Monday, July 20, 2009

The "local" Wal-Mart is NOT local.

There are plenty of reasons to buy local, as The Sustainable Table lists and explains here. People in or near communities lucky enough to have a farmer's market can buy meat, eggs, produce, flowers, even fresh-made condiments (i.e. with only three items on the ingredients label, none of them starting with "partially hydrogenated"), knowing that everything on the display table has been trucked in from only a couple of counties away at most, and when an item goes out of season, it'll also be out of stock. You learn how to eat realistically when you buy local — there are no Michigan strawberries in winter, no Chilean grapes in summer, and no Kiwis ever unless you live in New Zealand.

"Buy Local" has caught on to such an extent that many people have taken the philosophy even further, translating the motto as "boycott corporate chains." Some of us at WB, for instance, make it a goal to dine only at independently owned restaurants, and especially those that list the geographical origins of their ingredients on their menus. Yeah, those babyback ribs at Applebee's are tasty, and the soup at Panera is delicious, but too bad. They're corporate. Their supplies arrive via corporate truck, from wherever their headquarters or distribution points are. And a chunk of their profits go to HQ, not to the community.

Knowing that "buy local" is expanding into "buy independent," corporate America is quickly mounting a misinformation campaign. According to MNN, Wal-Mart is hanging signs that say "LOCAL" over its produce, even if the term is defined as "grown in the Western Hemisphere" or "grown in the Americas; i.e. in Argentina." With no official legal definition of "local," the massive machine from Arkansas can get away with its one-word banner. But Wal-Mart isn't alone in this, because shopping malls, too, are — surprise! — also angling to position themselves as "local." And of course, they are local; the mall is "in town" (or more likely at the outskirts of it, near the freeway entrance). They just hope no one notices the "Made in Vietnam/ Indonesia/ China/ Guatemala" label on the clothes/ tools/ luggage/ eyeglass frames/ everything.

The sad thing is, there may be two or three people who work for Wal-Mart or the International Council of Shopping Centers who know that buying local is a great practice, and that the days of "jet fresh catch" in the seafood department should have ended long ago. But those people won't say anything. Profit is king, and community is just a location for making it. And environment: that's only what produces the raw materials for the stuff that makes the profit.

It's a tiny, myopic world view. It's utterly destructive. But it will sure as hell succeed in persuading millions of consumers to wrongly believe that their nearby corporate chain outlet is also their local one.

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