handmadeWe don’t shop much. We’re empty-nesters, so there’s no one outgrowing or wearing out stuff to buy for. We know what we like to eat, so we grocery shop once a month. When we buy gifts, we buy, as a matter of principle, only Canadian-made, and when possible even locally-made products. Books and CDs, our two main categories of purchases, are almost all printed and made in Canada.

So on those occasions when we do go shopping, say for a sweater for someone or high-efficiency light bulbs or other repair and replacement parts, we’re particularly aware of the paucity of Canadian-made products, the horrendous quality of all the Chinese junk that fills most stores, and the excessive and wasteful packaging that is needed for this shoddy merchandise to make the overseas trek without breaking and to attract the attention of impulse buyers. We always make a point of commenting to store-owners our dissatisfaction with this sorry state, and they shrug sheepishly and say “that’s what sells”.

I’d like to prove them wrong. I know for a fact that the local farmers’ markets in the summer do excellent business and provide, for the most part, good value. I know a lot of people who are outraged that Roots, the clothing store that covers itself and its products in the Canadian flag, sells almost nothing made in Canada.

So suppose there was a department store in your local shopping mall that sold only locally-made products: Groceries, clothing, shoes, hardware, housewares, appliances, plants and other seasonal goods, gifts, automotive supplies, the whole nine yards. Suppose that it offered a range of products as comprehensive as Wal-Mart or Sears. And suppose that, on average, its merchandise cost 30% more than Wal-Mart’s. Would you shop there? And if it had an online presence would you give it your e-business as well?

The pros and cons, I think, are pretty obvious. Keeping jobs in the community and the country, rewarding companies that don’t offshore. Getting, usually, better quality goods that last longer (and so are actually a bargain in the long run). Having recourse to the manufacturer directly in cases where there is a quality problem. Saving the environment (less energy used in shipping raw materials overseas and shipping finished goods back, less packaging, less junk thrown in the landfill a year after you bought it).

But I’m not sure the majority of buyers, or even a large enough minority of buyers, would see these advantages as being enough to warrant paying more and buying less. Several of our local malls used to have handicraft co-ops in them, where you could buy locally hand-crafted products and artwork from about 50 different artisans, but they closed because they didn’t do enough business to pay the rent. Was this because they didn’t sell staple goods, only giftware? Or because they were gouged as non-anchor tenants in an expensive mall? Or because people just aren’t willing to pay more for locally-made products?

Are there examples where ‘buy local’ stores have been great successes, or spectacular failures? Is it important that the goods be made in or near your community, or is made in [your country] good enough? Would people shopping in such stores be looking for other attributes of responsibility as well (company making the goods is 100% locally or domestically owned; goods are union-made or otherwise certified worker-friendly; goods are organic or EnerStar or otherwise certified environment-friendly)? Would it attract more people if, in product categories evaluated by Consumer Reports, it stocked only products rated good-to-excellent by other consumers? What other attributes of such a store would attract you, or at least address some of the issues you were skeptical about?

I’ve already confessed I’m not your typical shopper, and I’ll also confess that I don’t understand consumer buying habits or why anyone in their right mind would start a retail business in today’s cutthroat anti-entrepreneurial environment. But it seems to me there’s an opportunity here, an opportunity to tell the corporatists and their hapless suppliers that consumers care about quality, the local economy, decent job opportunities and working conditions, and a clean environment. Yes?

In the meantime, here’s a reminder, at this busy shopping season, of the Pledge to Buy Local:

  1. Never buy anything imported if there’s an affordable locally-made alternative.
  2. When you’re shopping for gifts, buy only domestically-made goods, especially local, quality, hand-crafted goods. Or give gift certificates to local restaurants (owned and managed by local people) or other local services.
  3. Find out which businesses in your community have won awards for being excellent employers, or recognized as especially socially or environmentally conscious. Send them a note of congratulations, and go out of your way to give them your business.
  4. If you can’t find a reasonable locally-made alternative:
    1. complain to the store, especially if you know that a locally-made alternative is available but not carried by the store,
    2. try to put off buying the imported item if it’s non-essential — a huge proportion of imported products we buy are ‘impulse’ purchases — stuff so cheap we buy it because we can’t resist the deal — stuff we don’t really need and which usually doesn’t last and ends up in the landfill,
    3. identify and call local companies that might be able to produce the item locally — or consider starting a business to produce it yourself!
  5. If you can’t tell where something is made, assume it’s imported. Beware of misleading ‘assembled in..’ and ‘printed in…’ labels that make imported goods that are repackaged domestically look like domestic goods.
  6. Boycott stores that sell mostly imported goods. Let them know that they are costing local people jobs. If they say the local goods are too expensive, remind them that you get what you pay for — in more ways than one.
  7. Find out whether the major companies in your community have outsourced or exported jobs to other countries. If they have, complain to them, to the local newspaper, and to the Chamber of Commerce.
  8. Tell your local politicians you want tax laws and regulations changed to reward local employment and penalize the export of local jobs to other countries. If they support so-called ‘free’ trade agreements, work to defeat them — these agreements escalate job dislocation.
  9. Talk to the purchasing department where you work and encourage them to Pledge to Buy Local too.
  10. And while you’re reading the labels to see where stuff was made, you can help the world at the same time by buying cruelty-free products (no animal testing) and fair-trade products.

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  1. JC says:

    60-80% will simply buy the least expensive goods. That’s the fact, no matter the indirect costs to community, environment, etc.

  2. Kevin says:

    Regarding JC’s 60-80%, I wonder what % of those are people on a shoesring budget and really can’t afford to pay more, and what % go for the cheap stuff because they don’t realize the indirect costs. I would guess (hope) that the number of people who can afford to pay more, and know the real costs is quite low.I also think that one reason people can’t (or think they can’t) afford a 30% mark-up is becasue they want “a range of products as comprehensive as Wal-Mart or Sears”. I can gladly pay more for local/organic/fair-trade, but the only reason I am able to is that there is almost nothing in Wal-Mart or Sears that I would buy even if it was local. Just about the only things that I do buy which are not local or used are books, a package of CD roms every few months, and tangerines (addicted to them). In full disclosure though, I do have a lot of non-local crap like radio, clothes, shoes etc.. left over from a few years ago before I cared. Even the locally made handcrafts I would pass on unless it has some practicle use, although if the artist was charging to view an exhibition I would pay -so long as I don’t have to take anything home that is going lead to clutter.

  3. dave atlas says:

    I think the idea of buying less while buying from local merchants makes excellent sense. The wasteful, thoughtless, impulsive shopper is the primary target of the tsunami of foreign made junk merchandise on the shelves in the big stores. The common man can’t afford to spend a lot more on local goods unless they are given higher credit card limits. The common man is spent out as it is.Your personal committment to putting down a smaller footprint on mother earth is a sound one and will be the eventual course of action for other thinking beings to follow in the years to come. You are ahead of your time and will probably have personal success in the effort without convincing many others to follow. People tend to do what they must much better than doing what is good for them, especially if there is any pain involved.Keep up the thoughtful writing and be true to your quest for living simply. There is a beauty what you are attempting to do that I admire, although I will be the first to admit it has not been my own course to date.

  4. Rayne says:

    [Tried to post this last night, fortunately comments are back now…]The biggest problem for many consumers: logistics. For the poor, buying goods means going where the bus goes. The bus stops next to the Walmart, but not at all close to the farm market. That must change. For the wealthy, buying goods means going where most products are closest together, hence hypermarts like Walmart. We must find a way to group local suppliers together, to make their own “Mall-Mart”; suppliers of produce next to suppliers with non-produce in the same open space venue. We have flea markets like this, but they typically operate only during the summer. This must change, too.Keep pressing the issues, Dave. These changes aren’t only for the betterment of our future; they will be critical here in the U.S. if an economic crisis comes to pass as economics experts foresee.

  5. Cyndy says:

    I’m not a huge consumer but I am aware of some of my behaviours which aren’t as I wish they were and are a struggle to overcome.a) Purchasing online is very convenient but is rarely local. I tend to make most purchases this way. I also save fuel. I can usually wait a few days.b) Larger chain stores give me anonymity. It’s much easier to walk out without purchasing a thing.c) Local stores are often smaller and more intimate. I almost feel obligated to buy something if I walk in, therefore I don’t often walk in.d) An artisan market doesn’t pressure me in that way, nor does a flea market but I’m usually not in need of what they offer and I have pretty much honed down my purchases to things I need. (except the books and cd’s you mention)A few years ago a very much loved local record store went out of business in part because Borders moved in across the street. There was a lot of outcry locally. I still refuse to buy a CD at Borders. The public outcry was part of a larger awareness that needs to continue. I have frequented used bookstores for much the same reason, the booksellers have drawn attention to their plight.If my behaviours are indicative of others, and I’m not so sure they are, I think local merchants would be best served by sharing the space in an open marketplace, creating less pressure for their customers, sharing the cost of the building, concentrating in a single area for convenience and fuel saving reasons, and share a vision of social and environmental responsibility while providing products that people need. I would pay a premium for something like this.

  6. jill says:

    I want to buy from YOUR local supply.This is one of the reasons its important to choose carefully when you decide where to live. Living in a little area in big Montana, buying locally meant all root vegetables all winter. I’m much happier with berries and hazelnuts here in Oregon.

  7. Dave Pollard says:

    Thanks for your comments, everyone. The paradox seems to be that those who are willing to buy local are those that conserve and hence buy the least. I still think there’s good sense in setting a good example — sometimes that rubs off and has a multiplier effect. But it makes starting ‘buy local’ stores problematic,Rayne: That’s why I asked the question about an ‘online’ outlet for those that can’t get to the store.Cyndy: I actually use online outlets to buy Canadian when I can’t find a Canadian product in the stores. The online outlet would have to ‘stamp’ each item by origin, so people could find and purchase stuff locally no matter where they live. I have no qualms about leaving a store without buying, even if it’s small. It’s your right as a consumer and nothing to be sheepish about. This would definitely not be a flea market — the last thing we need is a rep for poor quality (and most flea market stuff is foreign-made or seconds anyway). I like the idea of a large coop store with individual vendors inside it.Jill: That’s true, though I think of Oregon and Montana as kinda the same local area, relative to, say, produce from overseas.

  8. Don Dwiggins says:

    I think it would be useful for several purposes if the indirect costs could be identified and quantified, in a way that everyone in a community could understand. For example, say Wal-Mart wants to put a store in community X. Based on similar previous experiences in other communities, create a model that would show what the costs and benefits would be to the community: what would happen to the local businesses, to the local workers, etc. Also, for each dollar spent at Wal-Mart, how much of it winds up back in the community, and how much departs for corporate HQ? What would be the effect on the coherence of the community and other intangibles?Given such a model, people in the community might decide that they couldn’t afford the lower prices and other benes that the giant store would bring. (I suspect that the existence of such a model would be a nightmare for Wal-Mart, but I could be wrong.) Dave, you’re good at models — could you give the outline of such a thing?It would also be worthwhile to create alternative models, such as Rayne suggests, to offer a viable competitor to the megastores. (Interestingly, the “flea markets” that are popular here have some of those characteristics. At one near me, local merchants set up booths to complement their primary stores in other locations, thus taking advantage of the concentrated buyer traffic and introducing folks to stores they might not know of.) The co-op model is also a possibility. In Spain, this has been taken to a high level with the Mondragon group of co-ops (http://www.mondragon.mcc.es/ing/index.asp).

  9. Cyndy says:

    Here is a related link about local markets in the Project for Public Spaces website.

  10. Rayne says:

    Nuts. My comment from last night vaporized. [sigh]Anyhow…I noted your comment, Dave, about the online outlets. But there are goods that are not necessarily best represented online. As an example, I would never buy produce online (although I might look for listings of businesses that carried produce). Spur-of-the-moment purchases are better for local businesses, but there is no single place to go to get them. Hence the idea of a local business “Mall-Mart”, where many smaller businesses can aggregate their products. Online representation can augment marketplaces for some products, but cannot replace the need for a physical marketplace.Don’s and Cyndy’s links are quite helpful, in this respect. Thriving local marketplaces can increase the “cool factor” of municipalities and improve their chances for long-term sustainability.

  11. Dave Pollard says:

    Don: Interesting idea. There is a mechanism for doing this, using Environmental & Social Economics models and Full Costing mechanisms. The challenge with Wal-Mart etc. is that a lot of this data would have to come from Wal-Mart directly, and I doubt they would be forthcoming. The AICPA and CICA have tried several times to introduce such reporting into Annual Reports, and even developed auditing standards for it, but no one was buying: The companies themselves didn’t want to disclose it and the shareholders didn’t see it as being valuable enough to press to make it mandatory. Don & Cyndy: Thanks for the links.Rayne: Suppose you could browse the produce by video from your PC, and have it delivered — would you be willing to shop online for produce then? That’s not available yet to the vast majority, but with picture cell phones people will be able to get friends to go to the co-op for them, and flash pictures of the merchandise, and act as the ‘hands’ for the buyer — a boon for shut-ins especially that will enable people to shop for each other easily.

  12. Rayne says:

    Dave, I’m too much of a foodie. I grow many of my own vegetables, am far too aware of what really fresh food smells and feels like to ever give up the tactile test. I might “outsource” only to someone I trusted implicit. Whenever we can actually communicate qualia, this will be an enormous opportunity.

  13. AH says:

    Along with the other factors mentioned here, tight budgets, accessibility, is the extent to which “retail therapy” is a prevalent addiction. Also the pressure parents feel at all income levels, the guilt and dysfunction that result in buying things for little children, and giving teenagers money to shop and hang out.And part of the pleasure of a place like WalMart is the pure plentitude of choice. Psychological profiles differ in this need, and my guess is you are not a big “options” person.Except for farmers’ market food, many progressives in the US want to buy from other places, with a quaint or sophisticated image. That is, buy products with a “local” flavor, just not from their own locale. Apparently it’s much more hip to engage in Canadian than US national or regional patriotism. On the other hand, there’s a longstanding campaign to buy Made in USA goods, always has been. Never got much traction among the opinion leaders.So rational empty nesters may have goals that are not widely shared, though it all appears self-evident from that viewpoint. Particularly in an opposition to Free Trade and its benefits, I think you’re out of step with the masses and with the future. E.g. handmade local cheeses. Delicious. Small producers. Expensive. Rare. Unsuitable for mass production, with its economies and uniform, shippable qualities.

  14. cs says:

    All these ideas, yours Dave and your commentors’, are so envigorating — exactly what comes from shopping in lively marketplaces as opposed to malls. When I lived near Cleveland, we made regular trips to the West Side Market http://www.westsidemarket.com/). The produce wasn’t always locally grown, but the venders were all local, many of them having run their stands through generations. Shoppers ranged from babuska’d ladies from the Greek and Russian neighborhoods near by, to working folks, yuppies, hippies and kids — in all colors. My daughter lives in the district now and does all her shopping there. Many of the middle- and eastern-European vendors we gravitated toward are still there along with new ones from more recent hispanic and mideastern migrations. It’s hard to come home to Kroger’s after I’ve visited her.Still, our little neck of the woods is involved with partnering local growers to local markets via projects of the Rural Life Center at Kenyon College. Next summer Kenyon will host a national conference on building sustainable local foods systems. (http://rurallife.kenyon.edu/centerUpdate.htm)Finally, one chain department store I wouldn’t mind seeing would be one that sold only union-made products that arent’ produced locally — clothing, hardware, appliances, notions, etc. Training of local managers and clerks could include learning about the manufacturing processes of products they sell and unions who make them, thus creating networks of appreciation and support between union workers and local retailers and consumers.I spent my growing up years in industrial areas but now live in a rural area where there little union appreciation or consciousness. I’ve often fantasized that some sort of “Union Maid” outlets could, after decades-long assaults on organized labor, foster a rapprochement between unions and consumers.

  15. Dave Pollard says:

    AH: Interesting perception. We see a lot more US flags on merchandise than Canadian ones, and I sense that Americans are at least as likely to favour home-grown stuff as Canadians — if (big if) they have the choice. That’s what I see missing in Wal-Mart — despite the volume of merchandise there is surprisingly little real choice — just the most popular brands, and just in large sizes.CS: Very true. Maybe we should suggest to unions that they get into merchandising — maybe ‘vertical integration’ could actually work for the people’s benefit?

  16. KC says:

    Hello, you dont know me but I was reading your post about saving the world, you list #10 Cruelty free products. I commend you on adding this to the list (all be it last), by the way, how is Canada coming along with its fur industry??? I am not Canadian and do not buy anything from Canada, not even on eBay, due to the mere fact that it kills baby seals for their fur. As I dont know you and only stumbled across your post I just felt compelled to share some facts you might find interesting or that perhaps you are already aware of: With more than one million harp seals clubbed and shot to death for their fur over the past three years alone, Canada’s commercial seal hunt is the largest slaughter of marine mammals on earth. It is also the most brutal.The Canadian seal hunt is a slaughter of baby seals. Ninety-seven percent of the seals killed in the past five years have been less than three months old, and the majority under one month old. At the time of slaughter, many of these defenseless pups had not yet eaten their first solid meal or taken their first swim, leaving them utterly defenseless against the ‘hunters’. I am hoping that you are also an activist for animal cruelty in your own country as much as you are for only buying your own products. Animals need all the help they can get.Just Sharing my views. Nothing personal is intended with this email.

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