Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Buying local

As you can see from my previous post, I don't view globalization of an economy as an inherently bad thing. (Specific details of how it happens might be, of course.) It should come as no surprise that I've always been distrustful of the "buy local" mantra, then. It seems an oversimplification and often a hypocrisy. We always want tourists to come here and buy our stuff while we're exhorting people to only spend their money locally for moral reasons, to keep money within our local economy. It doesn't wash.

I suppose sometimes it's just someone figuring out that a balance of trade -- the ratio of import to export -- is off kilter, but rather than trying to fit "adjust the balance of trade to a more favorable ratio" onto a bumpersticker, they just say "buy local". That's fine, but like many such things, it gets forgotten. "Buy local" becomes an end, not a means.

And I object to it not solely because of the hypocrisy and not solely because of my own predisposition to frugality, but also because dollars are votes, and I refuse to give up all other criteria for deciding where to place my votes besides geography. It happens I live in a part of the world where local businesses are often in line with my philosophies. But even so, they are not the only businesses deserving of my custom.

However, there is one convincing argument for "buy local" that almost never gets brought up: the costs of transportation. And I don't just mean shipping charges. I mean all the costs to society of having a transportation infrastructure. Roads, pollution, accidents, dependence on foreign oil, and you can keep listing things if you like. (Weighed against the benefits, of course.)

This argument doesn't hold water when it comes to whether to buy a sweater made in China from a mail-order place or your local megamart, because the transportation is the same either way. But it holds water very well when it comes to things like produce. Buying produce at your local farmer's market (or growing it yourself) isn't just a matter of saying "these people are more deserving than the people over there, simply because they live closer to me". It's also saying, "this food makes more sense because I'm not also paying people to pump pollutants into the air all the way from California to here".

I wonder why this argument isn't made more often.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

An argument just like that was made in this week's--or last week's--New Yorker, in the article about organic food. Transportation costs in all their glory were discussed as a reason why cross-country organic produce conglomerates are better (not introducing 8 million tons or something of pesticide into the enviroment a year) but not -much- better than other cross-country produce businesses.

I'd link to the article online, but I'm a lazy ass.