HSBC, one of the biggest banks on the planet, has taken to calling itself "the world's local bank." 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 global consortium of mall owners and developers, is pouring millions of dollars into television ads urging people to "Shop Local" — at their nearest mall. Even Wal-Mart is getting in on the act, hanging bright green banners over its produce aisles that simply say, "Local."
Hoping to capitalize on growing public enthusiasm for all things local, some of the world's biggest corporations are brashly laying claim to the word "local."
This new variation on corporate greenwashing 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. The ad campaign seems aimed partly at enhancing the brand by simply associating Hellmann's with local food. But it also makes the claim that Hellmann's is local, because most of its ingredients come from North America.
And the movement is now spreading well beyond food. 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, and Wauwatosa, Wisconsin, seems designed to disguise what Barnes & Noble is and to present the chain instead as a collection of independent-minded booksellers.
Across the country, scores of shopping malls, chambers of commerce, and economic development agencies are also appropriating the phrase "buy local" to urge consumers to patronize nearby malls and big-box stores. In March, leaders of a new Buy Local campaign in Fresno assembled in front of the Fashion Fair Mall for a kick-off press conference. Flanked by storefronts bearing brand names 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. For anyone confused by this display, the campaign and its media partners, including Comcast and the Fresno Bee, followed the press conference with more than $250,000 worth of radio, TV, and print ads that spelled it out: "Just so you know, buying local means any store in your community: mom-and-pop stores, national chains, big-box stores — you name it."
In one way, all of this 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 now sweeping the country is having a measurable impact on the choices people make. "Think of the millions of dollars these big companies spend on research and focus groups," observed Dan Cullen of the American Booksellers Association, a trade group for independent bookstores. "They wouldn't be doing this on a hunch."
Signs abound that consumer preferences are trending local. Locally grown food has soared in popularity. The United States is now home to 4,385 active farmers' markets, one third of which were started since 2000. Food co-ops and neighborhood greengrocers are on the rise. Driving is down, while data from several metropolitan regions shows that houses located within walking distance of small neighborhood stores have held value better than those isolated in the suburbs where the nearest gallon of milk is a five-mile drive to Target.
A growing number of independent businesses are trumpeting their local ownership and community roots, and reporting a surge in customer traffic as a result. In April, even as Virgin Megastores prepared to shutter its last US record store, independent music stores across the country were mobbed for the second annual Record Store Day. A celebration of local music retailers that featured in-store concerts and exclusive releases, the event drew hundreds of thousands of music fans into stores, was one of the top search terms on Google, and triggered a sixteen-point upswing in album sales, according to Neilson SoundScan.
In city after city, independent businesses are organizing and creating what could become a powerful counterweight to the big business lobbies that have long dominated public policy. Local business alliances — like Stay Local in New Orleans, the Metro Independent Business Alliance in Minneapolis-St. Paul, and Arizona Local First in Phoenix — have now formed in more than 130 cities and collectively count some 30,000 businesses as members. Through grassroots "buy local" and "local first" campaigns, these alliances are calling on people to choose independent businesses and local products more often and making the case that doing so is critical to rebuilding middle-class prosperity and ensuring that our daily lives are not smothered by corporate uniformity.
Surveys and anecdotal reports from business owners suggest these initiatives are changing spending patterns. A survey of 1,100 independent retailers conducted in January by the Institute for Local Self-Reliance found that, amid the worst economic downturn since the Depression, buy-local sentiment is giving local businesses an edge over their chain competitors. While the Commerce Department reported that retail sales plunged almost 10 percent over the holidays, the survey found that independent retailers in cities with buy-local campaigns saw sales drop an average of just 3 percent.
None of this has escaped the notice of corporate executives and the consumer research firms that advise them. Several of these firms have begun to track the localization trend. In its annual consumer survey, the New York-based branding firm BBMG found that the number of people reporting that it was "very important" to them whether a product was grown or produced locally jumped from 26 to 32 percent in the last year alone.
"Food is one of the biggest gateways, but we're seeing this idea of 'local' spread across other categories and sectors," said Michelle Barry, senior vice president of the Hartman Group. A report published by Hartman last year noted, "There is a belief that you can only be local if you are a small and authentic brand. This isn't necessarily true; big brands can use the notion of local to their advantage as well." Barry added: "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 by stocking a token amount of locally grown produce, as Wal-Mart has done in some of its supercenters. The chain's local food offerings are usually limited to a few of the main commodity crops of that particular state — peaches in Georgia or potatoes in Maine — and sit amid a sea of industrial food and other goods shipped from the far side of the planet. Yet, this modest gesture has won Wal-Mart glowing coverage in numerous daily newspapers.
Wal-Mart, like other chains, has learned that, with consumers increasingly motivated to support companies they perceive to be acting responsibly, tossing around the word "local" is a far less expensive way to convey civic virtue than the alternatives. "Local is one of the lower-hanging fruits in terms of sustainability," Barry said. "It's easier for companies to do than to improve how their employees are treated or adopt a specific sustainability practice around their carbon footprint, for example."