Buying locally has quite a number of immediate benefits for the consumer as well as for the community at large. Produce bought straight from a farmer is fresher and riper than foods transported from the other side of the globe. Fresh foods also taste better, and are packed with more vitamins (Rickman). When comparing a handcrafted piece of furniture or clothing with something bearing the label ‘Made in China,’ there is usually no room for argument about which is of a higher quality. That isn’t to criticize the Chinese people as being incapable of high quality manufacturing, but the high output manufacturing they are known for.
Buying locally also helps keep money in a community where it is more likely to be spent at other local businesses. According to Civic Economics, an economic analyst, 68% of income received by a local business is spent in their own community. Non-local businesses, on the other hand, only spend about 43% in the host city (Civic Economics). Keeping money circulating in the originating community is important, especially in cities without a large export income.
Besides these more immediate benefits of fostering a local economy, buying local can also bring long term improvements. Local businesses are owned and operated by other members of the community, and by frequenting their businesses, social ties are strengthened. Local businesses are held to higher standards than businesses located in far away location. It can be easy to ignore rumors of employee mistreatment, or unfair wages when it is occurring on the other side of the world. On the other hand, communities have inside ties to companies operating out of their own towns.
There was a recent paper published by Louis Ferleger, a professor of US economic history at Boston University, that looked at all the cities which have fallen below the national average in employment rates for the last five to twenty years. Ferleger found that each of these communities had relied on a single commodity economy, and when that source of income disappeared, they had nothing else to rely on. The most stable communities, the ones which rode out the recent economic downturn fairly unscathed, were also the communities with the most diversity (Ferleger). Encouraging local businesses also encourages diversity as the varied needs of the community are met by its members.
Although buying local has a positive effect on communities, it would be difficult and unpleasant to insist that a community become totally self-sufficient. Buying local doesn’t mean building a wall around the community and blocking all imports. Each area has strengths and weaknesses, and we all benefit by sharing our strengths with others.
In Roseburg, Oregon, I can easily buy locally picked blueberries, but it would be almost impossible to grow coffee here, let alone enough to supply the entire city. Local products are not always better than what could be imported from elsewhere. But, just because you can not buy everything locally, does not mean you should throw in the towel and not worry about it. A few simple ways to support your own community without giving up certain things we all take for granted are: buying produce from local farms, purchasing household items from local artisans, and choosing locally owned shops or credit unions over national chains.
Humans have always taken advantage of the global economy. Archaeologists have unearthed ancient trade routes that spanned continents. Some even believe that trade between cultures is what sparked the beginning of ancient civilizations (Fagan). It is more efficient for each member of society to specialize in a trade and then divide it up than it is for everyone to work on their own provide everything they need. By specializing, each worker becomes skilled in their trade, and can produce higher quality items in larger quantities (Plato). The modern global economy is merely the next step in the development and expansion of human civilization. Our neighbors just keep getting farther away.
The earth’s population is expanding, and barring a global disaster, we will eventually find ourselves pressed for resources. Our current economic model leaves room for huge amounts of waste and inefficiency. Commercial farms find it uneconomical to harvest every last piece of produce, and it sits in the fields and orchards to rot. At the same time there are starving people, even in our own country, who would jump at the chance to eat some of that wasted food. There are small efforts to distribute this excess, but nothing that comes close to solving the underlying problems (Barlow).
Even though strong local economies are important, the need for a larger scale efficiency is also important. It is sometimes more economical to transport goods and produce from areas that specialize in these goods than it is to try and produce the same items in the community. In the future, creating a globally efficient economy will be vital to our continued prosperity as resources become more scarce.
Despite these concerns for efficiency, communities should be wary of courting large industries to their town, as they can disappear overnight to a location with cheaper labor. Over the years, there has been a noticeable increase in the number of companies which have moved all or part of their labor to other countries. As Gene Sperling, head of the National Economic Council stated, “For much of the last 15 years, it seemed like the attitude was that anytime you could find a lower cost anywhere in the global supply chain, you did it, with no thought of the difficulties or risks that things could go wrong” (qtd in Foroohar). Lower costs mean more profits for the companies, and it is easy to see why they choose to move their operations to these far away locations.
Moving operations across the globe may have resulted in cheaper prices, but money does not account for externalized costs that are hard to quantify. The environment may be harmed by overusing resources, employees may be mistreated such as the Foxconn workers who manufacture technology for Microsoft and Apple (Greenfield), dangerous chemicals may be used in consumer products such as when lead was used in paints. We are not the ones who have to pay the price for our cheaper goods, that debt will be paid by future generations and by those living in places where we do not see.
It might be tempting to point our collective finger at large companies, and blame them for lost jobs and the poor economy, but we need to take our share of the responsibility. If we are constantly looking for the cheapest prices without thought for why it is cheaper, without regard for its hidden costs, then we are just as guilty as the large companies which turn around and do the same thing.
In the end, there needs to be a balance between global and local economies. If a local area is suffering from unemployment, and a lack of diversity, focusing on local businesses is one way individuals can turn their city around. Communities should be grounded locally, even as they take advantage of the global economy and sell their specialties to the world.
Barlow, Genevieve. "Stay Local to the Core." The Melbourne Weekly Times 8 Aug. 2012: 67. Web. EBSCOHOST http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=nfh&AN=201208081067870418&site=src-live.
Civic Economics. Examining the Impact of Local Business on the West Michigan Economy. Rep. Local First, Sept. 2008. Web. 28 Aug. 2012. http://www.livingeconomies.org/sites/default/files/file/GR%20Local%20Works%20Summary.pdf
Fagan, Brian M. People of the Earth: An Introduction to World Prehistory. New York, NY: HarperCollins College, 2010. 312-14. Print.
Ferleger, Louis. "America’s Permanent Dead Zones." Salon. N.p., 27 Jan. 2012. Web. 20 Aug. 2012. http://www.salon.com/2012/01/27/americas_permanent_dead_zones/singleton/
Foroohar, Rana; “The Economy’s New Rules: Go Local!” Time, 8/20/2012, Vol. 180 Issue 8, p26-32. EBSCOHOST http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=mih&AN=78547042&site=src-live
Greenfield, Rebecca. "Foxconn Is Still a Hard Place to Work." n.d.: n. pag. The Atlantic Wire. 10 Jan. 2012. Web. 20 Aug. 2012. http://www.theatlanticwire.com/technology/2012/01/foxconn-still-hard-place-work/47193/
Plato. The Republic. N.p.: n.p., n.d. N. pag. Gutenberg. Web. 20 Aug. 2012. http://www.gutenberg.org/files/1497/1497-h/1497-h.htm
Rickman, Joy C., Christine M. Bruhn, and Diane M. Barrett. "Review Nutritional Comparison of Fresh, Frozen, and Canned Fruits and Vegetables" Journal of the Science of Food and Agriculture (2007): DOI: 10.1002/jsfa.2824. Print.