I argued in a recent post that regionalism is not an ideology (in the sense of an all-encompassing worldview) but rather an ethical stance which recognizes the importance of regions as biological and social entities. Does it necessarily follow that localism is also “ethical” and therefore morally defensible? More specifically, one might ask: is it possible to formulate a moral argument in favor of local commerce based on similar premises/arguments?
I bring this up because the question was recently posed (indirectly) by Chris MacDonald (@ethicsblogger) on Twitter: “If I’m supposed to support my local economy, how local should I aim for? My nation? My province or state? My town? My own home?”. I answered the following, in 140 characters: “Local is only a proxy for “being part of a feedback loop from producer to consumer”. Doesn’t have to be geographical.” To which he answered back: “Can you send a link to explain that further?”.
Here, then, is my explanation, which is connected to the theme of this column: I interpreted his questioning of “local” (used as a criterion for deciding what to buy) as a challenge to the ethical (and therefore moral) basis of localism, which made me realize that local is indeed an ambiguous signifier (e.g., Is it still considered “local” commerce if in Montreal you buy something made/produced in Ontario? How about something produced in Vermont, closer to Montreal but in a different country?). If we cannot define the concept that serves as our criterion, we are in trouble. There is, of course, the “100-miles diet” and other such guidelines, but the fact remains that in common parlance “buying local” means many different things.
Having come to the conclusion that “local” can hardly serve as a criterion for deciding whether this product is “better” than that one, I pondered whether local might stand for some other thing which can be specified more clearly – and which is itself valuable or desirable. The answer I have come to is: yes, “local” can be thought of as a proxy for how closely connected we are to the people (and other entities, such as ecosystems) affected by our consumption of a particular good. In turn, being connected through a feedback loop to those affected by our consumption means that we are better informed about its impacts – and more likely to adjust it accordingly. And it goes without saying that a system that is able to learn about and “update” itself is more adaptive and resilient.
A good example of such a “feedback loop” is that which was created by the community-sustained agriculture (CSA) movement in North America (coordinated by Équiterre in the Montreal region). CSA allows the consumer to come in direct contact with the person – and more often than not, the family – that produces what he/she eats. Typically farmer and consumer share the risk: if for whatever the reason the harvest is less generous one year, then the consumer who is a “partner” or “member” of the farm receives produce in lesser quantity (note that the opposite is also true). Even outside of CSA, farmers’ markets (at least those where farmers actually sell their own produce) make it possible for consumers to learn about they eat from those who produce their food, and for farmers to learn about how people eat, what they like, etc.
Does this “feedback loop” have to be “local” in the geographical sense? I think not. Fair-trade cooperatives (e.g., La Siembra, based in Ottawa) can play a similar role as the CSA network in connecting producers in developing countries with consumers in developed countries. Therefore, if we broaden the scope of “local” and define it as that which can be perceived from one’s position, then local commerce can indeed be thought of as “ethical”.
That is not to say that local consumption/commerce is always more “sustainable” – we know for example that vegetables produced locally out-of-season in heated greenhouses require far more energy that the same vegetables produced thousands of kilometers away, even when accounting for transportation (happy to provide refs if anyone’s interested). What local commerce does, however, is open up possibilities for ethical consumption.
In conclusion: “local” is the finger, connectedness is the moon. I say to @ethicsblogger: don’t look at the finger, look at the moon.