By Brianna van de Wijngaard —
Food Action Coordinator
Williams Lake Food Policy
Just about every year for the last decade or two, we have been encouraged to shop local for the holidays. And most of those reading this editorial likely already do: you’re reading TheGreenGazette, and you’re awesome! But, as the holidays approach yet again, we want to take a look at where that trend has taken us since the local shopping shift made its return. Is the trend still on the rise? What have we seen in the way of advantages, both to consumers, businesses, and the environment? And what are the economics of shopping local?
The buy local trend is without a doubt still very popular: campaigns still pop up every year, promoting the local economy, and according to the Business Development Bank of Canada (BDC), about 45 per cent of consumers have made efforts to buy Canadian or local-made products in the previous year. We have our very own campaign – Love Williams Lake (www.lovewilliamslake.com) – to promote the small business owners in our community. But another trend continually on the rise that inherently competes with shopping local is that of the thrifty consumer.
According to the same BDC survey results, shoppers have become even more aggressive bargain-seekers, especially in the last 5-10 years. Getting a deal is something to be proud of, and – with online shopping increasing in popularity – there is an entirely new market to shop in, and one that is often the cheapest because they can afford to charge less than brick-and-mortar retailers, and offer a much wider range of sellers.
These competing trends can make local shopping tough, especially for small towns like Williams Lake, Quesnel, 100 Mile, and the like. Residents are much more likely to support local businesses because they truly are often their neighbours, friends, and acquaintances. There is much more incentive to shop locally, whereas in city centers, they often don’t know the owner or producer.
But, being smaller town centers, there is also much less variety than what you may find in a metro area, so shopping online or in a bigger store is tempting. Smaller towns utilize the online market less than city centers, but, even if they didn’t, as of 2013, just under one-third of small Canadian retailers had an online presence, according to the BDC report summary. And yet, 68 per cent of Canadians own a smartphone in 2015 and are using them more and more to research products, and the businesses that sell them.
The benefits to shopping local, however, remain true. More money does stay in the community when people spend it on locally-owned businesses—almost double, according to The New Economics Foundation (NEF). NEF researcher David Boyle makes an interesting interpretation: it means those purchases are twice as efficient locally as they would have been otherwise. He also projects local economies do not suffer because of too little cash coming in. They suffer because too much cash flows out. Once it leaves the circulatory system of a local economy, it’s gone and can no longer benefit that community in other forms. Admittedly, local products can and do cost more so it will come down to sacrifice. We shop a little less so it can mean a lot more.
The locally-made shopper is also often the conscientious shopper, by default. They look for ethically made products that have less of an impact on the environment’s health, and their family’s health. Locally-made products especially have a lower impact on the environment simply because of their limited travel. You also have a producer or business owner right there in front of you, if you are unsure and want to ask questions about what they’re selling. They feel much more incentive to sell sustainably-made products for the same reason.
There are naysayers in the local shopping streak—there is always at least one! Some of their arguments speak to lack of a definition of what it means to be local: does it apply to locally-owned franchises? Or businesses that were once local, but expanded? This is really nickel and diming, though. Most people know what local means, and it is often bigger corporations that cloud its definition in an effort to jump on the bandwagon.
But these same naysayers do support a laudable solution: if you’re ever in doubt, ask questions. Always. Because regardless of whether or not a product is being sold by a local vendor, the same criteria should still be met, and consumers should always ask the same questions about a product.
Does it have negative effects on the environment in its production? Is the producer and/or owner a local (trust factor)? Does the price therefore reflect the quality of this purchase? Something sold or produced locally doesn’t always mean it is of superior quality, or sustainably produced. But the main difference is, that local producer or owner has to look their customers in the eye, quite literally, and will more likely sell products they can be proud of.
For all the rest, use that smartphone to research, so you can be confident you’re buying gifts that are healthier for you, your family, and the environment.
Brianna is a trained master gardener and before she moved to the Cariboo in March, 2013, she lived on and off Vancouver Island for 20 years. She attended Vancouver Island University, where she graduated with a BA in Global Studies and Geography, and now operates Puddle Produce Urban Farms in Williams Lake.