemy, but it’s not mine, (4) and neither is industrialization.

In many ways, the assumption that movements must have a me appeal to succeed is correct.  Given the commercial success of sustainability, this is clearly evident.  But there is a better way to be a me consumer and to leave big business out of the loop.

Many argue that buying local benefits community growth, but few bother to explain the logistics of how this process can better the local economy.  For many small merchants, the price of goods sold by big corporations forces them to keep prices low, though they still seem high when comparing big guy to little guy.  This means that the small business is sacrificing its profit margin in order to compete with a big producer, who is able to sacrifice their margin without thought, due to the scale of their sales.  Even if sales are low, in the case of a bad economy, the big corporation will not have to worry about going under.  Because of their price structure, if consumers are buying at all, it will be from the producer who has the lowest prices, which will be the corporation.

Here’s where things get interesting: the production for corporations on a large-scale necessarily sacrifices the quality of the product compared to the production scale of a small business.  This is due to several factors.  Producing on a large scale requires low labor costs, as well as low materials costs.  This is sometimes a contestable point, but what is inarguable is that the small business will produce a product that has a hand-crafted quality because of different production factors, whereas the corporation’s product will always seem more mechanically produced.

The assumption is that one will have to pay more for a higher quality product by going through a small merchant, and this is usually true.  But let us remember how a corporation is able to afford to lower their prices: by having an economy of scale.

Think about you favorite local merchant, whether they are a farm selling at your local market, or a clothing boutique, or a furniture store.  If they had a sudden injection of capital from local customers, switching from buying corporate to buying local, a number of things could happen.  Prices could quickly drop, though likely not lower than those of a corporation, because a larger economy of scale means that the margin can be covered by the volume.  In the same way, to be able to accommodate  such a demand, a small company will have to hire additional employees, thus giving money back to the local economy (for the sake of this exercise, let us consider that all of these changes will take place in the same locality, and not move abroad) and benefiting the economy on a larger scale by locally increasing jobs, and subsequently, increasing consumerism.

The injection of capital is also the mechanism that a company requires to increase the quality of their product.  Your local brewery will never produce better beer if you keep buying luxury imports (your local brewery also may never produce beer like a luxury import—the products are different—but the quality of local beer, which carries with it pride based on proximity, can increase dramatically with capital).

In many ways, one of the downfalls of the local movement is that local agricultural products are in many cases inferior products.  For many, this is a touchy subject, because there is so much pride involved in buying from local growers, or growing food for oneself.  However, based on scientific elements of the growing process for many plants, the soil is better, the climate is more hospitable, and the growing season is longer elsewhere.  The solution to this dilemma, though, is finding out what’s native; that is, what’s best when grown in your local area, paying close attention to the effect of the seasons.  In winter in the northeast, meat is what you should eat, along with root vegetables, pickles, and winter greens.  While this is most evident when considering food, it an important question across the board.  What textiles (if any) are made locally?  What are the major products of the area, and can I support these industries?

For many small businesses, the only mechanism for lower prices is a higher cash flow.  Luckily, this is also an investment in a better product and more local jobs, and keeps more money in the local economy, which has intrinsic benefits, like returning to you if you also work locally.  While the me factor seems like it’s becoming inescapable, there a number of compelling, selfish reasons to buy local.  Another reason which is native to this argument is that buying local can help take back “sustainable” from big corporations, capitalizing from our movement.  Maybe it’s okay to be selfish after all, if being selfish means taking back what was once yours in the first place.

7 Responses
  1. January 12, 2011

    This is a really interesting argument and one I have not heard before. Nice work!

  2. JimmyMack permalink
    January 13, 2011

    What are you kidding? Buying local kicks ass?
    Every weekend i walk through the farmer’s market in brooklyn with my g irlfriend and pick out the the biggest squashes, carrots, and sheep’s cheese. it is so fresh and organic and has none of that fucking peseticides.

    Who cares for larger economic pictures? Frankly (and most of my left leaning brethren believe this) that we need to get back to tribal societies, hunter gatherers! Corporations RUIEND this beautiful innocent planet!

  3. wkatzen permalink
    January 13, 2011

    Someone has read an “intro to economics” textbook and used it to reiterate and argue obvious and tangential points that things made by big businesses are cheaper. That’s true, but it does not in any way mean that people who attempt to buy locally or sustainably are “selfish.” The opposite is so obviously true that it just blows my mind that anybody could spend so many paragraphs working on such a diatribe.

    Also, cite your sources.

    • Thomas H. Hintze permalink
      January 13, 2011

      This is not an argument against people who are trying to buy local and sustainable, and you’ve missed the point if you think I’m labeling them selfish. I fully support the local economic movement. I’m arguing that for the movement to succeed on a large scale, it must appeal to people whose reasons for joining are selfish.

      I’ve actually never taken an economics course, I run a small business; my experience with these ‘intro’ strategies is first-hand, and my advice comes from my observations about how my company and other local merchants can generate more business.

  4. Emily Antonian permalink
    January 13, 2011

    This article examines the potential local businesses have to grow if they are supported by their communities. It’s not “hatin’ on local” or saying large factory production is the way to grow. It’s common sense, support a business, and they will have revenue to expand. It’s a great article!

  5. January 15, 2011

    I don’t see how a tomato that is picked green and sprayed with ethylene to ripen during transport is of higher quality than a tomato from the garden that ripens on the vine. I really don’t.

    I think you do hit the nail on the head by suggesting we eat according to one’s season and environment. Climate and season length all depend on the kind of plant you’re growing and each zone is better adapted for some plants over others. I think that’s a strength because it’s part of the reason we have regional cuisine and such rich culinary cultures all over the world. The difference between a warm and a cooler climate is why some regions focused on making wine while others made beer.

    I think localvores do understand that and they try to eat seasonally. If you subscribe to a CSA they can only give you whatever they are growing and that all depends on the season and the local environmental and soil conditions. Same goes with produce availability at a farmer’s market.

  6. Thomas H. Hintze permalink
    January 17, 2011

    That’s a great point about CSA’s and farmer’s markets, and this article is by no means an affront to locavores; eating locally can fit into everyone’s economic picture. There are some really obstinate folks out there, and it’s not enough to be getting a great product, they need more of an incentive to make the local switch. There has to be some type of ROI appealing to the ME audience, and when you look at your localism as an economic investment, it makes sense in the larger picture.

    Your point about tomatoes is taken, but how about growing apples in Louisiana? Potatoes in Texas? Of course it’s possible, I suppose, but the growing conditions and the soil is contradictory. There’s a better product elsewhere.

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