The Lure of Local
Buying local means keeping bucks in your community, and building community while you spend.
Wednesday, November 23, 2011
Where do you shop? It sounds like an innocent question, but depending on the answer – and the asker – it’s loaded.
The question can imply judgment: The person asking really doesn’t care where you found your over-the-knee wedge-heel boots. She’s just looking for a soapbox upon which to spout self-righteous sound bites. Then again, sometimes it is just about the boots.
However, we do put our money where our priorities lie. If we value something, we support it with our pocketbooks. To gain an accurate insight into what we feel is important, look at the businesses, products and services to which we give our hard-earned cash. If we care about our communities, it makes sense we’d want to back local shops, farmers and contractors with our business.
And in addition to bragging rights or self-congratulations, buying local nets any number of benefits. There are the obvious economic ones – it keeps local dollars in the local community – and the not-so-obvious social benefits, like knowing your neighbors and feeling ownership in your community. It’s not always easy, or cheap – or even 100 percent possible. But that doesn’t mean it’s not worth trying.
“It’s like the dilemma of buying organic, or those people who say if you can’t bicycle every day, then why even try?” says Iris Peppard, executive director of Everyone’s Harvest, which runs farmers markets in Monterey County. “It’s not about doing everything perfectly, but rather choosing the lesser of the evils. If you are able to purchase something from somebody who is working to start their own local business but they are selling things from China, then I do think that is a better choice than buying from Walmart because it’s at least letting people in the community start a business, create jobs and make their own choices – and they have more choices then they would, say, working for Walmart.”
Some items – like food – are more straightforward. (And for the purposes of this article, “local” means Monterey County, whether you live in Prunedale or Big Sur.) Buying Schoch cheese at Star Market or padrón peppers at the farmers market supports local dairy farmers, growers and business-owners. But things get more complicated when it comes to other goods and services. It begs the question: What exactly does shopping local mean? Are you shopping local if you buy clothes from a locally owned boutique downtown Monterey that sells emerging designers based in San Francisco? How about if you buy clothes from a local designer, but she uses materials manufactured overseas? Or what if you buy locally grown veggies from a behemoth like Walmart?
There are two pieces to shopping local, says Brad Barbeau, Ph.D., professor of economics and entrepreneurship at CSU Monterey Bay.
“One is whether the products you are purchasing are local and the other is whether the vendor you are buying from is locally owned,” he says. “If you’re buying local products from a locally owned vendor, more of the money is going to stay locally than if you’re buying local products from Walmart. ”
When it comes to shopping in the community, think about services, too, says Salinas Valley Chamber of Commerce CEO Tom Carvey. Buying local involves more than just goods; it’s employing local professionals, too.
“Participate in the local economy,” he says. “That extends to services offered by contractors, designers and other people involved in professional services. It makes a lot of sense to operate within the local community. It increases our sales tax revenue, our tax base.”
In addition to the economic benefits of supporting local builders, for example, there are some practical, get-plans-through-the-pipeline pluses, too, Carvey adds. They know the local building codes, permitting processes and neighborhood characters.
“There are solid benefits to dealing with local contractors and building designers because they know the terrain, the geography, there’s not a template being imposed on a certain area by a designer,” Carvey says. “There’s an understanding of the culture of an area, there’s a chronology, a sense of history that they can put into context. You’re more likely to find that locally than out of town.
“There’s also a naïveté on our part, assuming a San Francisco agency is an expert by virtue of the fact that they are from San Francisco, and we forget to look next door. This really is an intellectual hub and we need to take advantage of that rather an assuming there is superior intellect somewhere else.”
Recently, Carvey blasted the Occupy Wall Street movement via the Chamber’s e-newsletter and instead encouraged readers to occupy local businesses: “The Occupy Wall Street folks have an anti-corporate point of view. Yet they use their cell phones, thanks to Motorola, Inc.; their iPhones, thanks to Apple, Inc.; texting capabilities, thanks to Verizon Wireless, Inc., to spread their message. They are missing the point. It’s understandable that people feel alienated from the power centers, especially when jobs are nearly impossible to find. But the real message is that during times of economic stress, we need to stick together. That’s why the chamber continues to emphasize the need to buy local, and support local businesses. Do your part; occupy local businesses and thereby boost the local economy.”
By now, there’s probably some head-scratching, brow-furrowing and hmmm-ing happening (even among those of us typing away on our MacBooks and texting on our iPhones before donning Nikes and hopping in our Hondas to buy groceries at Whole Foods). The chamber, calling itself a locavore? How can Carvey et. al. defend Walmart, then don Team Local T-shirts and cheer for local business? But he’s got a point, similar to Peppard’s: it’s about supporting the local economy as much we can – within limits of feasibility and sanity.
Carvey tells a story about an undergrad at UC Santa Cruz. The student, Carvey says, told him, “‘We decided we wanted everything in the cafeteria to be grown locally. But then we discovered we liked bananas.’ Any theory taken to extreme becomes ridiculous. There are limitations to buy local.”
They don’t grow bananas in Santa Cruz and they don’t grow wheat in Salinas. Barbeau says limits to shopping local come down to basic economic theory.
“The basic principle is, trade is good,” he says. “We all benefit from trade. And the idea is, if goods can be produced more efficiently at a lower cost elsewhere, is it a good idea to pay extra to buy them from an inefficient local producer versus buying from an external producer and then doing what we do well – efficiently – and selling that to others outside the area. That’s the argument everybody gains from trade because each area specializes in what it does best.”
As an example: we don’t grow wheat in the Salinas Valley because we don’t have the right climate. But we do have a climate that’s idea for cool-weather vegetables.
From an economics point of view, the rationale for buying local – keeping cash circulating in the community – makes sense, too, Barbeau says, but again, within limits. “If the money is being spent outside the area, then we’re sending our wealth elsewhere. The notion that we want to be prosperous, we want to keep ourselves employed and keep as much wealth here as possible is, in general, good. But taken to an extreme it would not be beneficial to us.”
The environmental incentives to shop local equal the economical ones: shopping local means not trucking food and products cross-country or shipping them overseas, which burns fewer fossil fuels, lessens the greenhouse gas emissions produced by vehicles, slows climate change, etc.
But there’s another benefit to buying local goods and services that often goes unnoticed. It builds bonds between people, and there’s a host of good things that come with that.
“A big part of this is relationships,” Carvey says. “If you buy local, you have real relationships with real people, face-to-face. Maybe a plumbing contractor is a little league coach or he works at the rescue mission on Soledad Street. There are a lot of ways people interface with their community on a relationship basis and those same kinds of relationships don’t take place when you’re dealing with the Internet or out-of-the-area businesses.”
Plus, buying from a big-box chain means buying from store owners that we’ve probably never met, and putting wealth into the pockets of people from far-away places. “I would much prefer to buy goods from someone I know, or someone who lives closer to me than buying from a box,” Barbeau says. “And to the extent that we get to know each other in the community, I would guess that we would see improvements in the overall functioning of our community, reduced crime, reduced gang activity, the negative things that happen when sociologists tell us we become disassociated from each other.”
Rob Weisskirch, a human development professor at CSUMB, agrees. He says research shows strong community relationships help support the development of kids, teens and adults. “And that’s something that happens from buying local.”
Getting to know people in your community is good for you, Weisskirch says. Homebound seniors who don’t have much human interaction have higher rates of depression. The same is true of young parents – especially single moms, he says – who stay home, singularly focused on raising their children, and don’t spend time with others their own age or those who share their circumstances: “We do know that women who have local interactions in their community tend to function better.”
Weisskirch is a regular at the Marina farmers market and he’s been buying strawberries from the same vendor for years.
“I ask her about her kids and it’s really heartwarming to have that kind of relationship, where you see their kids grow and they see your kids grow,” he says. “That’s what pulls a community together: those repeated, personal milestones that come from human interaction. That doesn’t happen when you shop online.”