Unresolved Issue: Buy Local

by phil on Sunday Jan 18, 2009 7:05 PM
mainfeed, willful devil's advocate

The "Unresolved Issue" segment is a recurring idea I have. There seem to be a handful of issues where it appears there is an obvious right answer, and yet, upon further inspection, they just beg more questions. However, I like to focus on unresolved issues that have a potential of being resolved. Usually a heroic friend or an awesome writer comes along with some rhetoric that seals the argument up.

The "Buy Local" movement is one of those issues for me. I got this article in a local paper titled, "Local small-business owners hope trend of shopping local continues in new year," and it comes with this handy infographic:

Should I give a crap about "Buying Local?" The urge seems to resonate with my liberal ears, but then it seems to contradict other natural liberal impulses, such as "Help the kids in Africa." Well, buying local doesn't hurt the kids in Africa either. Wait. Is it better that I don't fund a sweatshop in China? What else would they be doing if my dollars didn't go to China? Is it better that my dollars go to unionized workers here, which may be more likely to exclude the immigrant work force?

Someone came around the office a couple years ago, asking us to sign a petition to prevent Wal-Mart from opening a store. In my mind, I thought, "What the hell? Wal-mart will employ more minorities, and they will make things cheaper for low-income families." Whenever I go into these colorful, "local," shops, I sense a suspiciously lower proportion of minorities employed there. Forget about affirmative action ever being applied to a small business. Small businesses, in my opinion, are held less accountable. Stat or shat: small businesses pirate more software than big businesses. Small businesses aren't automatically holier than big businesses.

An argument for "Buying Local" sounds immediately palpable: "buying local puts dollars into the local community." But what exactly is the problem if my dollars are sent elsewhere? And besides, if I shop at a local boutique clothing store, my dollars are helping to pad the wealth of a manager whose power comes from simply having been here 20 years ago, when property was cheap. I don't really think I'm, "enriching the community."

However, this wouldn't be an unresolved issue without a flipside. Many of these arguments can go unstated, but I'll repeat them to show I'm genuinely split. One benefit to "Buying Local," is decreased transportation, which is better for the environment. In the case of food, that makes it a hell of a lot healthier. "Buying local" also gives the shops in the neighborhood more personality. Which also helps bring more dollars to the city. "Buying local" also helps keep a city self-sufficient; I am indeed grateful that Austin's cradle hasn't been rocked as hard by the economic downturn as other major metros.

Anyway, this whole issue is couched this way because I want to be informed. I would like to know what the appropriate stance should be.


Anthony said on January 18, 2009 11:44 PM:

There are many reasons that you should buy local. Most important to me is diversity and competition. Other cities in Texas like Houston, Dallas, and San Antonio are largely dominated by national chain stores. Don't get me wrong, they are all great cities, but they lack the large amount of choice Austin has to offer, which by way of competition breeds unique and innovative business and culture.

For example, imagine if instead of Beauty Bar you had Little Woodrow's, or PF Chang's instead of Asia Market. Also, let's not forget the awesomeness that is the Alamo Drafthouse. While those other cities do have some great local businesses, they have nowhere near the amount that Austin does.

I don't find big national chains to be evil, but when given a choice between buying the same product from chain or local, I usually choose local. Partially because it keeps the local economy doing well (which is good for many many reasons), but also because local businesses are usually more personal. They are more connected to the community and receptive to it's needs. I feel that local business go much further when trying to take care of their customers.

Whole Foods used to be a small local business in Austin. It has now sprouted into a huge national company. This doesn't mean you shouldn't shop there anymore, if the service they provide is adequate then there is no problem. This is true with other businesses not grown in Austin.

I think the whole "Buy Locally" movement (most notably Keep Austin Weird, but there are others) is around for two reasons. First, of course all the local businesses are going to support and campaign for it because... It makes them money! So that's pretty obvious. The other side is the customers who love all the amazing things Austin has to offer and don't want to see all their favorite stores pushed out by large chains. It's a good idea to have a movement like this to help bring people's attention to the decisions made by the city government concerning local business (although prop 2 was pretty messy - I'm not getting into that here). Though, I don't really think the campaign has much of an impact on the majority of people's choice of whether to buy locally.

Sure they and I can go on and on about economy and diversity and all the large ramifications, but the real choice is up to the local businesses. People will continue to buy local only as long as they provide a superior service, so the burden really falls on them to make you happier than the chain stores. So just ask yourself next time you have the choice between local and chain: Which of these do I hope is still around in 10 years?

Philip Dhingra said on January 19, 2009 12:18 AM:

Those are very good points. Glad you chimed in. You were born here!

The diversity and innovation points are something I think I overlook. I like Austin in totality. There's an abundance of local and national services. And it's not just diversity in character, but also diversity in type of services provided. Alamo does provide a unique movie-going experience that transcends simply being a "So.. Austin" movie-going experience. And yet, something about Austin (perhaps the local-attitude), uniquely permits something like the Alamo.

So I'll admit, I do take for granted the local 'tude of Austin. I guess when I hear "buy local" my radar picks up "fear of outsiders."

I was a little embarrassed about Austin, when I had two friends visit from out town, and at the Alamo they have that trailer that says, "if there's a noisy table next to you, let us know and we'll notify a manager to take their ass out". I wasn't that embarrassed, but I did kind of cringe and had to make some joke explanation, like, "yup, that's Austin's 'character.'"

Having said that, I guess you take the good with the bad. I can put up with the occasional starving artist who's too good to provide customer service (but has piercings, and therefore "local" charm) if I can get a semi-healthy and succulent burger at four in the morning (Kerbey Lane)

Anthony said on January 19, 2009 12:43 AM:

Lol, I have been informed that Beauty Bar is in fact national, so I just got pwnt. Anyways, just replace it with Emo's!

Philip Dhingra said on January 19, 2009 12:45 AM:

love emo's (and beauty bar) lol.

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