The ethical dilemma of buying local

By Eric Mathison

The last few years have seen a dramatic rise in attempts to act ethically when traveling around town, shopping and eating out. Along with this increase, a growing number of people are choosing to “buy local,” with numerous websites offering reasons to adopt this lifestyle. But no matter what the product is, the pros of buying them locally don’t add up.

One prevalent argument claims that buying locally keeps money in the community and therefore results in more jobs for local citizens. This reason may seem laudable, but is ultimately fallacious. To justify this argument, we must prove that proximity justifies aid.

Consider why, for instance, we should provide financial aid to a regional neighbour instead of someone in a developing country. We could argue that we can’t help everyone and that local trade is the best way to maximize the good that can be controlled. But buying a product from a local producer does not determine a life-or-death situation like a third world person faces, nor will it decide the case between having their child educated or ensuring their basic medical needs are met. For people who say that Canadians are more worthy of our dollars, this borderline racism is made more absurd when the same people complain about Buy American or Buy EU policies being employed against us. The best strategy in every case is the adoption of free and open markets that limit isolationism.

For those who are worried about jobs, a better labour market develops when non-local companies are allowed to enter. The lament is really toward a loss of local companies, not local workers, as it is only a few producers who are hurt by such action, and while the proverbial mom and pop may be without work, the benefit to the consumers (everyone else) in the area is sufficient compensation. Box chains like Wal-Mart are certainly not taking jobs away — it employs 1.3 million people, as many as the U.S. military. It’s not without its flaws, of course — low prices often come at an increased cost to the environment and mistreated labour — but those cases aren’t typically the reason communities picket to have Wal-Mart banned.

The ethics of what we eat is becoming a more pressing question all the time. In an attempt to decrease the environmental costs of shipping food, the “buy local” movement suggests that switching to local producers saves energy by decreasing transportation distance. But the nature of nature means that buying locally isn’t always the best decision to reduce harmful emissions.

In the conveniently titled book The Ethics of What We Eat, Peter Singer and Jim Mason outline the case that buying local is often a worse environmental decision than buying food that has been shipped internationally, because the emissions from growing food in a region that can’t naturally support it is usually much greater than transportation emissions. In Canada, with such a short growing season, energy consumption from greenhouses are many times that of shipping costs for most fruit and vegetables — excepting potatoes, squash and many grains.

Many grocery store chains have begun advertising locally produced products. However, quality control demands that all products go through distribution centres, making the distance travelled by most products about the same. Problems are exacerbated for those who adopt something like the 100-mile diet: the produce probably isn’t better off environmentally for most of the year and Alberta’s other export, meat, is a much worse environmental practice to support.

Communities don’t compete in a zero-sum game; what benefits one region does not cause another to lose. Considering other groups less deserving of our dollars is the worst end of a belief that argues the wrong means in the first place. While adopting a “buy local” ethic may be for the right reasons, too often the outcomes fail to achieve what they set out to do.

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