Note: We present these points as general truths, not universal rules. Clearly, there are some cases in which the greenest purchase may come from a non-local source.
1. Local Sourcing
Local independent businesses — especially restaurants and retailers — typically carry a greater portion of locally-produced goods and use more local inputs, meaning less fuel consumption is required to keep the business running and shelves stocked. Also, those locally-produced items likely will come from smaller-scale farms, factories, artists, and producers than the huge suppliers for large chains. Finally, millions of independent grocers, restaurants, nurseries and other businesses making individual sourcing choices helps protect biodiversity.
The “green ripple” effect of buying local, like the local multiplier effect, can yield multiple rounds of benefit.
2. Location and Transportation
Local businesses tend to serve a local customer base, rather than depending on drawing people from a wide area. They usually locate in downtowns and neighborhood-serving business districts where more people enjoy choices to walk via, bike, or take mass transit rather than being compelled to drive. This means less air and noise pollution for residents, as well as the opportunity to lead a healthier, more enjoyable lifestyle.
3. Local Decision-Making Authority
While publicly-traded corporations are designed to be profit-maximizing machines, local business owners typically take a broader view of their role. Local owners often choose more environmentally-sound practices as a personal choice, even when they are not the most profitable path. For publicly-traded corporations, environmental costs are not part of business equations unless public laws force such costs to be internalized (a rare occurrence).
Leading advocates for organic food and farming, like Ronnie Cummins of the Organic Consumers Association, recognize this. “We need to put our money where our values lie,” says Cummins, explaining why OCA frames a campaign around “Breaking the Chains.” Stacy Mitchell of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance has written on “The Impossibility of a Green Walmart” for the same reasons.
4. Efficient Land Use
Massive “big box” stores and the warehouses of online mega-retailers may be efficient for minimizing corporate costs, but they consume inordinate amounts of land for both buildings and parking lots (often 15 acres or more for “superstores”). The environmental harm caused by such vast expanses of asphalt and increased driving to reach them is large, including absorbing heat, increasing water run-off (contaminated by oils), lowering water tables, and reduction of habitat. Clusters of big box stores often are so hostile to walking as to push people into their cars just to cross a street safely or shop at an adjacent store cluster.
Of course, the cost of infrastructure that enables large volumes of cars to reach those parking lots is paid for by all residents and businesses, increasing taxes and many forms of pollution.
In contrast, most local merchants use land far more productively and occupy existing structures. In a 2009 New Orleans study comparing local merchants and Target Corporation, local merchants studied generated twice as much sales activity per square foot of floor space and nearly quadrupled the local economic benefit per square foot compared to projections for Target.
5. Product Durability
For most chains and online giants, sourcing products at the lowest possible price is a top priority. Their products tend to be mass-produced and sell themselves on cheapness, convenience, selection and features, but craftsmanship and durability rarely are selling points at these retailers. Rather than compete head-on with deep discounters, independent retailers tend to stock products that compete based on quality and reliability as well as price, and many even service what they sell.
The increasing dominance of mega-retailers has continually driven down the product lifespan of hard goods and even clothing. The environmental impacts are enormous, as TVs, lawnmowers, appliances and many other products formerly built to last many years or decades of normal use (and were worth fixing when problems arose), now end up in landfills after short lifespans. This cycle consumes land, releases more toxins into our environment and creates far more waste and pollution from manufacturing low-quality goods rather than durable products.
As we’ve shifted from producing and maintaining durable products to disposing ever-cheaper goods, repair shops have vanished from many communities. As she researched this issue for her 2009 book, Cheap, Ellen Ruppel Shell found, “In less than two decades, the Professional Service Association lost three quarters of its small appliance and consumer electronics shop members…the number of electronics repair shops plummeted from twenty thousand to five thousand.”
Since few consumers know product lifespans and details about materials used, knowledgeable salespeople are needed to explain that the greater product value often is one with a higher price tag, but a longer lifecycle (and lesser environmental impact). And while online review have some value, they almost always written within weeks of purchase, and therefore offer no insight on product durability.
While many of the arguments for doing business locally have become better-known in recent years, the environmental importance of neighborhood- serving businesses have not been as well articulated or publicized. Neither have the large negative impacts of big box development or online retailers shipping individual parcels (and all their accompanying packaging) to consumers become well-known. Consider using these and other points in your communications to provoke discussion about the environmental importance of shopping, dining and sourcing locally.
The author, Jeff Milchen, is AMIBA’s co-founder (follow him on Twitter). Originally published in 1999 (since revised). We invite you to contact us for help in turning these points into a commentary to submit to your local media, or any other recycling of this article! We also welcome you to add your comments below.
This is the landing page for the “Healthier Environment” poster in our “Why Buy Local?” series.
Leer en español: Comprar verde significa comprar local
Top Great Reasons to Go Local (AMIBA)
Is Local Food Better? (WorldWatch Magazine)
Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture, by Ellen Ruppel Shell
National Organizations Combining Support for Independent Business, Communities and Sustainability
- Organic Consumers Association
- American Sustainable Business Council
- Institute for Local Self-Reliance
- The National Main Street Center
- Strong Towns
- Be a Localist
- Transition US
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Photos by AMIBA. You are welcome to excerpt this material with credit and link (just ask if you seek high-resolution photos).