The “buy local” movement has been around in some form since international trade and globalization began.
Historically, during WW1 a movement began to buy “Made in Canada” goods. This was because the economy at this time saw imported products as a growing threat. Similarly, in the United States, the “Buy American Act” of 1933 prioritized “American-made” products. These movements gained momentum again in the last decade or so with pressure to support locally sourced and sold products, over imported goods sold at corporate chains. More recently this concept of shopping locally has gone viral, especially since the pandemic hit, and local/small businesses were significantly impacted. Buying locally can mean paying more, but it can also mean getting better quality. Trying to balance between saving money and also supporting local business is difficult! This blog post is just giving one perspective on the buy local movement.
There is no right or wrong answer when it comes to shopping and we are all just doing our best!
What is “LOCAL”?
First, let’s take a closer look at what “shopping locally” can mean. There is definitely a gray area about what constitutes this. Let’s consider a hypothetical company that was founded in a small town in Canada and is considered a local company. Said company grows into a massive corporation and it can be assumed that a majority of their product inventory shifts to being shipped in from overseas. Some products may be “Made in Canada” or a “Product of Canada”, but it would be likely to assume that those “local” products pale in comparison to the imported products. So the question remains, is shopping at this Canadian corporation still shopping locally?
Now, let’s look at the concept of where the product itself originates in relation to shopping locally. A retail store may sell a product, such as a lamp locally. They may have purchased that lamp from a local distributor. However, that local distributor may have imported that product, which in turn was entirely manufactured overseas and transported on a cargo ship to the distributor. This lamp purchased at the local retail store, will have written on the package, instructions, or label, “made in [insert overseas country here].” Is the local retail store, that the consumer, purchased from still considered a local store selling a “local” product?
Let's dive a little deeper. Not all products are entirely manufactured overseas and will in turn say “Made in Canada” or “American-Made”. Interestingly, that doesn’t mean that all parts of them are manufactured in Canada or the USA, but instead the manufacturing process is finished there and a percentage of the components that make up the product are made locally in Canada or the USA. So what percentage of materials within a product should be manufactured domestically, to be considered a local product? A product is defined as “American–made” under the Buy American Act if at least 50 percent of its constituent parts and/or materials originated in the US. Similarly, according to the Competition Bureau of Canada, a sector of the Canadian Government, a product is defined as a “Product of Canada” if 51 percent of its components are made/originated in Canada. Additionally, a product is defined as “Made in Canada'' if it meets a 98 percent threshold. If these percentages dropped further, then companies could make "Made in Canada,” “Product of Canada,” or “American-Made” claims about any product for which the last substantial transformation occurred in Canada or the USA, even if all its components were imported. So why do we even care if a product is fully imported, partially manufactured overseas, or completely sourced and made locally?
Now let’s look at the potential “IMPACTS” of local vs. import products
When you buy locally manufactured and sold products, it is often easy for the consumer to determine if the company is sustainable and eco-friendly in their practices. For example, if you purchase fish from a local fisherman, you can easily find out if the fish is ethically sourced. When you purchase fish that comes from overseas, you don’t know if it is ethically sourced or not, and it is difficult to find out this information. Having “access” to the owners of a local company can help answer any questions about sustainability, and often local companies will even communicate their sustainability efforts on their website and/or social media sites.
Pre-Sustainability discusses carbon miles, “a term often used to remind us about the distance the product travels from producer to consumer.” Local sourcing can be beneficial to the environment, as it uses less transportation and consequently causes less carbon emission. Imported products often require shipping containers transported on ships that actually produce more greenhouse gas emissions than some small countries. For example, one cargo ship (the length of six football fields) can produce the same amount of emissions as 50 million cars. Other negative environmental impacts and pollution that importing products contributes to, includes oil spills, sea-shipping waste into the ocean, and ultimately harming the ocean ecosystem.
Quality of the product
Supporting local businesses and products can mean spending more, because a local company that uses local materials often has higher overall costs to manufacture their product. In opposition to this, we often see large companies moving material purchase orders from one low-cost country to the next one, whenever it lowers their cost and increases their profits (Pre-Sustainability). Going for the product that is best for a sustainable global economy, means changing the “buy cheaper” mindset for consumers who are looking to save money. Cheaper products often means buying imported goods from the corporate competitors of small local businesses. So why change the consumer mindset of buying the best deal, to buying the best-made sustainable and local product? The quality! For example, planter boxes and raised garden beds are becoming a popular household purchase. The prices of these products can vary amongst seemingly “similar-looking” items that are locally made and sourced, or imported. A locally manufactured planter with trusted local materials ensures you are getting high-quality (made from Western Red Cedar), and subsequently, a built-to-last product. In comparison, purchasing an overseas manufactured planter that is marketed as “cedar” is actually not made from cedar and is instead made from an inferior wood. There is a similar trend found with planters from companies that advertise as “made in America” on their websites and social media, but after receiving the item the packaging clearly states “made in China.” These products are not built to last as long as locally manufactured products, and you will end up having to repurchase said item in a year or two. Let’s investigate the ramifications of this below.
One-Time-Purchase vs. Throw-Away Culture
Cedar Works explains this concept in more detail regarding the manufacturing of wooden outdoor playsets. “Starting around 2005, wooden outdoor playsets began to arrive in bulk from China. Initially these playsets were marketed as made from ‘China Fir’ which is the common name for Cunninghamia Lanceolata, a species native to China. Soon thereafter, marketers changed the name for this same wood to ‘Chinese Cedar’ to piggy-back on the reputation of authentic North American cedars. Eventually, marketers dodged the association with China altogether and began to simply call it ‘Cedar’. But this so-called "cedar" is not cedar and is certainly not the same as North American cedars. Such deceptive labeling comes at a cost to consumers who pay for a "cedar" playset expecting to get the quality of authentic cedar but don't.” This is a perfect example of a current trend found with planter boxes and raised garden beds that are imported from overseas. They are marketed as made from cedar, but are actually made from China fir, a wood that is not as long-lasting, and not resistant to swelling, warping, and decaying, to the degree that real Western Red Cedar is. The quality for these outdoor products can matter in the long run, and when a consumer may save money initially purchasing a less-expensive imported product, they can end up spending more money if they have to replace a product that does not withstand climate and weather changes. This also contributes to throw-away culture, when consumers need to purchase the same products over again, and previously bought products that break are discarded to landfills.