Sunday, January 20, 2008

Why I Support The "Buy Local" Movement

I'm not going to sugarcoat it: a lot of the supporters of "buy local" organizations like Local First Utah are seriously economically ignorant. They think that if we buy local goods, this will make us all better off economically than we would be otherwise. It's pretty clear that the opposite is true-- that Wal-Mart selling jeans for $9.00 a pair puts an extra couple of bucks in our pocket to spend locally, that we wouldn't have had otherwise to spend had we bought $30.00 locally-made jeans. I'm firmly on the "yay for international trade" side of things. I like my cheap Chinese-made trinkets, and I like shipping hundreds of pairs of baby booties to Japan and Australia and Canada.

Nevertheless, I support organizations like Local First Utah, provided that they aren't trying to force people to buy local, but rather urge and facilitate them to buy local. I think that in order for the global economy to work, we can't just be consumers in it, we also have to be producers. And to be producers, we have to produce something. And that something arises out of local culture, and local culture arises out of local interactions, of which commerce is a subset. Therefore by encouraging local commerce, I encourage my community to develop a product or service for which it is well-known locally. This local fame then helps it to compete with nationally or globally produced products or services, improving the local product or service and giving us something we can sell to the world too.

Case in point: Spillman software. [Full disclosure: FH works for Spillman.] They produce software for police departments, correctional facilities, and 911 dispatch. Spillman started in Logan, Utah, and Logan City Police Department has historically been their showcase. From that small start, Spillman developed products that are now in use all over the United States. Buying local was the springboard for development of a nationally competitive product.

Local trade also facilitates local culture, and local culture brings people together as a community. Case in point: Gossner's. Gossner's is a Logan institution. Everyone in Logan who isn't allergic to milk has eaten Gossner cheese and/or drunk Gossner shelf-stable milk. They have it in vending machines at schools. Gossner's local fame made it possible for Gossner products to be depicted in the movie "Napoleon Dynamite". Admittedly that was sort of a cult film and not a lot of people noticed that they were drinking shelf-stable milk instead of juice in the cafeteria, but my aunt did and she came all the way out from California wanting to see the small town of Preston, Idaho (about 45 minutes' drive from Logan and in the same valley) and have herself some Gossner's milk. At any rate, the local fame was a prerequisite for the national exposure.

That, to me, is what slogans like "Think globally, act locally" mean: locally create a competitive product for global trade. Sell it to your neighbors as a test bed for taking the company larger. Of course, the kind of people who have that sort of bumper sticker would probably gasp in shock before they took me out back to the woodshed for a meeting with the "board of education" if they ever found out someone thought of their slogan that way.