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Act Locally: Buying local is the right thing to do

This past November, during the Ashland High School Climate Change Course’s public presentation, an audience member posed an intriguing question: If a consumer, committed to reducing carbon emissions, is confronted with the option of buying either non-locally produced organic food or non-organic food raised locally, which choice should they make?

Guest presenter Rianna Koppel, sustainability manager for the Ashland Food Co-op, responded that while the Co-op was committed to purchasing “local” products (defined as within a 200-mile radius of Ashland), the store does truck in organic items from significantly farther distances in order to meet customer demand.

In Act Locally, I have been advocating that readers “buy local,” on the rationale that transporting products from manufacturer to vendor contributes to global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. The audience-member’s question gave me pause for consideration.

My pause deepened as I began to read through Ashland’s Climate and Energy Action Plan (CEAP). In so doing, I ran across several provocative statements. I felt compelled to clarify the issue before moving on to other topics.

To begin with, readers might be reminded that the initial concept behind “buying local” was to support small businesses under economic threat — first from chain stores in malls, then big-box stores, and eventually from internet commerce. Communities were seeing locally owned shops falter. This held troubling implications for municipal tax bases and the public services taxes provided.

At some undetermined point in time, environmentalists started linking local purchasing to the issue of climate change. Logic does dictate that GHG emissions are created when merchandise is transported. However, advocating for “buying local” specifically as a means of reducing GHG emissions may be somewhat misleading.

Many of the items we purchase at local stores have not been grown or manufactured nearby. Ashland doesn’t have “any significant agriculture within the city limits. Therefore, it is reasonable to assume that the Ashland community (i.e. businesses within Ashland city limits) does not locally produce a significant portion of the goods and food it consumes. Instead it relies almost entirely on imported goods, food and energy products to meet the community’s needs.” (CEAP, p.15) [To be clear, CEAP’s narrow definition of “imported” includes everything produced outside official city limits — even agricultural products grown on the far side of the freeway.]

More importantly, whether said merchandise was produced 10 miles or 150 miles away (i.e. within the Co-op’s definition of “local”) or in a different country, every item carries with it some degree of what CEAP terms “upstream” emissions. For example, even if a store sells a hand-knitted sweater made from yarn that was hand-spun from the wool of a local sheep, still, the clippers used to shear the sheep, the spindle used to wind the yarn — not to mention the knitting needles — were all produced elsewhere. The sweater’s “upstream” emissions include the processes by which the raw ingredients for each tool were extracted, molded and shipped to the location at which the knitter purchased them.

CEAP makes another salient point regarding transportation: “In some cases, buying ‘local’ can reduce the lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions associated with the goods and services we buy — but not always. A peer-reviewed study found that the production of food accounts for 83 percent of the average American food-related greenhouse gas footprint, while the transport of food only represents 11 percent of lifecycle emissions. A reduction in red meat consumption can therefore be a more effective means to reduce a household’s food-related climate footprint than ‘buying local.’” (CEAP, p. 72)

Assuming that the “11 percent” figure cited represents the averaging of amounts of transportation emissions attached to a broad range of products — some generating higher emissions than others — the implication is that production emissions are generally more polluting than transportation emissions, so as responsible citizens, we should be more concerned about the way items are produced, rather than whether they are produced locally.

However, lest we berate ourselves for occasionally purchasing the less-preferred option — relax. CEAP notes that our state rates Ashland as responsible for only 0.5 percent of Oregon’s total GHG emissions.

While we may feel better about ourselves when we lower our personal GHG footprint, realistically our individual choices do not have a major impact, one way or the other, upon climate change.

What we can hope for is that Ashland might lead other communities by way of example, until the planet reaches a critical mass of individuals reducing their GHG emissions.

In the end, two compelling reasons remain for why we should shop at local venues:

1. To support businesses run by our friends and neighbors, while ensuring our city’s tax base remains strong.

2. To be able to determine the level of conscientiousness that has gone into producing a given item.

Ashland resident, author and anthropologist Nina Egert has been a lay environmentalist since the early 1970s.

Photo by Nina EgertAshland Co-op states its commitment to selling local produce.