What Does Buying Local Really Mean?

An important new book explores its meaning, potential, and challenges.

As it’s been with previous social movements, the East Bay is in the
vanguard of “localism,” a movement that aims to build and maintain
community spirit and wealth through an emphasis on buying from local
merchants. Our paper is an active member of this movement and we are
proud that we were recently honored by Editor and Publisher
magazine as one of the “10 That Do It Right” in our industry for our
emphasis on localism.

Localism can be an antidote to environment-destroying conceptions of
“progress” as an unstoppable force, as the movement encourages socially
conscious consumption. It juxtaposes the often-specious argument of
“free trade” with a localist conception of “fair bought” and is
anticorporate, although not anticapitalist.

But what is localism, exactly? How do we think about the
complicated issues that are arising in its application?

A deeper look into what makes the movement is important now. As
localism grows, attacks on it are mounting from the corporatists. An
article in Forbes magazine last month accused localism of having
no intellectual heft. While the Forbes article conceded that the
“feel-good aesthetic of localism is a real consumer demand,” it accused
localists of a selfish individualism by eschewing a global viewpoint in
place of a local one. Localists, according to this argument, are
engaging in a “parochialism that only seeks prosperity for those in my
immediate midst.” While it is no secret where Forbes stands in
this debate, its article points out that there are real questions that
need to be met.

And consider this: Recently, local locavore hero Michael Pollan
publicly denounced the boycott of Whole Foods, whose CEO, John Mackey,
has injected himself into the health-care debate on the side of the
health-care conglomerates. In opposing the backlash against this large
corporation, which has put many small local organic groceries out of
business, Pollan claims that if Whole Foods “were to disappear, the
cause of improving Americans’ health by building an alternative food
system, based on more fresh food, pastured and humanely raised meats,
and sustainable agriculture, would suffer.” Given the respect that most
have for Pollan, what is a localist to do with his stance?

An excellent place to consider these questions is with a new book,
Localist Movements in a Global Economy: Sustainability, Justice, and
Urban Development in the United States
. The author, David Hess, has
marshaled the intellectual arguments for localism using history,
present success stories, and economic arguments. It is precisely in
answering questions from friends and enemies that Hess’ book is
important. Hess, an advocate and academic, believes that the practice
of localism can support and maintain a rich and healthy community. Hess
analyzes the myriad social and financial ways that patronage of locally
owned businesses strengthens social bonds and the financial health of a
local community. Many of his arguments are familiar to those who try to
buy local. Hess found that buying local results in more business
profits staying in the community, more taxes paid locally, more
sourcing of goods and services from other local vendors, and more
donations to local nonprofits.

Local consumption is not a new idea, he notes. In the 1920s, small
retail businesses banded together against the birth of the first chain
stores, like the A&P food company. Small farmers have often
preached a localist gospel and connected with other forces opposing
corporatism. But localism and the history of small business movements
is decidedly mixed. In the South when I grew up, local chambers of
commerce and white-owned small businesses were nearly always on the
side of segregation. One of the most important tools in the civil
rights movement was consumer boycotts of these white-owned small
businesses and the encouragement to buy at black-owned establishments.
Today, however, localism is often able to bridge this type of divide by
defining arguments in different and less “partisan” ways, Hess
believes.

Localism cannot be just knee-jerk promotion of small business or the
defense of local workers at the expense of those in other states or
countries. Today, many who claim to speak for small business are at the
forefront of the movement to stymie health-care reform, joining Mackey
of Whole Foods. The National Federation of Independent Business, often
credited with helping to deep-six the Clinton health-care plan, is now
lobbying against both the public option for health care and any
requirement that employers provide health care for their employees. No
public care and no employer care; how does that build community? But as
Hess notes, small businesses with a more progressive agenda are forming
powerful groups, such as the active Business Alliance for Local Living
Economies.

For localism to realize its potential, Hess argues, progressive
localists have work to do in the area of social equality. Certainly
that is true in a community as socioeconomically varied as the East
Bay. Hess maintains that the core question is “How do the movements
that support increased local ownership connect with efforts to make our
society more socially equitable and environmentally sustainable?”

Hess’ general answer is that local businesses must be reframed as
“community stewards.” That is, if local consumers are going to see
shopping locally as a progressive act, businesses must act
correspondingly by doing things that build a tangible sense of
community in the physical community. Happily, the East Bay is farther
along than most communities in this regard.

Interestingly, Hess sees the next frontier of this movement as local
finance. Today, all of us who have retirement savings, whether in large
entities like the California Public Employees’ Retirement System or in
self-directed individual retirement accounts, have money that is being
siphoned off to finance the big businesses that oppose localism. The
challenge, Hess believes, will be the development of a financial sector
that is by the locals, for the locals. While models are slowly emerging
in this area, such as the Oakland-based OneCalifornia Bank, this
prescription should be a clarion call to the local banking and
credit-union community as it considers where to find healthy growth in
the wake of the ongoing banking debacle.

In a sense, localism is following the trajectory of
environmentalism. At the beginning of the environmental movement, only
big businesses and their politician friends seemed to be against it.
Yet, as time has gone by, the issues in environmentalism have become
more complex and contentious. For many who consider themselves
environmentalists, it is difficult to know exactly where to stand on a
particular environmental issue today. For example, as Robert Gammon
pointed out in these pages in July, it is difficult to be an urban
environmentalist and a NIMBY at the same time. In order to move
forward, environmentalism must come to grips with difficult issues such
as this. Localism is entering a similar space.

Localism can play a progressive role in many areas. But for its
practitioners, now is the time to start taking the hard questions
seriously. Without proper attention, the movement is likely to be
overwhelmed by complexity and controversy. If that happens, the
creativity and community that can come from local ownership will be
lost.

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