If you’ve wondered, “Why buy local? Is it really more sustainable?” then you’re not alone. Let’s explore the facts.
By Lena Milton
As we alter our daily habits to be more sustainable, we’re often overwhelmed with dozens of tips on sustainability, which can oftentimes be contradictory. The discrepancy between organically-grown and locally-grown products is one of the prominent discussions in sustainability efforts, and one that has no clear answer. Is organically-grown food that is shipped long distances still environmentally friendly? What about conventionally-grown food that is grown locally?
This article compares the environmental impacts of locally and organically sourced products, and how our purchasing choices influence our personal sustainability efforts.
Buying “conventionally” refers to any products grown, manufactured, or produced without sustainability regulations. Unlike organically grown agricultural products, conventional practices allow the use of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, as well as genetic modifications and growth hormones to promote the highest possible yields.
This is widely considered the least sustainable form of agriculture and production, as it focuses on yield and output rather than long-term sustainability.
Recently, we’ve seen a major push for buying local. Doing so supports local businesses, reduces impacts from shipping and distribution, and reduces energy costs of keeping products fresh. Transportation accounts for approximately 11% of the energy consumed in the food industry, and by shopping locally we can significantly reduce that energy consumption.
This extends into products other than foods. Supporting any type of local business, from services to product manufacturing, can greatly reduce the need for shipping and distribution while also supporting local economies. Additionally, local businesses (especially small local businesses) are less likely to have complex international supply chains, which can be severely detrimental to the environment. Scope 3 emissions, carbon emissions that are not produced by the company directly but still contribute to a product’s creation, can account for anywhere between 65% to 95% of a company’s emissions, and are more impactful the more complex a supply chain is.
Companies, both locally- and internationally-based, should take advantage of supply chain management technology or other supply chain monitoring practices to reduce the impacts of their value chain; otherwise, the majority of these environmental impacts may go unaddressed.
Supporting local businesses is a great way to reduce these impacts and support smaller businesses and local jobs. However, buying local doesn’t always mean buying sustainably.
Local farms and businesses can still use conventional practices and contribute heavily to local environmental degradation. These local impacts can include:
- Eutrophication in local water bodies from chemical runoff
- Soil and water degradation from conventional farming
- Intensive energy consumption from keeping products fresh for long periods of time
While local businesses typically have significantly less impact than major international conglomerates, look into the production and agricultural methods used to ensure environmental efforts are still being made.
Buying organically-sourced products has grown in popularity in recent years, with the USDA organic certification becoming widely available in nearly every market, from produce to hair care products. Organic products are cultivated with environmental practices in mind, requiring agricultural practices to abide by the following circumstances:
- No use of synthetic chemicals, which generate harmful environmental runoff
- No unnecessary growth hormones, which can disrupt human health
- A focus on regenerative farming practices to stimulate long-term soil health and water preservation
These environmentally-focused practices significantly mitigate the strain that the agricultural industry has on the planet, and even help to benefit the environment in many cases.
However, buying organic isn’t a perfect solution. Organic farming cultivates an average of 40% lower yields than conventional farming, leading to higher land usage. This land conversion often cuts into forests and rainforests that would otherwise contribute to natural carbon sequestration. Increasing global food consumption is also causing more land to be converted to agriculture every year, leading some scientists to warn that organic farms may actually be contributing more to climate change than conventional agriculture.
In addition, much of the organic food that we buy is imported. Products like organic quinoa, chocolate, and coffee have significant impacts on the socio-economic and environmental statuses of the regions they’re grown in, regardless of organic practices. Not only do imported organics contribute significantly to emissions from long-distance food distribution, but many of these products are grown through worker exploitation and even slavery in the most extreme cases.
Which is the Best Option?
There’s no simple answer on how to best practice environmental consumerism. Locally-grown products are not always the most sustainably cultivated, while organic products may suffer from unethical cultivation practices and high emissions from long-distance transportation.
When it comes down to it, there are a few things you can look out for while making your grocery-buying decisions. When shopping local, be on the lookout for quantifiable sustainability efforts. When shopping for organic food, or sustainable products more generally,, support brands that boast fair trade practices, monitor their supply chains, and give specifics on their social and environmental efforts.
An international company that takes active steps in improving its environmental efforts through sustainable farming practices, supply chain management, and community involvement may be more sustainable than a local business that does not make these efforts. Unfortunately, there’s no one right way to be sustainable, and every option has its pros and cons.
Conclusion: Why Buy Local?
When shopping with sustainability in mind, it’s most important to do your own research and use your personal discretion. Look for local brands that help boost your local economy, participate in social efforts, and support companies that actively improve their environmental initiatives.