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The Greenwash Brigade

Is a "buy local" economy really sustainable?

Janne K. Flisrand Nov 15, 2007

In response to:

A local model for global sustainability

The northern Washington town of Bellingham may be the epicenter of a new economic model for a post-consumerist economy: Locally produced goods and services focused on what surrounding communities need and can sustain.

Heard on Marketplace,® Nov. 15, 2007

Janne K. Flisrand’s take:

There’s no silver bullet to sustainable living, but rather a toolbox to pick and choose from. Sustainable consumerism is intentional consumerism. Buying local is one of those tools, one with many benefits, but it will never be the whole solution. Organic, fair trade, and manufacturing practices (like avoiding discharge of hazardous waste) are also key. None of those is inherent in buying local. A complete sustainability consumer solution might be a Life Cycle Damage score printed on the packaging of every product and
service purchased, with scores that could go infinitely high, and a perfect score being 10.

Given that, buying local creates jobs and recycles money through local economies, and there are buy-local options everywhere. Some places have local, Community Supported Agriculture (like the CSAs within 100 miles of Minneapolis) and in others it might limited to locally-owned vintage stores.

No place in the United States today has a self-sufficient local economy. The community-based economy our parents and grandparents knew has been systematically destroyed. Cheap manufacturing in places with a low cost of living and lacking strong environmental regulations produce cheaper goods than local manufacturers who meet their employees on the street or see them walking into a food shop. Cheap big box store prices — thanks to very large suppliers — have forced many local shops out of business.

Plus, some products simply cannot be produced locally. Compact fluorescent light bulbs will never be manufactured in every community.

If we are serious about buying locally, we will have to change how we live. Consumers will have homework: What is produced locally? Where do I get it? Is it worth paying a little more? But it goes further, to changing habits. In Minneapolis, I have the Twin Cities Green Guide and Green Routes to find local products. But if I want to eat local in the winter, I’ll have to begin canning and preserving.

While some places could become locally sustainable over time, that’s not true everywhere. Some of the fastest growing communities in the country are in the desert southwest where the ecosystem cannot support many people — too little water means too little food. They aren’t out of the game — guides like Local First Arizona list local businesses and services, and Craigslist, the parent of all ìreuse sites, is active practically everywhere. But they’ll never be self-sufficient with their current populations.

When enough consumers make a push, the system builds on itself and it gets
easier. In Minneapolis, I shop at a food cooperative that labels local food. In addition to Craigslist, we have a local (free)
on-line product exchange. The
Reuse Center deconstructs old buildings and sells materials in their stores, and provides a metro outlet for locally harvested FSC wood from Aitkin County — where they are building a network of local producers of value-added goods like flooring and paper. We have stores selling clothing by local designers. And, local bike shops sell products made within 25 miles.

In the Twin Cities, it’s working.

Heidi Siegelbaum responds:

Buying local is a powerful consumer choice. Here in Seattle there’s a growing fabric of FSC certified wood products sold by Ecohaus, some of which are sourced from local sustainably managed forests. We purchase regularly from farmers markets, several of which are open all year, their tables redolent with local earthy fecundity and I make a point of buying wild Alaska, Oregon and Washington seafood from the fabulous Fresh Fish Company in Norwegian Ballard.

It’s unlikely any community could survive exclusively on local products but consumers can begin a small revolution by asking businesses to carry more local products and asking ìwhere was this product made? We must be willing to pay a small price premium for the overwhelming benefit of keeping money circulating in the local community rather than shunting most of it off to a corporate office out of state. There is also an interesting dovetailing of buy
local campaigns with community sustainability groups. This is a great way of creating a blueprint for healthy communities that build civic pride, keep neighbors interacting on a more intimate basis and reduce our carbon footprint — imagine walking to the store!

Dennis Markatos-Soriano responds:

As Janne says, buying local is only part of the path to sustainability, with benefits such as reducing oil consumption to transport the products I buy. But the green score also depends on practices of the local producer (whether they utilize energy efficient equipment, minimize their pollution, have solar panels on their roof, etc.).

As we promote local economies, it would be useful for us to define local. Does that mean within 25 miles or does it mean that the product was made in the USA? I tend to get excited about opportunities for marginal improvement
every year, even if it doesn’t mean we reached utopia. For instance, if we in New Jersey used to import 50% of our apples from New Zealand, and we lower that share by buying more delicious North Carolina apples (disclaimer: as a Tarheel, I have a serious bias toward Carolina anything), then we are making great progress toward a local economy. My main concern is to lower the carbon score, so even a product made 12,000 miles away can beat out the local good if they run their machines on wind power and deliver the good via cellulosic ethanol.

I don’t see economies as being either local or global, but as fostering the right balance for each community. Further increases in the price of oil would drive greater opportunities for entrepreneurs that can provide quality goods in a sustainable way to local markets.

Jim Nicolow responds:

Bill McKibbin’s comments in Sam Eaton’s story were dead on. The idea of making an altruistic sacrifice to buy local will soon be irrelevant. Throughout most of human history, economies were primarily local. And not because people were attending standing-room-only buy local conferences; they were local out of necessity. It was too expensive to rely heavily upon remote goods.

A temporary abundance of cheap energy changed that dynamic. I can buy a Clementine in Michigan that was grown in Morocco and imported through Canada at a price comparable to a Michigan-grown peach.

As energy prices continue to climb, due both to scarcity and more accurately reflecting the environmental toll of fossil fuel energy use (such as through carbon taxes), non-local goods will simply begin to cost more than local goods due to higher transportation costs.

People will begin to once again buy local because it’s cheaper. That doesn’t translate to exclusively local economies. Most never were. The spice trade is a great example of a non-local economy that predated cheap energy. Archaeologists can cite numerous examples of pre-historic cultures trading goods and materials over great distances. However, these were luxury items and did not represent the majority of economic activity.

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