Localwashing: How corporate America is co-opting “local”

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image by Anastasia Vasilakis / www.anastasiavasilakis.com

HSBC, one of the biggest banks on the planet, has taken to calling itself “the world’s local bank.” Starbucks is removing its name from at least three of its Seattle outlets, the first of which just reopened as “15th Avenue Coffee and Tea.” Winn-Dixie, a 500-outlet supermarket chain, recently launched a new ad campaign under the tagline “Local flavor since 1956.” The International Council of Shopping Centers, a consortium of mall owners and developers, has poured millions of dollars into television ads urging people to “Shop Local”–at their nearest mall.

This new variation on corporate greenwashing–localwashing–is, like the buy-local movement itself, most advanced in the context of food. Hellmann’s, the mayonnaise brand owned by the processed-food giant Unilever, is test-driving a new “Eat Real, Eat Local” initiative in Canada. Frito-Lay’s television commercials use farmers as pitchmen to position the company’s potato chips as local food, while the poultry giant Foster Farms is labeling its packages of chicken “locally grown.”

Meanwhile, Barnes & Noble has launched a video blog site under the banner “All bookselling is local.” The site, which features “local book news” and recommendations from employees of stores in such evocative-sounding locales as Surprise, Arizona, seems designed to disguise what Barnes & Noble is–a highly centralized corporation where decisions about what books to stock are made by a handful of buyers–and to present the chain instead as a collection of independent­-minded booksellers.

Shopping malls, chambers of commerce, and economic development agencies from Orlando to Spokane also are appropriating the phrase “buy local” to urge consumers to patronize nearby malls and chain stores. In March, leaders of a new Buy Local campaign in Fresno, California, assembled in front of the Fashion Fair Mall for a kickoff press conference. Flanked by stores like Anthropologie and The Cheesecake Factory, officials from the Economic Development Corporation of Fresno County explained that choosing to “buy local” helps the region’s economy and cited a study that found that for every $100 spent locally, $45 stays in the community.

But the study, conducted by the firm Civic Economics, found that to be true only if the money was spent at a locally owned business. Shop at a chain store, the analysis found, and only $13 of that $100 stays in the community. Nevertheless, the $45-stays-local statistic was repeated on a TV news story later that day, without clarification, while commercials for the new campaign explained, “buying local means any store in your community: mom-and-pop shops, national chains, big-box stores–you name it.”

In one way,all of this corporate localwashing is good news for local economy advocates: It represents the best empirical evidence yet that the grassroots movement for locally produced goods and independently owned businesses is having a measurable impact on the choices people make.

Locally grown food has soared in popularity. The United States is now home to 4,385 active farmers markets, one out of every three of them started since 2000, and food co-ops and neighborhood greengrocers are on the rise.

A growing number of independent businesses are trumpeting their local ownership and reporting a surge in customer traffic. In April, even as Virgin Megastores prepared to shutter its last U.S. music emporium, independent music stores across the country celebrated the second annual Record Store Day, an event that drew hundreds of thousands of music fans into stores, was one of the top search terms on Google, and triggered a 16-point upswing in album sales, according to Nielsen SoundScan.

Meanwhile, local business alliances­–like Stay Local! in New Orleans and Arizona Local First in Phoenix–have now formed in over 130 cities, collectively count some 30,000 businesses as members, and are rallying public support for homegrown enterprise.

It seems that, amid the worst economic downturn since the Depression, buy-local sentiment is giving local businesses an edge over their chain competitors. While the U.S. Commerce Department reported that overall retail sales plunged almost 10 percent over the holidays, a survey conducted in January by the Institute for Local Self-Reliance (where I work) found that independent retailers in cities with buy-local campaigns saw sales drop an average of just 3 percent from the previous year.

None of this has slipped the notice of corporate executives and the consumer research firms that advise them. Michelle Barry, senior vice president of the Hartman Group, explains, “Big companies have to be much more creative in how they articulate local. . . . It’s a different way of thinking about local that is not quite as literal.”

One way corporations can be “local” is to stock a token amount of locally grown produce, as Wal-Mart has done in some stores. The chain’s local food offerings are usually limited to a few of the main commodity crops of that state–peaches in Georgia, potatoes in Maine–and sit amid a sea of industrial food and other goods shipped from the far side of the planet. This modest gesture has won Wal-Mart glowing coverage in numerous newspapers, few of which have asked the salient question: Does Wal-Mart, which now captures more than one of every five dollars spent on groceries, create more and better opportunities for local farmers than the grocers it replaces?

“I would prefer that the county’s resources were not being spent promoting Wal-Mart and Home Depot,” says Scott Miller, owner of Fresno’s Gazebo Gardens, a plant nursery founded in 1922. “We have a great history of being involved in community events and donating to local causes. Our plants are grown locally. We believe that our kind of business is more valuable to a community than any big chain.”

Stacy Mitchell is a senior researcher with the New Rules Project and author of Big-Box Swindle: The True Cost of Mega-Retailers and the Fight for America’s Independent Businesses. Mitchell published a longer version of this article in several alt weeklies; we spotted it in New Orleans’ Gambit Weekly (July 14, 2009).


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