The corporate co-opting of ‘Buy local’

What does the phrase “Buy local”—or, in the case of this issue of our monthly business tab, “Eat local”—really mean? Does it mean don’t go out of town or online to make purchases? Or is it more specific than that?

The question is worth asking, now that everybody seems to be getting on the “Buy local” bandwagon—even shopping malls. Case in point: In March the Economic Development Corp. of Fresno County, partnered with Fashion Fair Mall, Comcast and the Fresno Bee, launched a buy-local campaign with more than $250,000 worth of radio, TV and print ads that spelled it out: “Just so you know, buying local means any store in your community: mom-and-pop stores, national chains, big-box stores—you name it.”

Well, yes and no. Yes, it’s better for to shop at the local Best Buy than at or in Sacramento. That way, studies have shown, about $13 of every $100 you spend stays in the Chico community, as sales tax revenue and employee earnings. But it’s even better to buy from a locally owned company. The prices are often comparable, service is usually better, and $45 of that $100 stays in the community, helping other businesses and supporting government services such as schools. What goes around comes around.

We’re going to see more and more of these corporate-oriented buy-local campaigns that define “local” as the nearest Target, Sears or Home Depot. In some ways that’s good; it shows how influential the movement is becoming. But it’s important also to remember that any effort to encourage consumers to shop at corporate outlets ultimately takes sales away from independent businesses owned by our neighbors and funnels money out of town.

In this issue, we’ve focused on local producers of foodstuffs—folks who take the grapes, olives, almonds and myriad other crops grown locally, turn them into fine products, and market them here and around the world. In some cases they’ve grown the crops themselves. These producers and their products define what it means to “eat local”—and attract sales dollars to this area, rather than sending them away.