"Buy American" echoes through the decades as "Buy Local"

I've always had a vague distaste for calls to "buy American", but in the 2010s, "buy local" feels more like a hip, spunky way to strike back at the Wal-Marts of the world. What's changed - the details? Or me? Or are these two movements not really fundamentally the same like they appear to be? When I was a child in the 1970s, Japanese cars were becoming more and more common on American roads. They were more fuel efficient in a time of escalating emissions controls and gas prices, and they were far more reliable. I remember my mother complaining that she would love to buy a Honda, but only a GM dealer would take her awful GM car in trade. The backlash--imported cars being scratched with keys and hounded in traffic--sounded hollow. It was the petulance of labor unions who had abused their power and finally had real competition. It was asking for permission not to improve in the face of clearly superior alternatives. I had little sympathy.

Thirty years on, we're coming to realize that something is lost in global trade. With our eyes on global warming, it seems irresponsible to ship fresh strawberries across the ocean so we can dip them in chocolate with Champagne on Valentine's Day. People are thinking about reducing their carbon footprints. Those strawberries are dissatisfying anyway - hard and tasteless, they're like decorated styrofoam replicas of the produce I enjoyed as a child. Today's grocery store tomatoes, too, are engineered for travel and yield rather than taste and nutrition. The local food movement points out that buying heirloom varietals closer to home gives you fresher food and keeps your money circulating in the local economy.There's that word: economy. Wasn't that what the "made in the USA" thing was all about too? Well, yes, on a different scale with different competition. Choosing an American-made car in 1980 did help the US economy: it preserved jobs and kept profits within the country. (Longer. Eventually the money leaves, for example when one of the dealership employees buys an imported television.) And unfortunately buying American cars was not always in the economic best interests of individual consumers. For my young mind, the argument was also a little too abstract. "Buy local" is more intimate: these are your neighbors. You may meet the farmer in person, or have acquaintances in common. The owner of the coffeeshop on the corner lives in your city, his children attend the same schools as yours. And the benefits are palpable. Try those juicy, perfumey strawberries.

Much of the difference is attitude. American-car zealots were self-entitled bullies thirty years ago. Localist movements win converts with energy and enthusiasm. With "time management" giving way to "energy management" strategies, consumers are looking to do business with people who energize them. It's personal.


  1. I am so glad to see the strong commitment to the local food movement here in Cleveland and NE Ohio. I am especially psyched to see more farmer's markets and local produce stands. People are often telling me how lucky I am to be near the West Side Market, but when it comes to produce, most of what is sold there is the same crappy produce from across the country and the world. My new favorite company is the Canal Corners Farm Market (www.canalcorners.com) who produce organic food with a low carbon footprint. It is hand gorwn and hand harvested. How do you compete with that?

  2. I've had the same impression about the veggie vendors at the West Side Market. The meat vendors, OTOH, seem to make a lot of original stuff like sausages and finished meals.

    A couple years ago I had a great meal at Molinari's that was all about local food. That's where I had the ground cherries pictured above.