Friday, January 27, 2012

buying local, locally

As I expressed in my post on overthinking footwear, I consider it a top priority to buy products made and sold as locally as possible. This presents an inherent conflict--what happens if locally made and locally sold products are mutually exclusive? Case in point--I couldn't find the boots that I needed at In Step Leather, which was pretty much the only independently owned supplier in Elkridge. I settled on buying boots from L. L. Bean, which is at least an American-based company with strong community ties (in Maine), and which has a retail store in my area. But there's rarely a good solution.

I recently needed to buy new underwear. There aren't a lot of American-made options (let alone anything truly local to Elkridge or Maryland). You can pay $100+ for boutique briefs, or you can buy something that's American-made for the sake of being American-made. I respect that, but it doesn't always equal quality. And neither kind is easy to find on a local store shelf. For that matter, locally owned clothing stores are few and far between. So I settled for Campbellsville Apparel, which makes underwear for the U. S. military. I'm not a big supporter of the military-industrial complex, but economic reality is what it is. To make relatively inexpensive underwear in America and stay viable, I can't imagine there are many options that don't involve a government contract. Plus, in this area military is local (sort of). Instead of ordering them online, I got a friend to pick up a couple of packages on base.

I'm also trying to find some dress socks--the thin kind that you're supposed to wear with dress shoes. I don't use them so much that I go through them quickly, but right now I have only one pair, and it doesn't look like it's going to last much longer. I found one locally-owned men's store, but they didn't sell anything American-made. I found a few suppliers online, but I don't know enough about socks to order with much confidence that I'll get the kind I really want. Since it looks like I'll have to buy from a chain store one way or another, it occurred to me to check back with L. L. Bean. Their products are hit-and-miss. I think they genuinely try to contract American when they can, but many of their products are made overseas as well. I think I may be in luck--I found several styles that look right and are designated USA-made. It's probably worth another trip to check them out.

But these are only two examples of a systemic problem. It's hard to succeed in small business, especially if you're competing directly with multinational corporations. So I suspect there's a quite a bit of pressure to sell competitively priced products, which generally means stuff made overseas. Either that, or find yourself a niche like high-quality, high-end. Maybe that would lead you to $100 underwear, but it still doesn't meet the need of a thrifty but socially conscious consumer. So unless you're fortunate enough to have a local niche retailer who specializes in American-made, chances are pretty good that you won't just happen across that sort of thing.

The Internet is a marvelous invention. As far as I'm concerned, one of its greatest accomplishments is to connect people with their interests, however obscure. I might not know a single person in my community who collects used dental floss, but if there are half a dozen of us in the world, we can now find each other and form a club. If there are 50 of us, someone can figure out how to make money at it. Right now, American-made is a lifestyle choice. However much one might argue that it's economically more beneficial in the grand scheme of things, most consumers will look at the price tag and go with whatever's cheapest. So the challenge in the real world is finding enough customers who will pay extra for a clean conscience. Online, there's a much larger pool to draw from, and you're more likely to create a viable business selling this stuff.

But for me, it's not just about American-made. It's about supporting local economy in whatever way I can. I want my products made as locally as possible, but I also want the rest of the supply chain as local as possible. If more products were made right here in and around Elkridge, the rest would probably fall into place a bit more neatly. But as it is, "locally made" rarely gets much better than "made in the same time-zone." So how am I really affecting my community, if instead of buying underwear made in Honduras from the Walmart down the road, I'm supporting a business that's local somewhere in Kentucky?

Maybe I'm just too lazy for this. If I see a need, I should work to meet it. Instead of just ordering my own pair of socks, maybe I should try to become a local supplier of those socks to others in my community. Or better yet, get some training and equipment, and start making socks in my garage, and selling them at local craft fairs and farmer's markets. But in the meantime, how can I support my local economy? Is it even a realistic objective?


  1. I'm fine with an imperfect local trade balance, but honestly, what places have all the materials / industries to make everything? Especially with rapid shipping and global competition?

    Still, Military surplus beats China-assembled.

    Oh and one other thing, the local stuff is only dear because it is less viable (IMO). It might never be as cheap as the Chinese-assembled stuff, but then again, imports always have to deal with shipping and import costs. So it is possible for there to be cheaply made local stuff. It's just that most 'cheap' stuff is really just 'lowballer', meaning, whoever runs the place buys the cheapest stuff wherever it's from. And make no mistake, the guys who win at that game, you can guarantee their stores will have some unintentional linking to any remaining sweatshops.

    1. I guess for me it's more about the community than the stuff. (Not saying that for you it's the opposite--just trying to explain where I'm coming from.) You can talk about jobs, production-based economy, or just the face-to-face humanity of buying the stuff you need from people you know. But mostly we don't talk about it. We don't think about how saving money on an individual purchase involves a great deal of hidden cost in the big picture.

      I agree that rapid shipping and global competition prevent a lot of these things from changing. Honestly, I'm pessimistic about any substantial change until those factors diminish. I'm just not ready to surrender in the meantime. I feel like I ought to do something on an individual level, but that's where irony gets in the way. When the goal is communal, doing something on an individual level doesn't get you very far.

      Your last point is well taken. I don't think everything gets better when it's all local. On the other hand, it does seem like we ignore abuse a lot more readily when it's half-way around the world. Or at least, responding to local abuse seems like a much more human enterprise.