The Savvy Shopper – Has Local Become a Dirty Word?

I was not a fan of the 100-Mile Diet or the philosophy behind it when the book was first published. I thought that the idea of such a narrow criteria in terms of what one chose to eat was a bit beside the point. The concept of food miles is a joke (can you really calculate the carbon footprint of a single mango?); sometimes food from away just tastes better than food grown nearby; and as an overall lifestyle change that people could make – for any reason – it would be both impractical and expensive.

The theory got a lot of flak as it grew in popularity, and charges of elitism were prevalent. Only someone with a lot of time and money could afford to search out locally grown grub. And in a society where the food budget is the first thing that gets cut in times of financial crisis, few people would be willing to give up their cheap imports. And let’s not forget about the fact that, here in Canada, many good and wonderful things that we’re accustomed to having in our kitchens – things like olive oil, spices, chocolate, coffee, tea and citrus – all need to come from away.

On the other hand, long before local food became trendy, I was an advocate of shopping locally. It only makes sense that we support the businesses around us. That we buy from the small place on the corner if their stuff is as good as the big guy’s, and that we encourage local artisans and help strengthen our local economies.

Turns out there is a backlash growing against local food. The main proponent being author James McWilliams in a new book titled  Just Food: Where Locavores Get It Wrong and How We Can Truly Eat Responsibly. I’ve not read the thing yet, and it’s not getting particularly good reviews, so I don’t want to comment on the content, but McWilliams seems to paint locavores as crazy (and maybe that’s true), and has a lot of criticism for organics.

From the other end of the spectrum, corporations are latching on to the term without really understanding its significance, hoping that, as a buzzword, it attracts customers who can’t be bothered to sort out the difference. Here in Canada we’ve all seen (and discussed) the joke of a campaign by Hellman’s in which “local” is stretched from sea to sea to sea to include all of Canada – and un-ironically discusses food miles while trying to convince people in the Atlantic provinces that soy grown in Saskatchewan is “local”. As Shrub would say, “That’s some fuzzy math.”

Likewise for the “grown close to home” campaign by Loblaw in which they attempt to promote “local” produce. The corporation also considers all of Canada to be “local”, but continues to have supply flow issues, so imports still outnumber local products, and given research done by bloggers and other local food advocates, the supposed figure of 40% local at peak season seems really optimistic.

The localwashing (or locawhoring) has also extended beyond food – in the US, Barnes and Noble wants customers to consider them to be their local neighbourhood bookstore (all while independent bookstores are shutting down because they can’t compete with the cost cutting at the big box chains). Wal-Mart is on the bandwagon as well, with “local” banner hanging over their produce sections where the actual local offerings seem to be slim.

All of these campaigns were no doubt thought up by some PR and marketing division figuring on getting a piece of the action. Local is hot, so convincing potential customers that a store really, really cares about the environment, small farmers, organics (insert your choice of issues here) means a bigger overall market share, not just for the actual local products, but for everything in the store. Why go to the farmers’ market if you can get local berries at Wal-Mart? And oh, hey, look at all the other stuff I can grab while I’m here.

It’s a misleading way of doing business that plays on customers’ familiarity with a catch-phrase and the hope that they aren’t informed consumers who know about the issues.

For anyone who truly believes in supporting local businesses, it will now take even more effort to sort through it all. Some of it would seem to be logical;

  1. Don’t assume that corporations have your best interests at heart – ever. Assume that every new campaign is designed to muddy what you know and influence your shopping choices.
  2. Whenever possible, buy your food from the people who have grown it, raised it or cooked it.
  3. Shop at non-chain stores whenever possible.
  4. Be willing to spend more, knowing that the extra money goes to the artisan, farmer or small shop owner and not a millionaire CEO.

There’s no real way to get corporations to stop using “local” in their advertising campaigns. As long as it’s perceived as trendy it will continue to appear on products and promotions of all types, no matter how far from the actual meaning those campaigns stretch. In a way, McWilliams might actually be doing the movement a favour. Since few corporations using local as a marketing ploy actually appear to adhere to the principles of the movement, modifying the meaning of the term to suit their needs, a backlash against “local” would undoubtedly see the term dropped.

Will this affect the real local movement, seeing people head back to supermarkets and chain stores from farmers’ markets and small independent boutiques? Part of me doesn’t think so – either you get it or you don’t. And while the focus on local food over the past few years has undoubtedly been enlightening for many (we haven’t just been preaching to the converted, I don’t think), there’s the potential for the movement to reach a saturation point, particularly if ad campaigns from the likes of Hellman’s or Frito Lay cause people to question the logic of the whole thing.