Every now and then, it seems like another little “buy local” bubble burbles up. It’s happening again here; I see signs in store windows, and people exhorting me to buy local in various articles, and, as usual, it’s evoking a series of emotions in me.
You’d think that I might be all about the Buy Local movement, but, the thing is, it’s complicated. And the movement totally ignores some major class issues, and some serious disability issues.
Let’s talk about the class issues first, because they’re easy to dispatch: Buying local is not an option for everyone. Buying local can be more expensive, it can be more time consuming, it can mean settling for products which are not quite what one wants, and may cost more to boot. For people who have the economic privilege to buy local despite these issues, that’s great. But for people who do not, constantly being shamed and being told you’re not a good person for not buying local is really not very helpful. Monumentally unhelpful. In fact, it can spark some resentment.
The disability issues: A lot of local businesses are inaccessible. A lot of non-local businesses are inaccessible. For some people with disabilities, mail order really is the most accessible option. Being told that you should buy local when you can’t or it’s extremely hard is, again, very unhelpful. And if you’re an ally to people with disabilities, it gets a bit peevish to be told that you should ignore the fact that a business is inaccessible and spend your money there. Oh, your friend in the wheelchair can wait outside, it’s not that cold.
That said, I like buying local. But I look for more than a business which is owned by a local. Here’s what I look for:
- A business which is owned by a woman or someone who is gender nonconforming. I like to support people with whom I have something in common, and being a female/gender nonconforming businessowner is an uphill battle.
- A business which is owned by a person with disabilities. All the hardships faced above are even more extreme for PWDs. It’s rare to find a disabled business owner, let alone one who is open about ou disability, but, when I can, I try to kick some money into the way of businesses owned by disabled folks.
- A business which operates ethically. Being “local” does not necessarily make you ethical. Where does the business source its products? Do they order/work with unethical companies? How well do their pay/treat their workers?
- A business which is accessible. Not just to me, but to disabled folks in general. I am not going to spend money in a business that my friend Katy cannot get into. That my friend Angelo cannot get into. That any number of my friends cannot get into. Why should I support a business which tells my friends they aren’t welcome with a “just one step” doorway, with narrow aisles, with a deluge of scent, with bright lights, with flashy things?
- A business which carries things I want. I’m sorry, I am not going to settle for what I do not want just so I can buy it locally. I am very particular about things that I buy. I’m willing to pay more to buy locally (because I have that privilege) but I am not willing to pay more and get something which does not meet my needs.
- A business with good service. This is a huge one for me. A lot of businesses with “buy local” in their windows have some of the surliest, most useless staff I have ever encountered. I am not going to buy local just so that I can be abused. You can’t guilt me into giving money to you even when your staff are rude.
Everyone’s got their own laundry list of things they think about when they decide where to spend their money.
This is how capitalism works, people. If you’re going to live/work/engage in a capitalist system, you need to take the bad with the good. And consumer freedom can sometimes be bad, because consumers can choose which businesses they want to patronize, and have sound reasons for their choices.
Guilting consumers to try and get them to do something is not the solution. Setting things up to make a choice appealing is the solution. And, you know, it can be hard to do things like carrying affordable products when you are a small business and you cannot get good contracts with suppliers. I understand that.
But to say that consumers bear the responsibility alone. No. Business owners also need to get it together. There needs to be a recognition of the fact that consumers actually have valid reasons behind their decisions, and that if you want to attract customers, you need to explore what’s going on with them. Don’t dictate, shame, and guilt trip. Ask what would make people inclined to visit your business and spend money there.
The answer might be surprisingly simple. It might not be. But at least then you would know. Don’t assume that people aren’t spending money in your business because they think your things are too expensive: Maybe they can’t enter your business because of the scented candles you burn. Don’t assume that people aren’t spending money at your business because they aren’t pleased with the selection: Maybe it’s because they are tired of being abused by your staff.
Maybe implementing small changes, changing the things you can change, would encourage more people to buy local. And as your customer base built, maybe you would be able to implement larger changes, like negotiating better discounts with your suppliers, or changing suppliers so you can carry a wider array of things.
Buy local or else.
Or else what?
Our downtown business district will disappear[1. And here’s the city proposing that we cover the mill site with a “new downtown” when they can’t even keep the old one functioning.]? You act like that’s a bad thing when, for the most part, downtown businesses are inaccessible, have horrible staff, and don’t carry things that people want. Notice how businesses which fill niches and respond to customer needs stick around. It’s not because they’re better at guilting people into buying local, it’s because they are better businesses.