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Should You Buy Local?

Abstract

Buying local is a prominent form of ethical consumption. We commonly assume that products that are local are in some respect ethically superior to ones that are not. This article contributes to research on local food by scrutinizing this assumption in light of some central values of the locavore movement. It identifies four central ethical causes from prior literature on locavorism: protecting the environment, promoting community, promoting small business, and contributing to the prosperity of one’s local economy. It then analyzes whether the contribution of buying local to these causes can justify the general perception that buying local is a good way to be an ethical consumer. Its main finding is that these justifications fail to provide a strong positive ethical reason for consumers in general to adopt the practice of buying local.

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Notes

  1. Throughout this essay, I treat the terms “moral” and “ethical,” and their variants, as synonyms.

  2. A buyer joins a community-supported agriculture program by purchasing a share from a local farmer at the beginning of the growing season, which entitles her to a certain amount of food, often obtained weekly or bi-weekly, from the farmer over the course of the season.

  3. Although the main points of contention in debates about buying local are questions about goodness and obligatoriness rather than questions about permissibility, I do briefly consider some reasons why buying local might be impermissible, at least in some circumstances, later in the paper.

  4. There are also environmental arguments for buying local that appeal to environmental causes other than climate change: soil quality, genetic diversity of crops, overall ecosystem health, and so on. Since I lack the space in this paper to adequately consider multiple of these, I limit my attention to the climate change argument, since I consider it to be the strongest.

  5. Consider the energy necessary for all the inputs a farmer needs to produce lamb. In addition to the energy needed to operate equipment, a life-cycle energy analysis must account for the energy required to produce and maintain the equipment. It also must account for the energy used to transport and grow the feed the sheep consumed, including the energy used to transport fertilizer, herbicide, fungicide, and pesticide to the fields where the feed is grown. And it is important not to neglect the energy needed to slaughter the animals and store the meat. If many inputs are less energy intensive in one place than another due to economies of scale and a local environment better suited for the product being produced—as is the case for producing lamb in New Zealand rather than the UK—the result can be an enormous overall difference in energy usage that outweighs even a large disparity in transport distance.

  6. Although, given that Civic Agriculture proponents favor small-scale modes of agricultural production and oppose many modern farming techniques that increase crop yield (Lyson 2004, p. 85), there would appear to be some objections to the Civic Agriculture approach on environmental grounds.

  7. Martha Nussbaum has distanced herself from strict moral cosmopolitanism in her more recent work; see Nussbaum (2019).

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Acknowledgements

For written comments on previous drafts of this paper, I thank Lauren Kaufmann, Chris MacDonald, Silvana Signori, Daniel Singer, and Alex Wellington. I am also grateful for the detailed, constructive feedback I received from three anonymous Journal of Business Ethics reviewers. Additionally, I would like to thank Anne Barnhill, Brian Berkey, Vikram Bhargava, Matthew Caulfield, Nancy Everhart, John Hasnas, Joseph Heath, and Robert Hughes for conversations that helped me develop my thinking about locavorism and buying local. The paper also benefited from audience feedback at the Society for Business Ethics Annual Conference in Atlanta, GA; the Bergamo-Wharton Joint Conference in Bergamo, Italy; and the Business Ethics in the 6ix Annual Conference in Toronto, Canada.

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Correspondence to Carson Young.

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Young, C. Should You Buy Local?. J Bus Ethics 176, 265–281 (2022). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10551-020-04701-3

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Keywords

  • Buy local
  • Locavore
  • Analytic philosophy