Why Buying Local Makes Me Loco: The Paradox of Proximity and Magnitude

The trend of “buying local” in the United States is controversial and misleading. It ranks right up there with “going green” and “all natural flavors”.

What is “local”? Is it your city, state, or country? Does it mean the food was grown within your county limits? Or does it mean that food was prepared by someone who lives within your city?

The term “local” is relative and does not have a clearly defined meaning. When I see a sign for “local produce,” I assume that the produce was grown in the city or county where it is sold. This is usually true. However, at local produce stands, I have seen produce from Chile or Thailand sitting right next to the local items. A careless consumer would not think to investigate such produce when the sign clearly states, “local produce,” but a quick glance at the tiny sign in the back of the bin would prove otherwise.

How about the label on packages at grocery stores that read, “locally made”? What does that mean? A packaged food product that was prepared by a person who lives within the city or county where the product is sold can be classified as “locally made” even though none of the ingredients are from local sources.

There is no FDA regulation for the term “local.” Therefore, it can be used loosely as a marketing tactic, much like the phrase “environmentally friendly” can be slapped on a container of bioethanol made from corn.

Personally, I choose to support local farmers and producers as much as possible. I like knowing that my money is going directly to my neighbors and the people that support my daily life. Please understand that I have nothing against large corporations that mass produce goods. I feel such types of food providers are necessary for our very large human population. However, choosing local products makes buying and eating food a more personal experience, which makes seemingly small, day-to-day life experiences more personal and fulfilling.

Based on my decision to choose local over mass producers, herein lies the big question: What if a large corporation that mass produces food has a facility within your city or state? If you buy their food products, are you still “buying local”?

This demonstrates what I like to call, The Paradox of Proximity and Magnitude.

The Paradox of Proximity and Magnitude describes a social phenomenon in which as the size of a company grows, it’s “local cred” decreases.

I have seen this happen multiple times in Columbus, Ohio. The beloved Northstar Café and Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams are the golden children of the Biggest Small Town In America. Their original locations on High Street in The Short North have fresh, energetic atmospheres and delectable choices. I cannot remember a day (even in the snow and rain) when these two local shops didn’t have a long line out the door.

However, their great success in The Short North area allowed them to expand and open multiple locations. Northstar currently has three locations around Columbus; and Jeni’s has since expanded to other states. I have heard plenty of once-avid followers of the original Northstar and Jeni’s openly display their disgust of the owners’ decision to expand. They called the owners “sell-outs” and vowed “never to eat at those places again.”

I understand the sense of losing the specialness and personalness of places like Northstar and Jeni’s – wanting to take ownership of them and be able to say, “Well, I ate there before it was mainstream” or “This is part of what makes our city unique.” But can’t we just be happy that really great businesses are achieving substantial success and can share their good deeds with other people in the US? Don’t we want businesses like Northstar and Jeni’s to expand and be leaders in the market?

Many of us have a pretentious mindset where shopping at chain stores or eating at chain restaurants is indicative of poor taste and low class. Instead, we value items that are not available to the masses. This introduces the following arguments:

  1. All chain stores and restaurants, no matter how large they are now, started with a single, local establishment.
  2. It is the goal of a store or restaurant business to earn revenue; and we cannot fault any store or restaurant from wanting to increase their revenue.
  3. It is the goal of a store or restaurant business to increase their customer base; and we cannot fault any store or restaurant from wanting to expand in order to do so.

Essentially, we’re a bunch of hypocrites if we slam the mass producers because they are doing exactly what any business or human being wants to do: grow. Our lives are centered around growth (or they should be, and if they are not, someone needs to read more Be Well Place articles…).

Whenever a company goes “mainstream,” we tend to lose interest and seek out the next underdog. What we don’t realize, though, is that by only supporting underdogs we are missing out on an opportunity to help shape the market and the products that are available to us.

We need to balance buying local with buying big. And when we buy big, we need to be smarter consumers and make good choices that help shape a better market for everyone.

It is very good practice to buy produce from local farmers (i.e., farmers near your city and within your county or state). But it is also good practice to buy products from reputable mass producers (i.e., producers known for the efforts to be environmentally and socially conscious). The key is to educate yourself on the products you buy and determine if you want to support the businesses that make them.

REFLECT

What aspects of products and business are important to you? Cost will usually trump any other aspect, but it should not always be the deciding factor. Don’t you think that if we all stretched ourselves just a bit and made a few responsible purchasing decisions each time we went to the store, collectively we’d all be able to help shape a better market? We do not have to be perfect all the time, but if we dedicate ourselves to a few (just a few) purchasing philosophies, we could really make an impact on the types of products available and the way products are made.

Think about it the next time you go to the store. Take a look at the products on the shelves and ask yourself, “Do I really know anything about these products or how they are made?” If not, educate yourself by reading the labels. Google the company name and see if it owned by a larger corporation. Do a quick news article search to see if the company has any negative press regarding wages, work conditions, or environmental offenses. Be knowledgeable about the stuff you buy and the places you eat. Make sure your decisions reflect what is important to you.

(photo credit: paulswansen via photopin cc)

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