The shop-local movement has some pitfalls

January 15, 2010

By Todd Hirsch
Alberta Business Columnist
Troy Media

CALGARY, AB, Jan. 15, 2010/ Troy Media/ — All sorts of well-meaning organizations like to extol the virtues of shopping local and supporting the local business community. This is especially true during difficult economic times. There is a simple, natural tendency to want to protect your own and keep jobs at home.

And certainly there are compelling reasons to do so. After all, there is nothing sinister about caring for your own local economy and hoping that your friends, neighbours, and family members find meaningful and lucrative work.

Other than economics, there are serious environmental considerations at play these days as well. You don’t have to be David Suzuki to question whether the amount of carbon required to get a glass bottle of designer water shipped, railed and trucked all the way from Norway to your restaurant table is really worth it.

Shop local

As well, there are significant social reasons to shop locally. Knowing your community business people can add to a general feeling on connectedness to society. For many individuals, these personal connections alone are undefined yet very real benefits of shopping locally, but they are not captured in the price of the good or service.

But for all of the many benefits of shopping locally and supporting your local business community, there are some potential pit-falls in becoming too “local-centric”.

For one thing, what actually defines “local”? A small neighbourhood? A city? A 100-mile radius? An entire province? Depending on your perspective, they are all local in some way.  And even if they are truly local (i.e, two blocks from where you live), do you know where the owner actually lives? Would it matter to you if a local business operator actually lived in another country? It probably shouldn’t, but it is the type of logical quagmire you get into if you intend to shop exclusively local.

Also, do you know for sure the business practices of local entrepreneurs? Would you blindly support a local eatery over a large, national restaurant chain, even if you knew that the former was a front for money laundering? Or treated its employees badly?  Local businesses need to be held up to standards at least as high (maybe higher) than their non-local counterparts. Incompetent or unethical businesses don’t deserve support, locally owned or not.

Thirdly, there can be quality and price considerations in shopping locally – both positive and negative. Locally grown produce could very well be of better quality, has spent less time from garden to table, and could taste better. But that may come at a premium cost. And on the other side of the coin, some foreign made goods are simply far better than anything we could do locally, at least in a practical sense. Think coffee, oranges, or automobiles. It is physically possible to grow oranges locally in Alberta, but they’d cost something like $500 a bag since they’d have to be grown indoors!

Finally, shopping locally is terrific, but it is happening for the wrong reasons if the government is required to enforce it. When countries turn inward and impose trade barriers on imported goods and services, all economies suffer. Canadian companies fear the rise of such protectionist sentiment in the US, and already policies like America’s “Country of Origin Labelling” (COOL) for meat have hurt our local livestock producers. If everyone adopts the same buy local laws, global trade would quickly diminish, and along with it much of the higher standards of living we’ve come to enjoy. Bottom line: you can’t expect others to willingly buy your goods and services if you impose restrictions on them selling to you.

The rise of prosumerism

Rather than shopping locally simply for the sake of it, we’d be well served if we move from “consumerism” to “prosumerism” – a different attitude of thinking carefully and being proactive with all our consumer choices. It really has to do with getting customers actively engaged in the innovation around, and creation of, the products and services they consume.

Much of this “prosumer” thoughtfulness may well include more shopping locally and within our own communities and province. The economic, environmental and social benefits of supporting your local business people can be very real, and many of us might even be surprised to discover some very unique shopping experiences just around the corner!

But if turned into a religion, a “Buy Local” mentality can be counter-productive. Local and independently owned businesses may be the life-blood of employment, but the backbone of our economies is built on global trade. And if we insist on restricting imports and only shopping locally, our trading partners just might do the same thing.

This column is FREE to use on your websites or in your publications. However, oldsite2017.troymedia.com MUST be credited.

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