In this week’s #throwbackthursday feature, Helen Morgan-Parmett, Edwin W. Lawrence Endowed Professor of Forensics and Director of the UVM Lawrence Debate Union, analyzes the ethical question: should we buy locally or globally produced goods? What do you think?
“Should we think globally and act locally? Or think globally, and act globally? These slogans, often associated with the environmentalist movement, get to the crux of the debate over whether or not it is preferable to buy local products or global ones. In the 2008 debate at UVM’s Janus Forum, environmental scholar, activist, and prolific author Bill McKibben debated the economist Russ Roberts on this very question. Today, I want to return to this debate to think through some of the key agonisms and questions we might consider within this debate at the current moment.
Before getting into the debate, however, let me note that, as both McKibben and Roberts acknowledge in their work, the question of whether or not we should buy locally or globally is much more than a purely economic question: it is an ethical one. The question is ultimately about how our individual action, and often those that are joined up into a broader collective action, create and reproduce ethical goods or harms on both individual and global scales. So, whether or not buying locally or globally can get us cheaper or better goods is really beside the point. Instead, we are enjoined to consider which action will constitute ourselves as ethical actors engaged in bringing about some kind of “common good,” with full recognition that how this is defined will be contested.
My senior year of college was the apex of the anti-globalization movement. As I watched protestors march on Seattle in resistance to the World Trade Organization, articulating a critique of “globalization from above” in favor of “globalization from below,” my friends and I lamented that Burlington, VT was so expensively far from Seattle, WA. We couldn’t afford to go to the protests, but they made an impact on us and our politics. Maybe we couldn’t be in Seattle, but we could make a difference here in Burlington. So, at first glance, when I agreed to write this TBT on buy global vs. buy local, I thought it was a no brainer that I would advocate for buy local—it encapsulates the politics of the anti-globalization movement’s enjoinment to create a “globalization from below” that informed much of my early politics. Why buy local?
Buying local enables your individual and collective action to have more of an impact—you more directly influence those who produce and distribute the goods you purchase. In so doing, you are able to use your purchasing power in order to spread the ethical goods you believe in, i.e. to purchase goods from companies that have good labor conditions and wages or better environmental stewardship. Dollar for dollar, buying locally ensures that your money goes to the people doing the best work.
You can use your purchasing power in order to exert more influence. It is much easier to make an impact through your local buying decisions on the purveyors you are buying from if they are your neighbors. If you and your friends decide to boycott Walmart because they are anti-union, it is unlikely that will change Walmart’s practices. But your boycott of your local sandwich shop that has been busting up its unionization efforts can impact that business. Your activist hours are better spent winning these smaller victories than battling Goliath, to whom you are more likely to lose. Add up these smaller victories to build momentum for which you might be able to later win these larger victories against behemoth companies.
Buying global can have adverse environmental and social impacts. This is the most significant argument of the buy local movement that is well versed in the literature, and indeed, in McKibben’s and Roberts’ debate. As an example, it is absurdly unethical (and impractical, and, just, absurd!) that most of the salmon I buy (even when I lived in the Pacific Northwest—as an aside, I did, in fact, ultimately make it to the Seattle area, though almost 15 years later—where salmon was abundant almost literally outside my doorstep), but it was likely that the salmon I was eating, even though it might have been caught in the Puget Sound, was processed in China and then shipped back to the Northwest and to my table! The carbon emissions this takes merely in shipping, not to mention the social costs in terms of job displacement in a key Northwest industry, has extraordinarily adverse effects. Now, this is a tricky example, since on first glance it appears that when I buy my salmon, I am, in fact, “buying locally.” But, upon further inspection, buying locally takes more due diligence to ensure that your local products are truly local. Doing so, however, can help to create and support local industries that are more environmentally and socially sustainable.
Though these represent some of the arguments in favor of the buy local movement that I am still undeniably sympathetic to, I also think that the “think globally, act locally” slogan has some problems as well when it comes to the assumption that buying locally is inevitably more ethical and environmentally preferable to buying globally. So, why buy global?
In today’s political climate, especially, I might argue that, perhaps more than ever, it is important to commit ourselves to globalism in order to combat the more isolationist and xenophobic tendencies of the “America First” rhetoric coming out of the Trump administration. It seems to me that there is a danger in the rhetoric surrounding the buy local movement that helps to support these xenophobic tendencies, where it is presumed that the local people you know are going to produce better and more ethical products than strangers from elsewhere. Indeed, if our baseline assumption is that we should be purchasing the most ethically produced products—using our purchasing power to support those producers and distributors, those companies and individuals, who care about people and care about the earth—then there is just as much of a likelihood that a global company in Thailand could be carrying out practices every bit as ethical or more so than a local Burlington company. Even though shipping costs might have some adverse environmental impacts, those have to be weighed against that company’s positive environmental and social practices. Local does not automatically equal more environmentally sustainable.
But to take this argument further, perhaps it is our ethical duty, in the current political climate, to purchase these global products, so as to demonstrate our individual ethicality and our commitment to ethical globalism. Buying globally can be considered a kind of ethical act of cosmopolitanism, in which you can utilize your purchasing in order to create global connections and relationships between yourself and those you purchase from. This is in some ways the idea behind businesses like 10,000 villages, where you buy artisanal crafts handmade around the world and are encouraged to learn more about the local artists and cultures you are purchasing from.
Global trade is inevitable and has long been a crucial part of our economic system (long before “globalization”). Suggesting that you are not going to buy global is a tad absurd, since even the local products you buy will likely have some global component, or, at the very least, a global influence. Most of your locally grown vegetables, for example, are ultimately global imports. So, by default, you must at least at some level “buy global.”
Most products that most people buy are made by giant global corporations. Buying globally enables you to focus your purchasing power by being part of a broader collective. In contrast to the argument that buying locally enables you to garner small victories, it is unlikely that those smaller victories really will in fact add up to meaningful social change in terms of environmental and social practices. It would be better to use your purchasing power to benefit those large global corporations who are utilizing good practices, than to divest from global corporations entirely. This will likely just mean that the corporations who cut the most costs—and, incidentally, are likely to have the worst environmental and social practices—are the only ones who will be able to afford to stay in business. It would be better to use our purchasing power to invest in these bad companies’ rivals, and ensure that the good companies outperform and ultimately drive out of business the bad ones.
Though this is a fun exercise, at the end of the day, I am not really sure that I agree with either of these sides. Ultimately, although I concur that we undoubtedly live in a consumer society, in which much of our citizenly duties that we are called upon to perform are played out in and through acts of consumption, I think the buy local/buy global debate reduces the complexities of consumer culture and consumer citizenship to individual acts of choice as opposed to a politics of consumption. Rather than thinking about ourselves as isolated and individual ethical actors, or even collective ones who get together with other people to purchase or to boycott, I think it would be better to politicize and debate this broader politics of consumption itself. How is it that we came to be a consumer society, where our individual choices at the supermarket were translated into an ethical politics? What are the benefits and drawbacks of seeing our consumption choices as ethical ones? Personally, I am more interested in debating the structural conditions that enable some folks to engage in this kind of ethical politics in the first place, as undoubtedly even the possibility to express one’s politics through the choice of “buy local vs. buy global” is bound up with a particular, privileged subject position. So, in part, I feel a bit cynical about this debate, and I wonder what other debates it might obfuscate, which, if we were to engage, might actually get us closer to achieving the kind of ethical goods to which the buy local/buy global debate aspires.”