Journalism: Commentary: The Top 10 Reasons NOT to Buy Localprint page

From the

April 20, 2009

The Top 10 Reasons NOT to Buy Local
By Zachary Barowitz


I readily acknowledge there are many reasons to buy locally produced goods (farm products) and to patronize locally owned business (like specialty stores), and I avoid malls and chain stores for a mix of personal, ideological, ecological, aesthetic, fiscal, and geographic reasons. But just because I agree with the practice of local shopping doesn’t mean we shouldn’t examine the claims and ideology espoused by the Portland Independent Business and Community Alliance (PIBCA) — the non-profit behind the Buy Local campaign — with a bit more scrutiny than it’s been getting.

Thus, my own: Top 10 Reasons NOT to Buy Local

1. Double Standard

PIBCA’s “buy local” principles resemble a basic form of mercantilism, the precursor to capitalism that failed under the weight of protectionism and its adherents’ inability to see the benefits of free trade. If we discourage the purchase of imports, won’t it be logical for people in other places to respond in kind by discouraging the purchase of Maine-made goods through tariffs and other means? What is being pawned off as a new idea is just an archaic version of capitalism, akin to corked wine in new bottles or reinventing the stone wheel.

Examples of double-standards abound. For instance, Coffee by Design (a leader in the Buy Local campaign) ships its product to “select coffeehouses, restaurants, and specialty food stores around the country,” according to one of its ads. It also sells its product in Whole Foods, which is not only a national chain, but the Portland store marks up local goods — in the case of CBD coffee, by about two bucks more per bag than anywhere else.

To be clear, CBD’s owners have every right sell their coffee anywhere they can (it’s the logic of capitalism), but this otherwise sound business practice seems hypocritical when viewed in light of the ethics and practice of the Buy Local campaign.

2. Globalization is Good

There are many benefits to globalization. Our lives are enriched by food, art, ideas, goods, culture and fair trade from around the world. What is more, just as the spice trade helped bring medieval Europe out of the Dark Ages, exposure to world products enables Mainers to innovate and produce our own new products. Local artisanal producers of coffee, salsa, beer, and cheese would not exist without the flow of goods and ideas globalization has imparted, increasing our knowledge and influencing our tastes. Local growers benefit from such communication — who was growing daikon radishes in Maine twenty years ago? Failure to accept globalization leads to stagnation. Maine needs more diversity and less xenophobia; the influx of goods helps us be more cosmopolitan and less provincial.

3. Tourists and the Regional Economy

The whole state of Maine benefits from the regional economic activity of visitors who come to Portland via New Hampshire and (hang me for saying this) Massachusetts, New York, and New Jersey. What is more, Maine is reliant on out-of-state tourism. And as much as we like to complain about vacationers, just about every cultural institution and local business owes its existence, success or size to the trade brought by well-heeled visitors.

In this light, it seems a bit odd to implore folks to “buy local” when so many of the folks doing the buying are not.

4. Price

I don’t mind paying a premium on small, affordable items (like paper clips) at convenient, funky stores (like Wigon Office Supplies) even though the exact same item can be found cheaper at a big-box store (like Staples). But when it comes to the purchase of a costly item (like a computer), well, ethos and convenience be dammed — I need to get the best price. And is it really so bad that Walmart sells common pharmaceutical drugs for $10 for a 90-day prescription?

5. It is Smug and Elitist

I think that, when pressed, many proponents of Buy Local will admit the campaign is aimed primarily at Walmart and mall shoppers, in hope of giving them a taste of “small is beautiful.” Essentially, this is looking down on people who shop at big-box stores for their lack of taste, sophistication, and individuality.

6. Product Quality, Service Quality, and Personal Preference

While some of us wait out the fall of capitalism (which is happening perhaps a bit too suddenly), we can enjoy some of its aspects, like the great range of product choices. Imports allow consumers to seek the best products regardless of origin. And while I’ve never completely bought into the assertion that the free market creates competition, raises overall standards, and lowers prices, I know for a fact that a local auto mechanic is just as likely to rip you off for inspection-sticker repairs as one who works for a national chain.

Although they are not generally to my taste, faceless national chains do offer numerous benefits. There is something to be said for anonymity (do you really want to buy your syphilis medicine from your friendly neighborhood pharmacist?). Or it could be that big box stores have stuff local stores don’t, like XXL track suits and appliqué t-shirts.

7. Buy Local is a Cynical Marketing Campaign

PIBCA is really just a merchants’ association and a chamber of commerce for liberals. Furthermore, the campaign is a marketing tool that preys upon guilty feelings.

8. Buy Local’s Top 10 Reasons are Asinine

PIBCA publishes the “Find Your Independents” merchant directory and other literature that outlines the benefits of buying local. From a copywriter’s perspective, they are faced with a dilemma: How to sell your product in such a way as to suggest you are benefiting and empowering your customers? The result is lacking.

Reason #1 asserts that 45 percent of revenue spent at local businesses stays in the local economy, as opposed to 14 percent spent at a “national chain or franchise store.” This striking comparison is based on a study and report by the Institute for Local Self-Reliance (hardly an impartial-sounding name), which examined eight Mid Coast businesses that employed 62 people and had a total of $5.7 million in revenue in 2002. According to the study, the 14-percent figure is an “estimate” based on a study of “a similar expenditure profile for a major big box retailer” (presumably Walmart), so it does not apply to locally owned franchises (Dunkin’ Donuts, Save-A-Lot, McDonald’s, etc.). The comparison seems problematic. If 28 percent of local businesses’ expense is labor, shouldn’t that percentage be roughly the same for chains and franchises? Basically, the study compares a lemonade stand to PepsiCo.

Reason #2, “Embrace What Makes Portland Unique,” and Reason # 10, “Ensure Portland Stands Out From the Crowd,” are the same.

Reason #3, “Foster Local Job Creation,” contains the weasel word some: “Studies show that locally owned businesses create more jobs locally and, in some sectors, provide better wages and benefits than national chains.” [Emphasis added.] According to the citations, this is basically a reference to Walmart, which sets the bar pretty low. But the lack of specificity makes the statement meaningless.

Reason #4, “Help the Environment,” makes the specious claim that “local business owners tend to set up shop downtown and in walkable business districts, rather than developing on the city’s fringe or in suburban strip malls ….” This is disingenuous on several levels. First of all, there are many local business outside of downtown and “walkable business districts” (would that include the mall?) and there are plenty of chain or franchise businesses downtown. Secondly, the Buy Local campaign discourages patronizing franchise businesses even if they are downtown.

In another piece of promotional literature, the environmental argument muddles local purchasing with center/periphery urban planning theory, but goes off on some wild assumptions in terms of the habits, locations, and natures of consumers and businesses. “By choosing neighborhood and downtown businesses, you conserved land, limited sprawl, and slashed the amount of driving and air pollution involved in running errands.” The statement seems targeted at residents of the peninsula who probably do a large proportion of their shopping locally anyway. It does not consider that someone might ride a bicycle to the mall or, as is more likely in my case, Marden’s.

9. Labor Practices

There is no reason to believe a local boss is any better than a corporate one, and due to the threat of class-action lawsuits, corporations have some incentive to behave. What’s more, national chains can more easily offer a better benefits package. Who has better salary/wages and benefits: Borders or Books Etc., Whole Foods or Paul’s Food Center, Starbucks or Coffee by Design?

10. What Do “Local” and “Independent” Mean?

Why does Maine Hardware (a “cooperative” franchise of Ace) count as an “independent business,” but franchise stores (like McDonald’s, Save-A-Lot, and Dunkin’ Donuts) owned by local entrepreneurs do not? Furthermore, some non-independent stores make efforts to carry local products, participate in community activities, and give to local charities.

The macroeconomic environment is exceedingly complex and eschews oversimplification and sloganeering. Like other favorite topics of the liberal intelligentsia, “local and independent” resists normative description and instead comes down to perception, self-styled identity, and relative meaning.