The word “local” is more prevalent than ever thanks to advancements in technology and the bigger role the Internet plays in our daily lives. Many websites and apps request our location in order to help find or show anything that’s around us. Exploring and learning more about our neighborhood is fun and exciting, but more importantly, “local” could make a positive impact on our community once you insert words before it such as: buy, shop, support, shift and eat.
Emergence of the pro-local movement
Thanks to non-profit organizations: American Independent Business Alliance and Business Alliance for Local Living Economies, the pro-local movement is gaining popularity with its assurance of sustainability and economic stability. For-profit campaigns such as Independent We Stand and The 3/50 Project are growing their business directories while raising awareness of the many benefits of purchasing locally-sourced items from independent locally-owned businesses rather than large nationwide retail chains. However, similar to when “organic” became a hot marketing trend, stores of all sizes are cashing in on local.
With large national retailers capitalizing on the local trend, the definition of local is growing ambiguous. Big-box retailers and national chains often receive criticism for their relentless pursuit of maximizing profits. Not only are these large companies capable of setting consumer trends, they have an ability to adapt and modify their marketing campaigns to take advantage of “the next big thing.” The nation’s largest retailer Wal-Mart began a program in 2010 to sell more locally-grown produce and defines local as “that grown and sold in the same state.” Target partnered with local boutique owners from around the country but these items don’t necessarily sell at the same state they originate from. In an effort to clarify this confusion, I figure we can do a little bit of homework.
TO WHAT EXTENT IS LOCAL?
The USDA regulates the use of organic but unfortunately there’s no standard definition for using local.
According to thefreedictionary.com local is defined:
- a) Of, relating to, or characteristic of a particular place
b) Of, or relating to a city, town or district rather than a larger area
- Not a broad or general; not widespread
Based on either definition are you able to associate local with Safeway, Supervalu or Kroger? They are touting their produce to be locally grown even if it has commuted for hundreds of miles.
Let’s examine how these three major national grocery chains in the US stretch the definition:
Safeway seems to understand what local means the most since it only considers produce locally grown if it hasn’t been driven for more than eight hours. So based on a 65mph speed limit, produce can still be local even if it travels around 520 miles.
Kroger (much like Walmart) believes they can label produce locally grown as long as it is grown “in the same state or within the same region of the country.” If we just consider the same-state rule, we can take the smallest and largest state, Rhode Island and Alaska respectively, then measure two points across its borders. By definition, local can range from approximately 37 miles (East to West of Rhode Island) to 2,200 miles (East to West of Alaska).
Supervalu adds even more to the confusion as it varies what is considered locally grown depending on which of their chains – Jewel-Osco, Albertsons and Lucky to name a few – are advertising “local.” This allows them to label produce as locally grown even if it is harvested from neighboring states.
To some extent, it’s a good thing that national retailers are consciously making an effort to purchase more locally since some small farms and shops will benefit from the increased exposure and business. But as you can see from our small sample, the meaning of local is very broad and not taken seriously.
WHEN LOCAL MAKES SENSE
If the focus of promoting local is merely to satisfy shifting consumer preferences for more profits, then the benefits of the pro-local movement will ultimately be lost. Not only are national retailers intentionally confusing consumers on what constitutes as local, they are diluting this marketing opportunity for the small businesses that are more deserving.
Independent business owners who actually live near their company have a stake on the well-being of the community they reside in: they have a mortgage; this is where their kids are growing; neighbors are their customers. Although they don’t have the backing of national marketing campaigns, there are nascent tools available on the web that embraces localness.
Local Harvest is a resource hub with over 20,000 members that maintains a “definitive and reliable ‘living’ public nationwide directory of small farms, farmers markets, and other local food sources.”
Eat local Grown is also a directory but their focus is more on reviews, claiming to be the Yelp of locally grown food.
Obtaining financial help is one of the main problems for independent owners but a slew of crowdfunding platforms focused on connecting entrepreneurs with their neighbors is paving the way for vibrant local economies.