We hear it often, particularly from small businesses: “Support local businesses.” But what does it mean to start buying locally, and what impact does this have on the local economy and the environment? In short, why buy local?
Buy Local Movement
The Buy Local Movement began as a way to support the environment and the local community at the same time. In the United States during the 1970s, farmers were supported by the federal government. In order to cut food prices, the US government stopped subsidizing some crops, which had a devastating effect on the farms. The families who ran the farms began to go bankrupt, and they were unable to support themselves. The cost of farming their fields was sometimes higher than if they just burned crops. While the cost for the purchaser was low, the farms began to fail. Large companies swooped in, purchasing the farms at a low cost, and scaled up production. The quality of the agriculture suffered, and the economic blow back for the small towns was devastating. The small farms that were left fought back, and the Buy Local Movement was born.
Financial Support to Local Stakeholders
Being part of globalization has its benefits. We are able to support communities around the world, and obtain access to a large diversity of products that just a generation ago would have been out of reach. With that though, consumers should be mindful of the impact that their spending has on the local community and environment, and should examine the reasons to support local. A big box store can take advantage of a small community, and drive farmers out of the area by offering low prices until they are a virtual monopoly. The energy it may take to produce an organic pear may outweigh its health benefits. There are advantages and pitfalls to keeping your financial support with your neighbors and their families. But buying locally can really help both the local community and economy.
When we think about the products we use, we tend to think more about whether they are sustainably made rather than where they came from. But when consumers purchase goods from a supplier, it’s important to note where the items were made, and how they got to you. With the development of the modern day food supply chain, and lower prices on shipping, it is not unusual for consumers to regularly eat food that was grown thousands of miles away, rather than local food. There is little study outside the United States Midwest on the amount of distance our produce travels, and the local environmental impact this transportation makes. A 2003 study out of the Michigan State University’s Center for Regional Food Systems studied produce and food in Iowa. It was discovered that conventionally grown food traveled 1,494 miles, while local food traveled on average 56 miles before making its way to the consumer. It did not matter whether the produce was organic or not, only whether the consumer was buying locally.
Transportation is the Culprit
Even though there are less studies on food, the impact of supply chain on sustainability in other sectors, such as transportation and retail, are closely related and well documented. Transport burns the largest amount of the world’s petroleum, and trucks are responsible for 34% of the global greenhouse gas emissions. While it’s difficult to pinpoint exactly how much of an impact on the environment food has, it is a massive amount of energy, usually expended in fossil fuels. This environmental impact is far less great when purchasing local food. Most of the goods that we use, from food to clothing, can be obtained from a nearby community with a little creativity. You can challenge yourself to purchase only local items.
How To Buy Local Online?
There are lots of online sites that can help you find local suppliers. Whether you use Shopify or Etsy, these platforms can connect you with small businesses that often make most of their products themselves. You can also use sites like Locally which immediately show you the brands and retailers that are within your reach, without having to use e-commerce. You can find in stock items that are available immediately, without having to wait for shipping, and without having to drive to multiple locations. For nearby sourced food, check your local papers or municipal sites to see when and where the farmers markets are set up in your town.
When determining the environmental impact of a food, you should consider not just the distance that food is travelling, but the method of transportation. Air transport produces almost 60 times the amount of carbon dioxide that ocean transport does. If you have the option, try to source items within driving distance.
What is Local Food?
Local food refers to any produce that is grown on a farm within your geographical region. It’s a broad term, but the closer you can shop for food to your own community, and the fewer miles your food has to travel, the better. The food doesn’t require large amounts of shipping from far away places to reach you at the farmers market or grocery store. Purchasing local food doesn’t necessarily mean that you should cut out everything that isn’t made within a 100 mile radius though. Just be conscious of what products you are purchasing, how many miles they have traveled, and try to introduce more fresh locally grown items to your diet where possible. Try to find fresh food suppliers to support that use sustainable resources, are operated by a family rather than a large scale corporation, and produce quality agriculture. There are other things you can do to decrease environmental impact, such as limiting the number of trips to the grocery store in a week, or supporting small independent markets over large grocery chains.
Reasons to Buy Local Food
There are lots of benefits to buying locally. There is an economic benefit to your own community when you source local food. A neighbors owned shop selling food is more likely to employ local residents, keep profits in the community, use local goods and food themselves, and contribute to not-for-profits in the immediate area. Their prices are likely very good, and they are less likely to bring in out of town employees, or spend their money in a different community.
You are also promoting food security in your community when you work with local farmers. Food security is the concept of people having access to adequate amounts of nutritious and safe food. The more local food is purchased, the more business farmers get, and the more likely they are to stay in business. This means that a community will have food security, with lots of locally grown food available. When farmers are making a profit on their land through the food that they sell, they see personal value in retaining it. This means that farmland and agricultural sectors will remain in communities. Land is less likely to be developed for other use, meaning you will have better access to fresh food, and there will be more eco-diversity in your neighborhood. Shopping at a farmers market gives you the chance to get to know your local farms and agriculture practices, and more about how your food is made. It’s a great way to speak with a local farmer, and farmers get to understand the needs of their consumer. If you are purchasing directly from a market, chances are you will be able to speak with a farmer who produced your food. You can speak about how the cattle was raised for your steak, and what they are fed. Chat with local farmers about their agricultural practices. You will have a better understanding of where your food comes from, and more than likely end up with better goods and services as a result.
Local food is also better for your health. Some pesticides that are banned during local food production in North America are still used in other parts of the global economy. Food sprayed with these pesticides could still be imported and sold in a country that has banned that particular pesticide. There is also generally a lower cost when buying locally grown food. Transporting food requires a massive amount of energy, and that energy is expensive. Buying local direct from a farmer cuts out the majority of the supply chain, allowing farmers to keep their costs low.
You should also consider the fossil fuels that are used to transport your food. Where your food comes from will determine the energy used to transport it, but generally speaking there is a huge impact on the environment when food has to be brought to another region on a large scale. Buying local from local farmers avoids this further impact on the environment. Produce that is produced by a local farmer will taste better, last longer, and be better for your health. Many fruits and vegetables are picked under-ripened when they are being transported, so that they don’t go bad by the time they reach the consumer. This changes the taste of the produce, as it has not been allowed to ripen naturally in the field.
Many genetic strains of food have been cultivated not for their taste, but because they transport well. This leads to far less diversity in the crops available. Farm bought food tends to last longer than food shipped to you, and you are guaranteed fresh food. Often you can find produce that has been picked within a few hours of purchase. You may also be able to obtain heirloom strains, that may not be available from a large store. Farmers who do not have a large production, but rather a small farm, tend to have more sustainable growing practices. They are concerned more with the quality of their produce, and not the scale of their farm.
The drawback to buying only local food and produce is that there are plenty of fruits and vegetables that only grow in specific climates. It means that someone living in New York may not be able to eat an orange or a pineapple. You may not have local farmers in your area that supply what you are looking for.
Supporting local farms and food production is a very important part of living an eco-friendly life. There are plenty of reasons to buy local, but out of all these transportation is probably the most significant factor in the production of greenhouse gases that are in the background of global warming.
Beyond purchasing products and services from a nearby source, there are many other things you can do to protect the environment, if interested please read our article on how to be more eco-friendly.
Frequently Asked Questions
What is the Buy Local Movement?
The Movement is to encourage consumers to buy locally sustainable food from independently operated small shops, so that money spent stays in the smaller communities and out of the hands of large scale retailers. Meanwhile also protecting the environment from pollution caused by long haul transportation.
Can I buy local online?
You can absolutely source local items online! Most small businesses offer a web presence, so you can shop for products made in whole or in part in your own neighborhood and city.
What products should I buy locally?
Locally grown food is one of the best products to get. Food has a large carbon footprint, and produce bought from the area ensures that farmers get a larger economic benefit from your purchase. Plus, going to a farmers market is a great way to spend a morning.
Read our recently published article if you are interested in how to reduce your carbon footprint and why it is important.
Can I buy local clothes?
While most clothing production has shifted to big box retailers, there are still lots of small and independent fashion stores that make their own clothing.
Where to buy local meat?
Rather than heading to a grocery store, find your nearest butcher for the best local meet. Butchers will be able to tell you exactly what farm your meat came from, how the animals are raised, and what they are fed. As a bonus, you can have your meat cut to your specifications.