In today’s Crosscut article, Buy Local, Think National, it’s author, Floyd McKay, reports on the upswing of buy local organizations, highlighting the Bellingham, WA, group, Sustainable Connections, as one of the shining examples of a successful organization.
In many ways, this highlights the shortcomings of other regions in Washington state when it comes to encouraging local businesses. Many cities and towns, my own included, need to encourage the buy local ethic, and they need to encourage local businesses, either through tax incentives or by creating a business incubator for new local businesses.
Now,we do have more than our share of farmers markets in the Puget Sound region, but they are very seasonal so that you only get a window on locally grown produce, fish, and meats. But we could do better.
One common complaint I hear about my town, Kenmore, WA, is that while you have plenty of choices for lunch or dinner, or to have a drink, you can’t buy new shirt or underwear within a 20 minute drive. And drive is the operating word here. There is only one of two places I could go to without changing buses, the rest either take one or two bus changes and/or switch to a different transit company.
The problem with that sentiment is that a business that sells clothes like that is typically not a local business, but a chain store. The reasons why are well known: chains can buy in bulk, substantially reducing the end cost of a good to the consumer, while local, mom & pop stores only buy lots of ten or twenty, thus paying a higher cost for the same goods, and passing on a higher price to the consumer. And consumers want low prices, despite the fact that it’s bad for their local economy and way of life.
Can we turn the clock back to where it was more economical to buy everything locally? No, not unless we experience another major crash of the economy, one greater than the one we’re currently experiencing.
Speaking of the current economy, one of the big problems most people cite about buying locally is that the prices are higher than for items shipped in from other countries. It’s one of those vicious circles: People don’t buy the local product, so that the local producer reduces the amount of that product he produces. Prices go up because now there’s fewer of the that product on the market and the producer has to cover his costs. People don’t buy the product because the price has gone up…
Eventually the local producer goes out of business because the cost of production just a few items is far higher than the return he gets selling the items.
One solution is to buy more of that locally produced product and encourage the local producer to make more.
That has it’s own nasty side effect. Take produce for instance. The sustainable farmer sells out of all his produce, so he opens up those fields that he had lie fallow or, more realistically, buys new fields and increases his yield for the next season. He may be able to lower prices and if he does well, he may expand again, if he can. And the demand for his produce increases.
The sustainable farmer is now faced with a dilemma: Not expand and maintain his current market or become a commercial farmer and drop sustainable farming in favor of production farming, using chemical fertilizers and non-ecological farming techniques. We all can hope he doesn’t choose the latter.
In the end, all we can do is to try to support those local businesses that we can and try to live a sustainable life.
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