Buy Local Movement: Regional Pride or Protectionism?
Buy Local Movement: Regional Pride or Protectionism?

Wal-Mart, the world’s largest grocer, has jumped on the Buy Local bandwagon and recently announced that it is increasing its produce from local farmers. Because of its global presence and extensive supply chain, the impact of this decision will be wide-spread and has the potential to empower small and medium-sized farmers around the world. Wal-Mart is not alone! The Buy Local movement can be found in every corner of the globe, as communities turn inward to support local vendors and try to jumpstart local economies.

What is the Buy Local movement?

The Buy Local movement encourages people to buy food, products, services, etc. originating from the local community. Unlike foods labeled organic, there is no state, federal, or international regulatory agency that defines the qualifications to label something as local. Local products are usually made within a 24-400 mile radius.

Some retailers, such as Britain’s Tesco, are using “carbon counting” labels that allow consumers to know how far the food traveled and how much CO2 emissions were used in transport.1 In the U.S., there are six co-ops using a unique labeling system, entitled P6, which designates that products were grown locally, come from a small-farmer or producer, another co-op, or non-profit organization. This label considers products locally grown if they came from the surrounding states or have some level of local production, beyond packaging.2

Examples from around the world

Examples of the Buy Local Movement can be found in every corner of the globe:

  • In Wales, fork2fork is encouraging people to buy food directly from the producers. The Welsh government set up a Community Food Co-operative Programme for fruit and vegetable producers, with a pilot program for fish and meat producers.3
  • In Nambia, local celebrities are promoting local clothing designers, billboards state “LOCAL is lekker’.”4 (Lekker means good in Afrikaans.)
  • In the Northwest Territory of Australia, Buy Local has been promoted through labeling laws enacted in 2008 to designate the country of origin for fresh produce and more recent labeling laws for seafood.5
  • In Jamaica, the Caribbean Media Exchange (CMEx) on Sustainable Tourism is trying to get the hotel industry to buy local produce, instead of imports.6

Wal-Mart’s campaign to promote local products is taking place worldwide. In the U.S., locally grown produce will account for nine percent of the produce, while in Canada it will account for 30 percent, and up to 100 percent, when available. Wal-Mart has pledged $1 billion to small and medium-sized farmers in developing countries to train them to choose crops that are in demand and to properly use pesticides and water.

To ensure that this initiative works, Wal-Mart is spending an additional $1 billion to improve its supply chain to help farmers get their crops to the stores faster and to avoid middlemen when possible, thus allowing them to pay more for the local produce.7 Food distribution is one of the biggest challenges of the Buy Local movement, as warehouses and trucking companies and other elements of the supply chain are often unprepared to deal with large numbers of small producers.8

Positive Impacts

Supporters tout many benefits, including: reduction of obesity, fresher and more variety of foods, decreased environmental footprints, increased local employment, less vulnerability to shortages and prices spikes, and increased sense of community.

The Food Policy Task Force in Los Angeles released a report stating that regional food systems would give low income people more access to fresh fruit and vegetables. Low income people are often at risk for obesity (see our article The Globalization of Obesity). To help low income people take advantage of farmers markets, the task force recommends getting food stamps accepted by market vendors.9

Supporters of Buy Local often connect environmental benefits with increased sense of community. notes:

Food processors also use a large amount of paper and plastic packaging to keep fresh food from spoiling as it is transported and stored for long periods of time. This packaging is difficult or impossible to reuse or recycle. In addition, industrial farms are a major source of air and water pollution.10 has a similar message:

Most produce in the US is picked 4 to 7 days before being placed on supermarket shelves, and is shipped for an average of 1500 miles before being sold… We can only afford to do this now because of the artificially low energy prices… and by externalizing the environmental costs of such a wasteful food system. We do this also to the detriment of small farmers by subsidizing large scale, agribusiness-oriented agriculture with government handouts and artificially cheap energy.11

Some view buying local through the lens of national security and see it as a necessity that countries should be able to provide food to its citizens. In Senegal, the president is trying to wean his country off of food imports and support locally grown foods, such as rice. In 2008, Senegal was unable to get imported rice because of worldwide shortages and price spikes.12

While many scholars note that developing countries are often hurt by Buy Local campaigns abroad, some argue that they do benefit from local campaigns. The Buy Local campaign would be helpful for developing countries if implemented as part of food aid from developed countries. Food aid from the U.S. often consists of supplying cheap food from the U.S. to developing countries. Unfortunately, this practice often prices out local competitors who cannot compete with the low cost food from the U.S. Small farmers are often forced to declare bankruptcy. When the U.N. World Food Program bought corn from local vendors in Africa, they were able to provide 75 percent more corn to hungry and needy families. Thus local food aid has the potential to empower local entrepreneurs, rather than discourage them.13

Negative Impacts

Critics of the Buy Local movement state a number of negative impacts, including less choice in products, provincialism, environmental degradation, and a trade backlash.

John Clark, a social development specialist for East Asia at the World Bank and author of “Worlds Apart: Civil Society and the Battle for Ethical Globalization” notes that the movement harms developing countries who rely on exports to developed countries as a major source of income. He gave the example of 50,000 Bangladeshi children who lost their garment industry jobs with a 1996 boycott by Western shoppers. He believes the Buy Local movement could have a similar effect.14

Roy Jacobowitz, senior vice president for development and communications at Acción International agrees that developing countries will suffer from the movement: “Poor entrepreneurs in the emerging world need the opportunity to sell into markets that can pay fair prices for their goods.”15 African countries will be hard hit, as Europe is one of the continent’s major export markets. Buy Local campaigns in Europe would view African imports as detrimental to the environment because of the air transport needed for perishable goods.16

Alex Avery, director of global food research at the Hudson Institute in Washington, D.C. suggests that the environmental impact of eating foods grown around the world is miniscule. He touts super-efficient shipping systems as the reason. He believes that people should eat foods grown from the region where it grow best. The use of greenhouses to grow food in places where they normally do not grow may actually use up more energy. Leaving land alone and keeping it wild can be a conservation tool, argues Avery.17

An op-ed entitled “The Top 10 Reasons NOT to Buy Local,” published in an independent Maine newspaper The Bollard, states that buying local hurts undeserved communities who might not be able to afford more expensive, local products. The op-ed argues that people are enriched from foreign goods and that imports force local companies to innovate and fosters healthy competition, thus improving overall quality and choice. Furthermore, the op-ed notes that if everyone buys local, than outside communities will follow suit; thus decreasing market access for growing businesses.18

A common theme among critics is that many communities support exports of their own goods, which can be viewed as hypocritical if they are emphasizing Buy Local. For example, Tesco, the British supermarket that labeled their products on distance traveled and carbon dioxide emissions, is opening ten stores in China where it plans to sell European grocery products.19 A Wall Street Journal article calls the locavore movement (analogous to the Buy Local Movement) a “world without trade.” States within the U.S. would not even trade products, let trade across international borders.20


As with all movements, Buy Local has both positive and negative impacts. Critics of the movement surmise what would happen if it was taken too far and international trade contracted, thus harming rather than benefiting the economy. Most critics would not have a problem with buying local on small scale, such as supporting local farmers, artisans, and service providers.

Labeling efforts can help produce an informed citizenry, but should take into account all sources of energy used to develop a product, not just air transport, but use of machinery and greenhouses as well. It is always challenging to develop a fair labeling system that takes into account the benefits of leaving land fallow or using it as farmland (instead of for strip malls, etc.).

It seems that the best approach is moderation, supporting local businesses while still encouraging imports and healthy competition.

1 Hennig, Rainer Chr. “Africa to pay for Europe’s “green policies.”” Global Research. November 17, 2008.
2 Hughlett, Mike. “New rating system puts the focus on the local.” Star Tribune. October 1, 2010.
3 “Buy-direct campaign launched to support local food producers.” Digital Journal. October 14, 2010.
4 “Namibia: Business ‘Celebs’ Sell Brand.” All Africa. October 14, 2010.
5 “Measuring the impact of NT’s Country of Origin seafood labelling.” AFN. October 14, 2010.
6 “Buy from local Jamaican farmers.” Jamaica Gleaner. October 4, 2010.
7 Clifford, Stephanie. “Wal-Mart to Buy More Local Produce.” New York Times. October 14, 2010.
8 Field, Jay. “Distributors Slow To Embrace Local Food Movement.” National Public Radio. May 3, 2010.
9 MacVean, Mary. “Panel seeks to use L.A.’s abundance of fresh food in fight against childhood obesity.” Los Angeles Times. October 4, 2010.
11 “Why Buy Local.”
12 “Senegal farmers push local food movement.” The PRI’s World. July 28, 2010.
13 Susskind, Yifat. “Buying local halfway across the globe.” Richmond County Daily Journal. October 7, 2010.
14 MacDonald, G. Jeffery. “Is buying local always best?” Christian Science Monitor. July 24, 2006.
15 Ibid.
16 Hennig, Rainer Chr. “Africa to pay for Europe’s “green policies.”” Global Research. November 17, 2008.
17 MacDonald, G. Jeffery. “Is buying local always best?Christian Science Monitor. July 24, 2006.
18 Barowitz, Zachary. “The Top 10 Reasons NOT to Buy Local.” The Bollard. April 20, 2009.
19 Hennig, Rainer Chr. “Africa to pay for Europe’s “green policies.”” Global Research. November 17, 2008.
20 “No Free Locavore Lunch.” Wall Street Journal. September 25, 2010.

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