Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Buying Local, Global or Both

*Image source here

Reader Giles responded to a comment on the last giveaway post, and it has sparked enough in me that I've opted for a post in-lieu of a response in the comments, simply because I think it is an interesting subject to discuss. Here is Giles quote for any who may have missed it:

"After reading your entry I looked at the underside of our electronics, at the little etiquettes on our clothes, our shoes, the china, where the books were printed, our bicycles, even the furniture...Almost all that we have in the house is made in China or Mexico or Europe... I'm all for international trade but I wondered what China or Europe bought from us: many things but mainly raw materials (ore, wood, scrap steel, etc.) and airplanes. I wonder how long we'll be able to maintain this kind of economy.

So...I have a solution ! If more and more people ride bikes like they already do in Denmark and the Nederland for instance, and thus people won't travel long distances by car to buy everything, more local stores would open (or stay open) and local stores tend to buy locally made stuff. Q.E.D.

I'm dreaming... but Christmas is the season of dreams."

I am all for dreaming, and dreaming big. Dreams are one of the biggest ways we see growth and change in our world. I also believe there is potentially a whole can of worms we can open with this subject matter. I do think it's important to discuss, but I also know there are many sides to the discussion, so I hope others will throw in their thoughts (respectfully, please). I will first say, I have no problem with foreign-produced goods, so please don't send me hate email stating that I dislike your country. What I do think is important for each nation is to purchase and make goods locally, in addition to international trade. This discussion seems to be hotly debated by some, and completely disregarded by an even larger group, but perhaps now is as good a time as any to chat about the subject.

Over the summer, I read a book (Re-Made in the USA) that spoke in regard to the United States and its inability to continue to thrive if things continue the way they have over the last 40-50 years. The author proposes that much of our debt and current monetary issues stem from the idea that we are not taught as American children to purchase local/American goods, as is taught in many other countries (like China, Japan, Germany, and many other countries). In addition, we no longer produce much in the U.S. (some things, but very few). For example, we used to produce many textiles for clothing and now it's nearly impossible to find any garment made in the U.S. As Giles pointed out, we don't produce electronics or their parts either. We buy from Walmart's across the nation that seem to only purchase goods from the lowest cost manufacturer (which often means that we're buying goods from countries that don't have the same enforced laws in regard to the environment, workers rights, etc). I'm not advocating necessarily for all commerce over seas to be shut down, but the reasons that we started heavily purchasing from other countries several decades ago are no longer valid in today's world.

I don't know the intricacies of politics and economics for our neighbors to the north, but it does seem that buying goods that are made locally as well as sold locally makes the most sense. It's really quite a challenge to do, but when we start paying attention to where the things we buy are made, we do quickly realize that not much is made even on the North American continent, let alone in our respective countries. In fact, I would say that almost every contest item being given away here was made in China (with a few exceptions that I was able to find that were made in Oregon or even here in Colorado). I was actually looking for hand-made, U.S. (or at least N. American produced) goods, and I had a difficult time finding anything at all. Items are out there, but they are either incredibly costly, not what I am specifically searching for, and/or require so much research that I think many of us give up and just get what we need, not realizing how much it really is affecting our nation. What I'm saying is that I am guilty of all the the things that I'm saying we shouldn't be doing, and that is bothersome in itself.

I'm also definitely all for a world in which we travel by bike to get everywhere, but even that has become difficult with suburban sprawl. For example, if it was my only means of transportation, currently it would take me about 6 hours a day to travel to and from the location I need to go. Which then brings up the question of whether I would have even returned to college if I had to travel such distances by bike? There is a closer university I could have selected, but it is also much more costly an institution and the program takes longer to complete. Still I would probably spend 2-3 hours a day on a bicycle. In a perfect world, everything would be within a reasonable distance by bike, but it doesn't seem to be a reality for a good chunk of  - I'll just say this country, because I don't want to speak for other areas of the world.

On top of this, assuming that schooling was not an issue for me, there really is not much of a selection of goods locally (within, let's say a 10 mile radius). Our local mall is in bankruptcy and currently only houses about a dozen or so stores because the others have left town, and while there are other stores to buy from around the city, they tend to stock fewer and less-desirable items, inevitably leading to city inhabitants looking to other nearby cities for goods/services. Of course, this then requires travel by vehicle. Finding something locally made is truly like finding a needle in a haystack. I do think this is changing as the city's demographics and thoughts about 'staying local' change, but all of these things take time, effort, and a supportive local government.

What is my point and what do we do? If you've been in this space for any length of time, you know I can ramble on about things, sometimes with no point at all. However, I truly believe that if we start asking for locally produced/manufactured goods, and refuse to buy lower quality items, it is possible to change the current situation. However, the reality for many of us is that we cannot afford to opt for the more expensive choice, even if it would be the better all around solution. While I want to believe that it is truly cost-based, I know that there is also an element of laziness in all of it. It's easy to ignore the situation if it isn't directly affecting us, but in reality it is a direct cause and effect. Am I going to stop buying every X-country product? No, because it isn't a feasible reality for me at this point in time, nor do I think every country other than U.S. is producing "bad" products. I do, however, believe that it's possible to make better choices more regularly, and at times, maybe that means buying recycled products, too. In my mind, reusing is always a good option as well, rather than buying something brand new.

What do you think? Is it possible (or likely) that you would purchase only local items? Have you attempted to do so in the past? If so, what were the results? Is it even possible to have international trade and still keep a thriving local economy? What about only buying within a walk-able or bike-able radius? Would you give up your vehicle if everything you needed regularly was close by? I know many who have, so it is possible. Feel free to leave your thoughts, as I know I definitely don't have the answers to this complex situation.


  1. I think there is the economy we would LIKE to have, and the economy we ACTUALLY have. I say this in a generalized way, but I think most average people, given the facts, would agree that buying locally produced goods is a more healthy way to behave.

    Getting from what we HAVE to what we WANT is the crux of the matter. We should strive to make a conscious choice every time, and if we must choose something made halfway around the world then try and make a better decision next time.

    If we could wave our magic wand and suddenly be local producers and users (I hate the term consumer) there would be implications. If our money stopped flowing to other countries their economies would be disrupted. But on the other hand, if we can gradually change our habits, vote with our dollars for locally made products; then over time, in a naturally and healthy way we could have a better economy.

  2. I've got an old unpublished post about buying local. I think I might dust it off, polish it up and get it out there.

  3. Chris, I'd love to read your thoughts, so I hope you do post it!

  4. I agree that especially now, with the state of the US economy, it would be great to buy local. It is a vicious cycle though. We want to buy goods that are priced competitively. in order to compete with foreign companies and make goods affordably priced in the US, we would have to pay workers less than a living US wage, which in turn makes these seem need to shop at discount stores where they can purchase things that are made cheaply in foreign countries. Do we really want to be in a race to the bottom of the salary scale?

    Interesting that this question comes up on a bicycle blog. It seems that European bikes are the ones most coveted by cyclists. People are willing to pay the shipping and customs in order to get one. Are these bikes really far superior or is there a exclusivity factor at work? I don't know. Even if you are riding a bike sold by an American company, the likelihood is that many of the parts were made in Taiwan or China. I am in the market for a bike and hope to buy a Public or a Civia which have at least some connection to America

  5. G.E. said: ([…] we're buying goods from countries that don't have the same enforced laws in regard to the environment, workers rights, etc).

    I remember from my Economics courses that up the 50s large companies and industries were content to pay reasonable dividends to investors and considered normal to pay adequate salaries to their workers, who in turn were able to buy more than the bare necessities of life; in an area when in most families the father worked outside the home (to bring in money) and the mother worked inside and around the home educating the children, taking care of les courses, preparing the meals, managing the household, etc. one salary was enough for an average of 4 persons.

    But somehow greed entered the picture and the first priority of administrators shifted from producing quality goods or services to producing more profit for the investors. The rest is easy to understand: the best way to increase profit is to cut the expenses, thus delocalization and tax evasion became the norm (together with a reduction of workers rights). Here I must admit that we're all "guilty": most people like to invest in high-return companies but they never ask how this return on investment is arrived at.

    Everything we do as individuals has consequences on everybody else in the country we live in and even in the World as a whole. Tonight we ate a sole amandine with fresh tomatoes and "canned" sweet peas: I usually buy the Green Giant brand; the sweet peas were grown in Thailand and the tomatoes in Mexico, and the sole come directly from Portugal. I can't believe we don't know how to grow basic vegetables any more. I think I'll ask the question to my representative to parliament and I also think that he won't have an answer.

    I have nothing against Thai or Mexican farmers or Portuguese fishermen, of course and in a way I agree with globalization (because I like California oranges and French wine and Norwegian blackberries) but the idea needs some serious and logical regulation.

  6. I'd like to add that I don't advocate the 50s "iconic" way of life as seen on shows like "Father Knows Best" and the like. Women have always been writers and politicians and painters and physicians and explorers and scientists (often taking care of children at the same time). What I meant was that companies (up to the 50s) were willing to pay each employee a salary but one could say that nowadays both husband and wife have to work to maintain a "normal" standard of living; it's like a "two for the price of one" deal for the "ugly capitalists".

    I'd might also add that the Economy would be in a much healthier state if our governments didn't deregulate Finance (as opposed to Industry, i.e. production of real goods).

  7. Anon - Certainly the cost of any goods made locally will cost more than foreign, but I have to wonder if that's really a bad thing? Maybe we should pay more for things, have better quality, and not throw things out after a few months to a year because they're broken, destroyed, etc. I'm not entirely sure what the answer is, but it seems there should be some sort of happy middle ground that can be reached. I think many people see us turning in the future to a global economy - and I can see that bringing a whole new set of problems with it.

    As for bikes - I don't know if there is a kind of exclusivity factor going on, but I do know from riding so many different bikes that there is definitely a quality feeling on many of the more expensive bikes (that do come from other countries). I think Public and Civia are great bikes too though (but they also are made in other countries). As you state though, if they are designed in the U.S., at least there's some portion of the process taking place here. My Rivendell was made here in Wisconsin, but I know very well that parts of it (the crank, for instance) came from Taiwan, Japan, etc. It can become quite a challenge to find a bike that has every part of it made in the U.S.

    Giles - I think you make an excellent point that we don't often realize. Our actions do affect others, whether we are aware of it or not. Food is yet another item of interest. I remember buying some Tilapia a few months ago and it came from Portugal also. I remember thinking it was a long way for fish to travel. However, it's also a fish that could never live in Colorado because of the extremes in temperature. I'm sure I would live just fine the rest of my life without ever purchasing Tilapia again, but there are many foods that are the same in either that they couldn't survive here, or they just taste better from somewhere else. I love our farmers market because a lot of the foods found are from within the state, but it only runs for a few months in the summer because of weather. One of the most difficult things for me when moving from California to Colorado was that there was no more fresh fruit smells in the grocery store (because everything is frozen for the trip across the country). I could live without the smell, but there is definitely a difference in the quality by the time it gets here. But I have digressed (as usual).

    Also, I did not take your comments to mean that you were looking for the return of "the little wife in the kitchen" kind of household. You are quite right that it definitely takes two incomes for most families to survive anymore... but I sometimes wonder if it is due to the choices we make. We (speaking generically/generally, which I know is never good) tend to want to buy the biggest home we can afford, the best car we can afford, have massive credit debt, etc, when we could certainly live well in a smaller home or have a transportation car (or no car at all). I think a lot of this is a North American kind of behavior though, but I honestly don't want to speak in too large of generalizations.


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