I love buying local.
Back when I lived in suburban Pennsylvania, I frequented our local non-chain grocery store on a weekly basis. The family that runs the store would often come out and greet me personally. There’s a charm and a friendliness to small businesses that you can’t often get at your local mega-store.
That’s part of the reason why I’m a big fan of local businesses. Buying local offers a chance to support the people around whom you immediately live—you can see your dollars at work, and build community through economic power—whether you’re buying groceries, food at restaurants, or clothing. The Institute for Local Self-Reliance outlines many reasons to support locally owned businesses, including environmental sustainability, more efficient use of public services, ensuring a healthy and fairer sense of competition and innovation, product diversity, and stronger social relationships.
But just the same, it’s easy to romanticize local businesses.
I’ve done it myself: I overlook some of the shortcomings of local businesses, and demonize big, national brands. But this way of thinking is misguided. It’s not that local sellers are always good and that big businesses are always bad—although it can be that way, sometimes big brands are a necessity. And we owe it to ourselves to assess whether our local store is hitting the mark.
You know that buying local can offer numerous benefits (listed above) for individuals and for communities. But here are 3 of the ways that “local” brands sometimes fall short:
1. Diversity & Inclusivity
Local businesses are rooted in particular communities and cultures, and they may not support diversity or tolerance, such as the Oklahoma restaurant (among others) that won’t serve gay people.
Are you educated on the practices and values of your local business? Do they support diversity in their employees and clients?
2. Workers’ Rights
While family-owned businesses may not face the type of publicity and criticism that corporations face in addressing workers’ rights, that does not mean that they are treating their employees fairly. Employees in small businesses might not have the support or platform to communicate the injustices or unfairness that they’ve experienced.
Some people romanticize local business without understanding or offering clear benefits and solutions. Of course small town charm is appealing, but is it a fair representation, or is it manufactured to satisfy a privileged consumer base? Is it romanticizing and stereotyping certain classes and groups of people, like farmers?
Scale and size can put larger organizations under public scrutiny, and that can lead to greater accountability.
3. Cost & Accessibility
Buying “local” can often be a product of privilege—being a “local” customer or owning a “local” non-chain store may not be possible for countless people for whom “local” is an unnecessary burden. For example, low income communities and marginalized populations would not necessarily benefit from keeping their businesses local at any cost. Sometimes pricing (and resources) can be far better at a big store, and local stores can’t compete.
Choosing to buy local is a personal decision—and there can be tremendous benefits or difficulties, depending on your situation. But it’s worth looking at both sides of the coin to make sure you’re as knowledgeable as you can be about your local stores.
Neerali Patel is a graduate student of sociology at the George Washington University. She became committed to studying socioeconomic inequality and stratification after a volunteer teaching experience in the slum communities of Ahmedabad, India. You can find her thoughts on inequality, interviews with thought leaders, and some of her poetry on her website.