Connecting the Sustainability Dots, Part II: Going Local

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Fresh’s March 27 post explored how a single activity, such as edible gardening, can help us become more sustainable in a variety of ways. Something else that connects a lot of sustainability dots is “going local.” 

For some, localism is about “transitioning” to a post-carbon world, buying and making things locally so we don’t need to expend lots of fossil fuel importing and transporting goods from other places. For others, localism is a way to rebuild resilient, people-centered economies in an impersonal globalized world. Still others see in localism an opportunity to create lifestyles that are centered around place and strong, interconnected communities.

Going local can help us do all of those things and more. Here are a few examples.

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1. Buying local food. The most popular form of localism these days, eating local can improve our quality of life by giving us access to fresh, in-season food, which just plain tastes good. Buying local food also may help us sustain better health. It can reduce our risk of exposure to food-borne diseases that have become more common with the centralization of our national food system. And it may reduce our exposure to chemicals, antibiotics and hormones if our local farmers use sustainable agriculture methods or are Certified USDA Organic.

We may not be thinking about preserving open space when we visit a farmers’ market, but buying food directly from farmers through markets, shops or CSAs (community supported agriculture shares) is an affordable way to keep farms in business and reduce the likelihood of them selling off land to developers. Local food dollars also boost the “local multiplier effect,” enabling our money to circulate inside our communities many more times than it can when we buy from national or international chains.

Buying local food also lets us see exactly “where are food comes from” to paraphrase Michael Pollan. And as we get to know our farmers, week in and week out, we can enjoy the feeling of being part of a community, while knowing our actions actually help make that community stronger.

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2. Shopping “downtown.”  During this long economic downturn, towns in the Delaware River Valley have definitely caught the localism bug, promoting it with “love your local” and “buy local” signs and innovative events, such as the New Hope-Lambertville Friday Night Fireworks. But retailers will tell you that locals don’t really shop local and that their fellow shop-owners aren’t always willing to work together for the common good. Whether it’s the mall of the web, our downtowns are up against formidable competition — and a surprising degree of apathy, even among consumers already committed to buying local food.

Some will argue that it’s possible to buy from small, independent companies online. And when you can’t find something locally, that can be the next best option. But nothing beats buying as much as we can from independent local businesses.

Shopping locally lets us reduce the fossil fuel necessary to get to stores. It can turn a day of running common errands into an opportunity to socialize and recharge our connection to community. And it assures our dollars will circulate and re-circulate throughout our community, keeping businesses in business, creating much-needed jobs and generating the additional tax revenue necessary to support our schools, first responders and local infrastructure.

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3. Replacing imports. “Import replacement” is a term used by economists who advocate localism. It generally refers to the ability of a community to produce goods and services it once “imported” from elsewhere. Usually, the imports getting replaced are food and energy. For example, if a community can produce a lot of its own food on farms and in backyard edible gardens, it can import less from national or multi-national sources. That not only helps the local economy and reduces a community’s carbon footprint. It also can make the community more resilient in the face of droughts, superstorms or other external events that could interrupt the food supply. The same may one day be true of energy. Although we’re all still “grid-tied,” many believe we should be working toward the day when individuals (with solar-paneled roofs and/or other home-based renewables) and communities (possibly through community-owned corporations or energy co-ops) will be able to produce all the renewable energy the community requires.

Of course, we can also replace imports of other kinds. When we buy locally produced art, hand crafts, bicycles, toys, clothing and so on, we’re once again supporting the local economy while reducing the fuel associated with our purchases. The same is true when we search for service providers (doctors, lawyers, accountants, writers, graphic designers, yoga instructors, and so on) who live and work nearby. As with other local purchases, these can boost the local economy, regardless of what’s happening nationally, while strengthening our ties to the community and reducing our need to fill up the tank.

4. Localizing money. Localist economists are increasingly looking at ways we can save, invest and borrow within our communities. One of the easiest ways to get started is to open a checking or savings account at an independently owned community bank or credit union. These financial institutions generally have a stated commitment to lend to individuals and businesses in their communities. As in the movie “It’s a Wonderful Life,” that type of commitment from bankers can make all the difference in sustaining the economic well-being of a community. Other ways to localize money that may be available in your community include using local currency (such as BerkShares in the New York Berkshire region) or investing in (or lending money to) a local business or co-op.

  • For more information about local money, check out these books: Local Dollars, Local Sense, by Michael Shuman, and Local Money, by Peter North.

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