Buy local?

When I visit a town and see “Buy local” signs in the stores, I’m vaguely amused. They’re telling me, if I take them seriously, I shouldn’t shop there but should wait till I go home. “Buy local” is a zero-sum game. My local business is most people’s out-of-town shop.

Why should I make a special effort to “buy local,” anyway? Are the shops in my home town more virtuous than in yours? Not that I’ve noticed. Does buying local mean more jobs and more money coming back around to me? It’s an extremely attenuated effect at best.

“Buy Local” usually means to buy at small locally owned shops, not at local shops that are part of big chains or franchises. But both bring employment, and big chains may hire more people than a small shop on a shoestring budget. When I buy at a chain store, that doesn’t mean money is leaking out of my town. Money goes out, but it also comes in. Local stores also send money out of town, unless they’re selling strictly home-grown and homemade goods, have locally made furnishings, deposit their money in a local bank, etc. If they have to pay higher wholesale prices because they’re small (and pass the costs on to you), then they’re actually sending more money out of town.

Sometimes I’d rather deal with a particular business even if I have to pay higher prices. I might like the people who run it and the service they provide, or I might admire what they do outside their dealings with me. I might just not like the big store, if they’ve been spamming me or otherwise acting obnoxious. But this has nothing to do with whether they’re local or not. A lot of my favorite vendors are websites based in distant places.

There are cases where favoring a local shop makes sense. If there’s a business nearby which offers something that’s otherwise hard to find, then I’ll make a point of buying there even in cases where I don’t have to. For instance, decent bookstores are hard to find around Nashua (Barnes and who? The ones who sent me 300 pieces of spam email?), so I make trips to the Toadstool Bookshop in Milford, NH, fairly often. I like having a place not too far from home where I can browse through real, dead-tree books. The point isn’t that it’s local, but that it’s a unique value which I want to keep. My own purchases don’t really do a lot for them, but my recommendations and their ripple effects might. Saying “Shop there because it’s a good store to have around” is a lot more convincing than “Shop there because it’s local to you.”

5 Responses to “Buy local?”

  1. Peter Says:

    I disagree. A fairly standard business model, across many retail businesses is that the income is divided into thirds. 1/3 covers overhead (building, utilities, employees), 1/3 covers cost of goods/materials, and 1/3 profit (if a business isn’t profitable then it can’t stay open).

    Let’s start with a national chain: Walmart. Most of overhead goes locally, although a portion of the overhead has to pay for the home office, so not all of it. Goods/materials are not produced locally so that money goes somewhere else. Profits go to the owners who are not local unless you live in Arkansas. In this case less than one third of the money they take in is kept local.

    Now let’s go with your Toadstool Bookshop. All overhead goes locally because with one location the “home office” is in the same locality. Goods/materials are not produced locally so that money goes somewhere else. Owners live locally so profits stay local. In this case two thirds of the money they take in is kept local.

    I have been considering the idea that used bookstores and antiques shops, by “recycling” goods which currently exist locally, might qualify as selling “locally produced goods/materials”. The goods weren’t originally produced locally, but the business bought the goods locally.

    Where “Buy local” can really make a difference is farmer’s markets & farm stands where 100% of the income is kept local.compared with grocery store chains where only one third is kept local.

  2. Gary McGath Says:

    Toadstool actually has three locations. I don’t know where the home office is or where the owners live. As you say, farmers’ markets are a better model. I have a bumper sticker on my car supporting Lull Farm (for reasons that go beyond its being local); but even its store has a lot of produce which clearly isn’t locally grown. The closed economy rarely exists, and where it does (Pitcairn’s Island, for example) it’s a rather undesirable situation. Trade with people from other places is a good thing, not a problem.

  3. Al Says:

    The main reason I’m motivated to buy local is that I want to be able to talk to the person who makes the decisions about the business. When I drink at my local pub, I can talk to the guy who makes the beer-buying decisions and he actually cares what I have to say. After all, I come in all the time and buy beer there often enough that he knows me by name, so it is in his interest to continue to buy beers that I like and will drink. Similarly, it is in his interest to keep a vegetarian food option that I will eat on the menu. Obviously, if I am absolutely the only person who wants something he won’t continue to stock it (unless it’s a bottled beer, maybe, since that takes minimal storage space and has a decent markup and long shelf life), but the number of people it takes to sway a decision is much smaller and I’m also more likely to know and talk to those other people. It’s important to me to feel like I’m being heard by the places I shop and that’s much easier to accomplish with tiny places.

  4. twwells Says:

    Both theory and observation have led me to conclude that a healthy society is comprised of interlocking communities. By “community”, I mean a group of people who have some “natural” tendency to cohere and which is small and uniform enough that no person of the group is really a stranger when involved in the group. Communities do not have to based on geography; the fannish and filkish communities are obvious examples. However, geography is very definitely a “natural” organization and geographically based communities are an essential part of a healthy society.

    I do not buy most of the reasons for “buy locally”. in terms of standard economics, it’s silly–if one buys *because* it is local, one is going against economic efficiency and the ultimate result is to do economic harm to oneself and others. However, economics is only one part of human existence and there are many other values that may be served by a purchase. I suggest that supporting one’s communities is one such value, and that those communities may include one’s geographic communities. In this sense, and to the extent that a given purchase really does support the local community, I would support “buy local”.

  5. William H Stoddard Says:

    I mostly see this in connection with the “locavore” meme, which strikes me as purely wrongheaded ecologically.

    There’s a key idea in ecology, Liebig’s Law of the Minimum, which says that the carrying capacity of a given environment for a given population is always constrained by the least readily available resource (or, in economic language, the scarcest). So, for example, in a community of wheat farmers, the limiting resource may be protein; in a community of fishermen, it may be calories. But if the two can trade wheat for fish, protein becomes a less stringent limit on the farmers (or maybe a third resource becomes limiting), and calories become a less stringent limit on the fishermen (or maybe a third resource becomes limiting). Both communities can support larger populations without increasing the burden they put on their respective habitats. The extra people can then become traders carrying wheat and fish back and forth.

    I worked this out after reading Jane Jacobs’s Systems of Survival, which postulates to basic human modes of survival, taking (harvesting the productivity of the natural world) and trading; it seemed plausible, but I started wondering how, in ecological terms, trade could be a “mode of survival,” since it doesn’t produce more food. But when you work through the logic it jumps right out. . . .

    I’d also like to note a counterweight to the argument about putting value of membership in one’s community: There is also an ethical and even spiritual value to dealing with other communities. It’s not for nothing that the Old Testament says, “You shall not have one law for your neighbor and another for the stranger, for you were strangers in Egypt.” The ancient Stoics called this idea “cosmopolitanism,” and I think that willingness to trade with anyone, whether they’re from close at hand or far away, supports it. There is also the point that not being dependent solely on one’s own community for survival and trade protects people from being exploited by that community and its rulers, by giving them a wider range of choices.

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