“Think Globally, Act Locally”
This environmental slogan has been attributed to a Scottish town planner named Patrick Geddes. He may not have exactly coined the phrase but he clearly expressed the same sentiments back in the early 1900’s. For Geddes it encompassed his theories on town planning which combined sensitivity to the environment with a sense of place. Today the phrase has come to stand for something more expansive. Wikipedia encyclopedia defines it as follows: “Think globally, act locally urges people to consider the health of the entire planet and take action in their own communities and cities.” It reminds me of the old Chinese saying, “He who wants to move mountains begins by taking away little stones.”
In the mid 1980’s I started thinking a lot about the role businesses could play in the environmental movement. I was heavily influenced by the proceedings at the founding convention of the Green Party of Canada in 1983. I was in the field of hospitality at the time and it occurred to me that one of the best ways to respect this slogan was by buying local ingredients. My first restaurant, La Maison, was a French restaurant based upon the principles of Nouvelle Cuisine. Mainly, this approach to food involves lighter sauces that were healthier than “classique” sauces, smaller portions, and creative combinations of food along with an emphasis on presentation – there was also a major focus on buying the freshest ingredients possible which entailed going to local markets on a daily basis. After a few years I started to wholeheartedly embrace this aspect of the cuisine…the “buy-local” philosophy.
In 1990 I opened a pub, the Woolwich Arrow Neighbourhood Pub, which was the first in Ontario to offer only local micro-brewed beers on tap. My marketing campaign used a similar slogan as above, .we just made a small change, “Think globally, drink locally.” This phrase was effective on two levels. First, it was giving the same message about “acting locally” by suggesting one should drink locally made beer. Second, it also expressed the essence of a great pub which involves people considering a pub as their local hang-out. In fact, in England people refer to their preferred pub as their “local”.
Part of the original decision to go for locally produced draft beers was based upon quality. Beer, with very few exceptions, is not meant to age. A true, authentically made draft beer has a very short shelf life - about one month. The only way to change that situation is by manipulating the product. Large brewers resorted to pasteurization, additives and micro-filtering to extend shelf life. This allowed them produce beer on a massive scale, store it in distant warehouses and ship it all over the world. I’ll never forget seeing an imported keg of draft with a “best before date” stamped on its side that was 9 months away! That was not a real draft beer. In England they used to say you should never drink a beer from a brewery that’s further away than one days-walk for a horse and wagon. Freshness was king (ah Queen, I guess – sorry Elizabeth).
As my pub business grew my staff became my greatest supporters (and among my closest friends) and advocates for all things local. And as I got to know farmers and producers my relationship to suppliers became a cornerstone of my business - and their stories became my greatest marketing asset. I grew to value highly their commitment to quality. It wasn’t long before my buying local mentality broadened to include more than just food and beverages. It was at about this time that I christened my company “The Neighbourhood Group” and soon I was applying my philosophy to most of our suppliers. When I expanded into a small group of restaurants we made it policy to use local artisans and materials in our build-outs and renovations. Even our company vehicles are only purchased from corporations that assemble cars in Ontario. Eventually, with the help of my management team, we developed “The Big Six” reasons for buying local. This became a mantra within my company… part of our DNA. Radical ideas and activist overtones are included. It validates everything we do. Here’s The Big Six as it applies to food:
1. Taste – local food is invariably fresher and therefore has more flavour. Period.
2. Nutrition – many foods lose some of their nutritive value over time. If food is coming from thousands of miles away then it’s going to not only lose its freshness and taste, but various beneficial components, vitamins in particular, will be reduced.
3. Safety – There is a lot of concern these days about the safety of our food. This concern not only includes the fear of various additives but also focuses on growing techniques and farm conditions. Over the past twenty years there have been horror stories about food contamination in China, South America, Mexico and even California. As a consumer you have no control over food produced in other regions or countries. There is no transparency. The big multinationals are mainly concerned with reducing costs and beating the competition on price alone - they do not care where they get their product from. Sure there is some attention to a maintain a certain level of quality, just so they can keep market share, but they will not hesitate to use hormones and antibiotics for animals or various pesticides and herbicides to increase production… overall they’re most comfortable in countries with the fewest regulations. Locally grown and made food can allay many of our food safety fears because we can go check out the farm or food plant ourselves. Plus, a local supplier lives and sells in your neighbourhood and they cannot jeopardize their only market. Therefore, there’s a much greater emphasis on quality and safety… word spreads fast in small communities.
4. Diversity – when you by local you are supporting a business in your community. The diversity of small businesses is crucial to regional economies because it ensures greater stability over time, including added resilience to recessions. Reasons for this outcome includes many factors but primary among them is that local businesses create and keep jobs in the community. They keep profits and valuable skills in that same community. They also develop long-term relationships with their clientele. They care. In various studies it has been shown that a local business will donate more to local charities. Most likely they will also pay more attention to the environment…nobody pisses in their own pool. Finally, and maybe most importantly the decisions that affect a community are made in that community… multi-nationals don’t like that at all….
5. Pollution - Local businesses have the potential to significantly reduce the negative impact of too many “food miles” associated with transporting food. I say “potential” because only about 11% of food production related pollution comes from shipping. At present the negative impact of transportation is often effectively countered by extremely efficient food production in large factory farms. As an example, consider this fact. I once dealt with a large distribution company that supplied me with lettuce in the winter season (we now use greenhouse produce). On Monday morning the sales rep would gather orders for romaine lettuce… that same day orders for all the restaurants in my area, let’s say a thousand cases, was faxed to a factory farm in California. The lettuce was then picked to that exact order, packed in refrigerated trucks, shipped about 3,000 miles to the company’s main warehouse in Ontario, unloaded in a refrigerated loading dock, stored briefly then sent out to the restaurants in my area the next day. That’s efficiency! There would be minimum waste and the product would be pretty fresh… now one might still question the quality of soil at these mega farms when they all use “mega” amounts of pesticides, herbicides and repeated applications of fertilizers to “restore” the depleted top soil… but that is another problem. It is my belief that as demand for local foods continues to grow we’ll soon see the same efficiencies in my region… and pollution-spewing transport trucks will be left to rust.
6. Emotional Connections – the final advantage of the buy local philosophy comes from two loosely related attributes. One is physical, the other more ethereal… spiritual. The first attribute that a local food brings to the table (pun intended) is a “sense of place”. This is a direct result of local growing conditions which influences taste. In French they use the word “terroir” to encapsulate all those elements that go into growing food - things like soil, weather, topography, wind, drainage, etc. As a result each crop, grapes as an example, will taste slightly different in different places. This is a fascinating phenomenon and it also creates pride in the foods from your own region. It also dove-tails nicely into the growing interest in “food provenance” in North America – people want to know where their food comes from and they are demanding traceability (an easier task for your local farmer than huge multinationals!).
The second, and less empirical, value gained from purchasing locally is harder to define. Some may accuse me of being a little wacky here, but I firmly believe it to be true. Besides the pride one might feel about buying local there is an even greater emotional connection to local foods – that involves actually knowing a farmer, or brewer or pastry maker. Let me illustrate with an experience most of us have had in our past. Try to remember the taste of the tomato you got from a big grocery store last winter. It was pretty hard and kind of yellow around the edges… hard to remember? Of course, there was no taste to recall! Now let’s go a step further and try to compare the taste of three identical tomatoes and see if there’s a difference. It’s now in the middle of harvest time. First you go and buy tomatoes from the same grocery store you did last winter… they look great and taste OK. Then you buy one at the local Farmers Market and you think to yourself “now that’s a tomato!” Soon you buy regularly from one farm stand and as you get to know the farmer the tomatoes get even better. Finally, you visit your grandmother and she gives you one from her garden and then you say “that’s the best damn tomato I’ve ever tasted in my life.” These three tomatoes might actually turn out to be identical, if a scientific study was conducted on each one, but you can’t deny that grandma’s tasted off the charts! It’s that emotional connection that’s so special in a vibrant local economy.
All, or just one, of The Big Six reasons for buying local may provide a lot of people enough incentive to go local. Yet for many it’s not enough because their one deciding and overriding factor is price. Multinationals are keenly aware of this fact, and they will do anything to maintain their competitive advantage. I for one believe that they should be stopped from dominating local markets and believe the Big Six provides some strong weapons in that battle. And, battle is exactly what is going on in every community. I’m not saying all multinationals are inherently bad (Nestlé and Walmart excepted) but their mission is… to expand market share, squash competition and place profits above all else. And remember, they concentrate wealth in their own, not your, community. This is not a scenario that works well in any region’s future, or for the planet.
I admire the social and political activism of companies like Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream Company. They have fought big government and big business for years… often going beyond mere acts of philanthropy. Their mission, and many other emerging companies (Community Benefit Corporations, in particular), is to literally change ways of doing business and, ultimately, change the world. These progressive companies realize that the overall goal of small businesses, and their communities, are often diametrically opposed to multinationals. The whole situation and prescription for change is nicely summarized by Judy Wicks, Co-Founder of the Business Alliance for Living Economies (BALLE):*
“The problems our planet faces are dire. Time is of the essence…. We’re pushing for a sustainable economy and environmental survival through decentralization. As long as large corporations have as much power as they have, there will always be huge economic and social injustices. The kind of world we want puts economic power back into the hands of communities... chain stores owned by multinationals are like invasive species in local economic ecosystems. Our vision (BALLE) is to keep money and power within our communities.”
Judy recognizes the road to self-reliant, resilient and thriving towns and regions is through more small businesses, not less. Supporting them is the easiest first step for all citizens. Let us all eat, drink and buy local “stuff”, because those are the first little stones we can take in dismantling giant corporate mountains.
*Judy’s comments are found in the book “Ice Cream Social – The Struggle for the Soul of Ben & Jerry’s” by Brad Edmonston (p.250/251)