Monday, July 24, 2006

Should one buy local?

This from the Christian Science Monitor (a paper that is surprisingly consistent in its high quality) suggests that "buying locally" may not always be an easy moral choice. The contrast is between the usual benefits of buying local -- direct knowledge about how goods were produced and direct benefits on one's own situation -- and the overlooked benefits of buying foreign goods -- reducing provincialism, helping elevate poorer nations and encourage sustainable production generally. While it's important to note what I argued earlier about social vs. individual obligation, certainly people who have a choice about who produces what they buy need some basis on which to justify their decision.

Oddly (for me), my view would be that one should buy the best. If that happens to be local, then it's local; if it's not, then it's not. Although I am sensitive -- perhaps over-sensitive -- to the problems of market failures, in this general case, it seems the market is the most effective mechanism to encourage competition between producers in order to produce goods that are genuinely better than those currently being consumed. In other words, if I am generally buying non-Canadian goods, and this is an instance of a general trend, then smart Canadian producers would look at the products being developed by whomever is "winning" in the marketplace, and develop their own accordingly -- either trying to match or surpass their quality.

Of course, there are (at least) two very common problems with any market-based solution, the first being consumer knowledge, the second being the methods taken to compete. If consumers don't know what they want, or need, and don't really know what the value of what's available, then we get market failure. If producers choose to compete not by developing better products, but by developing products which appeal to base wants, improving their advertising strategies, and/or agitating for protectionist trade policies, then, again, we get market failure. These would need to be legislatively controlled -- the only mechanism I know that would work.

But, assuming that these controls are in place, then why not let the market decide this issue?


Anonymous said...

Buy the best that you can buy from a socially responsible company, I think.

I found this site recently:

Under programs, the Responsible Shopper one is the best.

ADHR said...

I'm not sure why I should, though. (Keep in mind, BTW, that I'm in Canada, so many of the companies listed don't do business here directly, but through affiliates or subsidiaries.) Particularly if I may end up spending more than others in order to get a product that is not clearly as good.

Anonymous said...

Since you're in Canada, sure, maybe you shouldn't. And you need to be able to evaluate the product firsthand (which is why most of these companies allow you send these things back within 30 days for a refund -- still incur the shipping cost.)

I'm just a little idealistic and I'd rather give my money to fellow idealists. The majority of the smaller organic companies are extremely customer and environmentally friendly. (The other day I sent an email to Kellog and they had the candor to tell me that they don't really take feedback.) Lots of them are actually devoted to quality. Most of them donate at least 1% of their profits to humanitarian or ecological organizations and work hard to produce their energy renewably. Their owners, for some strange reason, tend to have actual principles. Many economists would tell me that I'm being fooled, and I'm stupid, but I say fuck them. I'm not the only principled, honest person in the world.

ADHR said...

I've had a similar experience with airlines. Essentially, "we have your money already, and we don't care if you fly with someone else next time." Nice.

I suppose I'm basically cynical and don't take seriously the companies that seem to be going through the motions on treating other people (and the planet) respectfully. It strikes me that they're either doing it to corner a niche market, in which case it's basically selfish, or they're not actually sincere and are just feeding me a line.