September 16, 2015
The Dark Side of 'Buy Local'
By Edgar Wilson
Defining "us" and "them" doesn't stop at national borders. The future of the economy, and the world, may involve many different uses of "local" to exclude and label perceived threats.
In spite of the global economy, America is enjoying a surge of local pride.
Communities, neighborhoods, cities, even whole regions are finding increasingly creative ways to buy, share, support, and otherwise invest locally. In some cases, this is a reaction to an increasingly homogenized culture: mainstream music all sounds the same, while independent local musicians capture that underdog, counter-cultural spirit America loves so much.
Slow food, the movement founded on the idea that processed, globally-sourced, ambiguously labeled foods can and should be replaced by a local, seasonal diet is gaining devotees. Likewise, while chic chain restaurants do their best to appeal to younger, environmentally and health-conscious consumers, independent restaurants thrive in cities by supporting nearby agriculture, sourcing items from artisanal shops and small growers.
Local-first sensibilities drive savers and cardholders to open accounts with credit unions, shop at family-owned retailers, and look for brands based closest to home. Sports fans, naturally, support their home teams, while the economics of higher education make in-state savings often too attractive to pass up for college students and their parents, all too aware of the perils of student loans.
Even new trends in volunteering center on the notion that local-first initiatives, at least in theory, are the most beneficial.
Advocates and analysts alike can point to plenty of reasons why local investment of this sort is good for the economy as a whole. Small businesses create jobs; worker ownership creates more incentive to perform well and take responsible risks;accountability rises when reputations are not deluded by larger populations of stakeholders. But all this place-based harmony is also the basis for a dangerous, self-defeating sort of exclusivity.
From Japan's conflicted attitude toward Korean immigration, to Europe's clumsy dealings with Syrian refugees, to the xenophobic rhetoric of America's leaders with respect to its southern border, the "us and them" mentality demands higher walls and fewer gates between nations.
Yet while the international relations side of migration inflames more dynamic discussion today, domestic migration driven by climate change may dominate hyperbolic, defensive talk of who is "local" in coming years. The Dust Bowl caused a mass migration of farmers and other suddenly impoverished residents of the American Midwest, permanently affecting the demographics of the country and the economies of regions both abandoned and swollen by the shift.
That pattern could well be duplicated, either by natural disasters, or simply through market disruption.
Illegal immigrants is one thing, but whole states pouring their workers across their borders to compete for jobs and housing? Are sports fans prepared to be more tolerant of their rivals than anti-immigrant leaders have been of migrant workers?San Francisco and Seattle have been thrust into the same situation as Brooklyn, suddenly gentrified but on a massive scale as new jobs drive up home prices and the cost of living, forcing those not caught in the rising economic tide to drown beneath it. Graduates flock to these booming metropolises, only to complain alongside lifelong residents about how uncontrolled growth is ruining the neighborhood.
Can there be room for everyone when individual cities--regions and countries notwithstanding--are the only stable place to live?
Technology and internet connectivity mean that even small businesses and local companies can stretch their influence to a global level--yet this kind of integration can only be supported by systems and corporations that exist and compete on that same massive, global scale. In short, local and global need one another, and one cannot keep the other out forever. The cognitive dissonance required to support "buy local" campaigns while simultaneously benefiting from globalization isn't just a phenomenon among consumers.
Educating the future workforce requires a recognition of what global needs--and global academics--look like. Failing that, policy must accommodate employers hiring based on talent above nationality, or the system doesn't produce any value, much less profit. Researchers are trying to find a way to sell this necessity to a skeptical, nationalistic public:
"While we are now part of a global economy, most Americans probably really aren't crazy about the notion of exporting all of America's STEM jobs overseas because we don't have the workforce and expertise that we need to fill them. So in other words, this isn't somebody else's problem. This is your problem. This everybody's problem. This is America's problem."
It is only a problem if Americans insist on filling the jobs domestically required by the economy globally. In a world broadly tolerant of migration, the market will provide the supply to meet demand.
The globalization trend has been, on the whole, a success. America's factory workers lost jobs and wages, while overseas workers saw a massive rise in wages and standards of living; more stuff is being made and sold, and the net effect is that the global economy grew. On a local level, however, things look less rosy. The Rust Belt is a testament to local interests losing out to the bigger, global picture.
At every level, it seems, the world is simultaneously cooperating and competing: city-state, state-nation, nation-world, all benefiting from integration, yet suffering from the changing scales of the economy. Shoppers want to buy local, but love the prices and perks they get elsewhere. Likewise, workers may want to grow roots, but they are rewarded for being mobile enough to move where the jobs are.
This reality might be instructive as global events--terrorism, failed states, climate change, technology--drive migration between cities, regions, and nations. But the love of local may come at the expense of tolerance of perceived "outsiders." To survive, locals everywhere will have to adjust that perception.
Edgar Wilson is an Oregon native with a passion for cooking, trivia, and politics. He studied conflict resolution and international relations at Amherst College, and has split his time between New England and the Pacific Northwest ever since. He has worked in industries ranging from international marketing to broadcast journalism, currently serving as a marketing consultant and freelance writer. He can be reached via Twitter @EdgarTwilson.