Shop Talk – Buying local, good idea?
I live two lives. In one, I'm an international school teacher who has lived and taught in three countries, travels around the world for work and play and flies 50,000 miles a year to and from the US, Europe and Asia. In my other life, I am a small town guy, who enjoys working in his yard in his mountain cabin tucked back in the woods of remote Northern Idaho, which is not so much a state as a “state of mind”, as the locals like to say.
When I'm in my “other” life as a small town homeowner, i.e. during my long summer breaks, I like to slow things down and reflect on the state of the world around me. I start to notice things about the local economy that seem so minute in the world of international travel that occupies 10 months of my year. I notice that twice a week farmers come to my small town of Sandpoint, Idaho, to sell their produce, bread, honey, arts and crafts, eggs and even meat. I notice that the buffalo, elk and cattle roaming the valley below my mountain cabin can be bought ready to grill and eat from the local butcher shop. I notice the local brewery, Laughing Dog, where I can buy my home town brew. I notice the natural foods market, where my wife and I do all of our shopping, and where many of the items for sale were grown locally or in the greater Pacific Northwest region.
I notice that, if one so wished to do so, one could sustain oneself almost entirely on locally or regionally grown food items. Compared to the lives of so many Americans, whose foods are so heavily processed, often times shipped from around the country or even the world, the choices available to those who chose to “buy local” seem so simple and straightforward, the benefits so obvious.
So the question is, why don't more people eat locally? According to economist Russell Roberts, the reason we don't all survive entirely on locally grown food is that, simply stated, the cost of doing so is too high.
In the article below, a Vermont magazine discusses he “buy-local” movement going on in communities across America today with Russ Roberts, whose enthusiasm for buying local is tempered by his economic rationale rooted in the basic economic principles of opportunity cost, specialization, and the gains from trade.
SEVEN DAYS: You've said that the buy-local movement has a “superficial appeal.”
RUSSELL ROBERTS: The emotional, nonmonetary appeal of “buy local” is very clear. It's nice to buy things from people you know, and often that interaction of shopping and trading with people you know enhances the quality of life.
But there's a cost to it, and when we say, “Let's buy the local apples rather than the apples from New Zealand,” the cost is hidden, because apples are only a very small part of our economic life. If we tried to replicate that strategy over a wide range of products, the cost would be much more apparent.
SD: Environmentalists like Bill McKibben say the cost of some products doesn't reflect their true environmental cost -
RR: And I think that's true, by the way -
SD: But a lot of people would say the idea of “true environmental cost” is diametrically opposed to your idea about true cost.
RR: It's a good observation. Rather than saying the true cost, it would have been better for me to say the full cost. Right now, if you buy local produce instead of produce that comes from across the country or across the ocean, the cost is pretty clear: It's a little more expensive, usually. Sometimes the quality is higher, so you say, “Well, I think it's a bargain after all.” Sometimes it's not, so you say, “Well, it's worth it, 'cause it's local.”
I don't know if people think through how those costs would add up if you tried to buy more locally than just food . . . I think it's a question of magnitudes. There's no doubt that when you make economic decisions based just on price, you're not getting the full picture, which is the environmental critique. But I think it's also true that when you purchase one item or category of items, such as food, locally, you don't think about what the full cost would be if you did that more aggressively across a wider range of products.
SD: You've said self-sufficiency is the “road to poverty.” Does that relate to this discussion?
RR: Absolutely. That's a quote from my first book, The Choice: A Fable of Free Trade and Protectionism . . . I think the word self-sufficiency has an emotionally attractive ring to it: We don't want to depend on others; we want to be self-sufficient; we certainly want our children at some point to grow up and become self-sufficient, rather than depending on us as parents. So self-sufficiency is generally seen as a goal, but in economic activity and in trade generally, no one really has self-sufficiency as a goal.
- Why does self-sufficiency lead to poverty?
- What is the “true environmental cost” of buying certain products, namely cheap, imported food and consumer goods?
- What is the opportunity cost of “buying local”, whether it be food or other consumer items?