We are told that buying local is better for the Earth and for people. The idea is that local products have a smaller environmental footprint than those produced more distantly. Advocates of buying local suggest that this preserves the environment while strengthening the local economy. However, we live in a global economy and it is worth questioning whether this approach actually benefits the earth and its inhabitants.
Buy local advocates share many of the same concerns as sustainability advocates, however measures of sustainability go beyond geography and include every step that brings products to market.
Locally bought products are not always sustainable products. For example, locally produced agriculture can include pesticides, chemical fertilizers, hormones, and non-therapeutic antibiotics. Nor are locally produced goods always the more energy efficient choice. According to Alex Avery, director of global food research at the Hudson Institute, the best way to minimize agriculture-related emissions is to buy food from regions where it grows best. His argument suggests that efficiency be used as a conservation tool.
Although buying locally is perceived as contributing to better working conditions, diverting purchases from developing countries removes potential buyers from the market and this can substantially worsen the condition of those who can least afford it. According to John Clark, a social development specialist for East Asia at the World Bank, “a local focus can breed an unhealthy provincialism and lead to practices that harm both the environment and the poor in developing nations.”
As Clark has said “we need more sophistication than just, ‘buy local, biases in favor of local production techniques can lead not only to wasteful energy systems such as growing bananas in domestic hothouses, but also to a mistaken idea that techniques most familiar to consumers are also ecofriendly.”
Buying locally often causes us to forget to think globally. We simply cannot afford to exclude the wider world from our purchasing decisions. This is the view of Roy Jacobowitz, senior vice president for development and communications at Acción International, a Boston-based nonprofit lender to micro-entrepreneurs in developing nations. “The ‘buy locally’ argument is an isolationist argument, which I think is a dangerous one. Poor entrepreneurs in the emerging world need the opportunity to sell into markets that can pay fair prices for their goods,” Mr. Jacobowitz said.
Local purchasing cannot be reflexively equated with moral purchasing. When considering the sustainability of a product, there are a lot of questions to ask beyond where it was manufactured or produced.
Smart buying decisions are not always the most obvious. Finding the right buying channels cannot be reduced to a popular slogan. The environmental footprint of a product is measured by more than just the distance it travels. Rather than framing buying decisions as a buy local imperative, we should consider making buying decisions based on a comparative assessment of a product’s overall sustainability profile.
Richard Matthews is a consultant, eco-entrepreneur, sustainable investor and writer. He is the owner of THE GREEN MARKET, one of the Web’s most comprehensive resources for information and tools on sustainability. He is also the author of numerous articles on sustainable positioning, green investing, enviro-politics and eco-economics.