The Flawed Logic of the ‘Buy Local’ Movement

A few weeks ago, I spent some much needed rest and relaxation in my home state of Michigan. Not only was it good for the soul to go back in summertime because northern Michigan is a true gem, it was an opportunity for me to introduce my partner to family and to show her some of the prettier parts of the state since she had only been to Flint (no offense, Flintstones). Besides, I was starting to get a little bit bitter about spending all of my vacation time on frigid Christmas holidays.

One of the biggest things I miss about home are the lakes. Their beauty and charm are ubiquitous to natives, but vague and seemingly pretty dull to a lot of people I’ve met in the west. Shar, upon seeing Lake Michigan for the first time, said:

I have to admit, when you talked about the lakes and how awesome they are, I didn’t understand what the big deal was. I think most people don’t. I thought, ‘it’s a friggin’ lake - whoopty shit!’ Now I know. They’re like oceans.

I forgive her. In my experience, west coast natives have a terrible sense of geography for anything east of the Rockies. I don't blame them. There's just too much going on out here geographically speaking to care much about what's going on back east. But I still like surprising people who don't know any better with a trip to Sleeping Bear or the like. 

Here in the west, there is the ocean and the mountains, all of which provide stunningly gorgeous scenery. I’m continually in awe of it all and their novelty hasn’t worn off yet. But there’s just something about the Great Lakes and the thousands of inland lakes in Michigan that give summer a different feel than what I’ve experienced here in the northwest. It’s peaceful and relaxing, and it seems like every other person or their family member has a cottage or second home on or near a lake of some sort. It is engrained in the culture of the place. 

With the lakes come quaint lakeside villages and towns. It seems like they’re everywhere. Tourists flock to them in the warmer months, bringing much needed commerce. I don’t see the same thing here in Oregon or Washington. The major cities are amazing, dynamic places, but there just aren’t that many historic little towns to escape to. It’s pretty sad, actually. 

But having lived in Michigan for 34 years, moving away, and then heading home for a week or two at a time as a tourist gives me some perspective. Those little towns, as comforting as they may be, are depressing places for most of the year, especially for some of the people who live there. There may be a few of them that can survive on skiers or snowmobilers bringing in some tourism dollars, and maybe a couple places have capitalized on being port cities, but there really isn’t much going on in terms of vibrant economies. Truth be told, I can romanticize them all I want, but they probably wouldn’t be great places to live full-time. Even if you’re lucky enough to be of retirement age with a substantial savings, chances are you’re a snowbird. 

I don’t think the reasons for this situation have very much to do with the seasons changing. I think it has more to do with how their economies are structured, and more importantly, how we’ve chosen to structure our national economy — including allowing the middle class to shrink and the gap between the rich and poor widen.

There seem to be two schools of thought out there, both of which I think live in their own little myopic bubbles, yet both have truth to them. On the one side, people claim there would be better paying jobs if only we shopped locally - 'SHOP MAIN STREET!' they cry. A well-intentioned philosophy with some truth to it. The other argument is that if good-paying jobs weren’t shipped overseas and we didn’t make such little money, we could afford to support good local businesses. People would use their higher incomes to purchase goods in the local economy if there were better paying jobs, which would support still other jobs, etc. Again, well intentioned, but not the full story. The macro and the micro have to be taken into consideration together.

I’m very pro community and economic development and want to see local economies thrive. However, what bothers me the most about the ‘Shop Local’ movement is how some adherents to this philosophy seem to ignore the macroeconomics at play that are completely and utterly stacked against Main Street and the working classes. These days, ‘Shop Local’ is a privileged movement for middle to upper income people. 

People shop at Walmart and Amazon and Walgreens because their budgets are squeezed, not because they don’t like Uncle John’s TV and Electronics Shop. And why shouldn't they? Who am I to judge the working class family who shops at Walmart so they can scrimp and save to put their kids through college? They're just working within the confines of the economic environment they've found themselves stranded in, where once vibrant and thriving economies have long since disappeared. Sure, people probably buy way too much shit. Big screen TVs, cell phones, unnecessary automobiles. You name it. But if the primary sectors of the economy in which our middle class was built are shipped off to places with cheap labor and little to no environmental standards, how can you expect them to spend what little disposable income they have on local shops? And I can assure you that spending money at Uncle John’s TV and Electronics Shop is not going to create any middle class jobs save for perhaps John. Maybe. 

What our downtowns in small places have become are caricatures of their former selves and the play things for people who are well off. Take a look around the next time you’re in one of those places. There’s an ice cream shop and a few trinket shops hawking tourist goods like M-22 shirts and bumper stickers. But the majority of businesses in so-called thriving places are full of breweries and restaurants. As great as these things are — I literally had the best burger of my life at 7 Monks in Traverse City — these are the only types of businesses that can’t be outsources. Yet. And it’s not because people particularly enjoy spending $15 on a hamburger (usually). They're doing it for the convenience, but more importantly they're doing it because they like the atmosphere or the experience.

These things are privileges, unlike the days when there was only one appliance repair shop in town and you knew the owner by name. The days when a diverse downtown full of businesses providing necessary goods and services was a way of life.

As far as I know, there currently is no way efficiency, automation, or logistics can make a burger-eating experience more enjoyable. However, is it very difficult to imagine some not-so-distant future where people spend most of their time in their homes on virtual reality headsets attached to their phones while all of their food is delivered via Uber Eats? Is it that far-fetched when people can order all of their household goods from Amazon by simply saying the word "Alexa - I need toilet paper"? What would happen to our downtowns then? 

There used to be businesses of all varieties, but those peddling everyday products and services can't compete anymore and they're not coming back. Totally gone the way of the buffalo. Should we be ashamed of this? In my personal opinion, yes, but that’s not why I’m writing this. What’s done is done. But what I would like to see is the locals acknowledge that “buying local” is a privileged perspective and that good-paying jobs are not in retail or restaurants. Any “buy local” campaign should be coupled with a strong economic development plan that goes beyond redeveloping or promoting Main Street. 

There are other benefits to buying local. In my opinion, they are namely the positive impacts that retail and food industry jobs have on historic preservation, and the psychological and community impacts of living in a place that is vibrant at street level. These can, in some circumstances, attract larger economic drivers—sometimes even in small tourist towns. But this is not possible everywhere and let’s not continue to fool ourselves about the economic reality on the ground for most people when we talk about the importance of buying local.