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Buy Local!

On average, buying local in order to save the planet is going to neither save you nor the planet. We know this. But there is still some allure to buying local, even for folks who understand it cannot save the world. After all, most of what we do every day is local. Local is what we know and love. Home is where the heart is. And so on.

But what always puzzles me about the Buy Local movement is that it rarely has an object at the end of the phrase. It really should be something like "Buy Local ______" with the ______ standing in for the product that you like to buy local. So, "Buy Local Blueberries" (in fact those are the only kind my wife and I buy, just got many, many pounds of them for $2/lb over at our favorite orchard west of the city) makes intuitive sense, at least more so than "Buy Everything Locally."

And despite the economics of buying local eggs or milk or cheese or beer, for example, not typically working out, at least what we can say about those sorts of agricultural products is that they are typically mostly produced locally. But I never quite understood the movement to buy local in a more general sense. I think that is done more as a community support message, as a way to make me shop from Tina and Tony down the street rather than from Sabina and Timmy in the next town. And that really bugs me. The "buy local" because it's just "good" for the community smacks of "support me and not someone else" and it bugs me. Why? Because that's not the same as advertising your product to be better or cheaper or have some other desirable quality. It's no different than me promoting myself to teach you economics just because I happen to live near you and for no other reason.

But really the reason for the post is this question. For these types of local retailers – for example, the golf shop that I used to work at – we produce almost nothing locally. All we do is contact our suppliers, who ship product to us, and we in turn sell the product to you. There is, of course, more to it than that. So as a gold retailer promoting buying local (which I did) I was encouraging you to buy Titleist drivers and golf balls that were produced somewhere else and shipped to me rather than if you bought them online (Titleist was hard to buy online back then, so that's a bad example). If you bought them online, they would still be produced somewhere else and then shipped directly to you. I don't think the economies of scale work in the retailers' favor here so I am not very persuaded by the idea that it is somehow more efficient to ship 15 drivers to my pro shop rather than shipping drivers separately to 15 customers (consider that customers would have had to drive to the pro shop).

So how come I don't see ANY bumper stickers that say, "Buy Online!" It would appear to me that in many cases doing so would have an environmental benefit – at least as compared to forcing yourself to buying from local retailers. What's the deal? 

11 Responses to “Buy Local!”

  1. Speedmaster says:

    Ahh, buy local, one of my very favorite economic memes. And biggest pet-peeves. 😉

    >> “”Buy Local Blueberries” (in fact those are the only kind my wife and I buy, just got many, many pounds of them for $2/lb over at our favorite orchard west of the city) makes intuitive sense …”

    But how local is local? If you live on the east side of a city, and you bought on the west side of the same city, is that still local?

  2. Harry says:

    Well, it’s summer, and I buy all of my green beans, blueberries, and sweet corn locally, anything that is good that I do not have the time or equipment to grow for myself.

    OK, I have the time for some of it — for example, I could grow my own potatoes, or, if I were really rich, I could buy Titelist and make my own golf balls. Let’s hear it for the division of labor, and for freedom to choose how one spends one’s time.

  3. Harry says:

    I am with Speedmaster and Wintercow on this “buy local” movement, which is an outgrowth of the disguised Marxist movement — the same strain that includes Ralph Nader, Petra Kelly of West Germany, the Luddites, and many subscribers to Organic Gardening. If I thought that the people who throw dinner parties in the U of R community read theunbrokenwindow often, I would not be so blunt.

    Buy Local, as Mother Jones defines it, is to eschew impure things that are delivered by anything but an ox cart — er, goat cart, er, rickshaw driven by a vegetarian living on native berries and wild rice. The rickshaw driver plants root vegetables and kale to live off during the winter, and if he manages to make enough in tips, he lives like the Unabomber. That is their frugal vision for us, the capitalist roaders, who wear top hats and smoke big Dominican cigars.

    You might think this is an unfair caricature, but did you get a load of the Marxist propaganda in the Olympics opening ceremony, which portrayed the NHS as the savior of the British people from the cigar-smoking capitalist polluters/ exploiters of deserving labour?

    They want us all to ride bicycles. I know it is a bad shot, but the Sierra Club wants nonbelievers out of the Tetons and uncluttered cheaply upgradable flights to Jackson Hole, and I know who he is.

  4. Slogans supress analysis. They do not to encourage it. If you live in a community with a TYSON FOODS CHICKEN FACTORY are you supposed to eschew the organic chickens from 50 or 100 miles away? Clearly, the intention of the slogan “Buy Local” is to boycott multinational corporations. Thus, the entire mandate is “Think globally. Buy locally.” Of course, it fails on many levels. Should I forego the coffee imported under the “Fair Trade” label because it comes from far away? Like a 1984 “doublethink” this slogan only makes your head spin when you try to think it throug… So, it is best not to think….

    We live in Austin, Texas. We belong to the Wheatsville Coop. We find it amusing that “local” Texas foods come from distances that would encompass New England.

  5. Speedmaster says:

    Harry, did you ever hear the EconTalk episode about buy local? It’s legendary. 😉

  6. Trey says:

    Good comments, All.

    Harry, I wonder if the Sierra Clubers have thought about which method uses more fuel: flying into Salt Lake City and driving, or flying directly into Jackson? Of course, the drive from Salt Lake to Jackson is quite stunning.

    Michael, we shop sometimes at Natural Grocer. It’s just up the street from Wheatsville Co-op. I find it funny that 1/4 Natural Grocer’s floorspace goes to supplements — surely not very local.

    Speedmaster, thanks. I am listening right now. I assume it’s the one with Don Boudreaux?

  7. Trey says:

    In support of the non-local nature of the goods we trade, products should be labelled “Made on Earth”. Maybe when we get to Mars _and_ back we can say “Made in the Solar System”.

  8. Harry says:

    Speedmaster, I am not sure to which talk you are referring, but since I do not remember it, kindly forward it or do a link.

    To all of wintercow’s friends, I wish you could be here in a few weeks to eat my tomatoes, which are better than anybody can buy, locally or in the world. If you are for free trade, you get the tomatoes free along with as many raspberries you can pick, and if you give the secret password you get to stay in my house.

  9. Trey says:

    Harry, maybe this is the link:


    My tomatoes were a fail this year thanks to the squirrels (long story).

    “there’s only two things that money can’t buy, and that’s true love and homegrown tomatoes” — Guy Clark


    My password guess is “Bastiat”.

  10. Harry says:

    Trey, never did that. Skied in Logan, though.

    I do remember vividly my first trip into Jackson Hole, coming up from Rock Springs. Snow everywhere on the mountains and Blacktail Butte.

    I bet the drive from Utah would be as breathtaking. We flatlanders think we have mountains. My time in Utah has been limited to the Wasatch range (Alta), but Wintercow has provided us with rich pictures of the rest of it, bucket list material.

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