What is "Local"?

I’m a big fan of the Chapel Hill Carrboro Chamber of Commerce’s new OurLocalDeal website, that has daily, Groupon-style, half-off deals for Orange County businesses, but recently when I grumbled about their featuring the local UPS Store franchise, I set off a minor twitter war.  UPS is a global corporation based in Atlanta with stores located all over the world.  The Chamber of Commerce defends their choice as being a unionized, locally-owned store.

I didn’t pick a fight because I dislike corporations (although sometimes I do).  Not everything can be local.  I just feel like “local” means “local,” and a locally-owned franchise is not the same as a business opened and run by a Chapel Hillian or Carrborean (or for that matter, a Durhamite).  When a franchise opens, there is no doubt that there is a local owner and employees reaping the benefits, but that owner pays franchise fees, and most probably profits, to the corporation.  That’s money that doesn’t get recirculated here in Orange County.  Decisions about business practices and design are handed down from that corporation.  There is no incentive for a corporation to model their business based on the ideals of Chapel Hill and Carrboro.

Sure, a franchise is a step closer to local than a corporately owned chain, like Starbucks, but it’s no Auto Logic or Southern Season.  I think when you apply the term “local” to a corporation outsourcing the operation of their chain to a local owner, you are missing the point of “shopping local” and degrading the term to a point where it loses meaning.




I think "Twitter war" is overstating it. In fact, I was glad to see the Chamber respond directly and courteously to your critique.But I do share your concerns. In fact I posed a similar question with this post about what is unique (or what should be unique) about Orange County's approach to economic development: http://orangepolitics.org/2009/12/what-does-buy-local-mean-to-youHere's an excerpt:

Our "local" Chamber of Commerce includes among it's members Duke Power,
Progress Energy, as well as any number of chain stores and hotels. This
means that they are representing and promoting all of these groups, as
well as countless other small businesses and nonprofits.  Orange County
is one of the most local-conscious communities in the country. We have
enough interest to support several farmers' markets and dozens of local
farms, for example. We are sophisticated consumers and we place a lot of
value on truly buying local, even without help from local PR campaigns.

I was a local franchise owner for many years.  I considered myself as local as they come and I am saddened and disappointed by those who have such a narrow view of what constitutes local.  My businesses was as successful as it was in part because of the support I received from the franchisor.  I wanted an entity that had my back so that I would not be assuming all the risk myself.  Franchises  generally have a better success rate overall than mom-and-pop, and I quite frankly wanted a bit of "insurance" to help manage my  risk.  (When you're investing your own money--and your family's money--- that becomes a real concern.)     A franchise provides that support and earns its ongoing "consulting" fees.   And  as far as Progress Energy and Duke Energy being members of the Chamber--who is the local energy provider you're using as an alternative?.  These companies provide goods and services here, and having them engaged in  the community--and spending their time participating here--is the best way to be sure they understand what is important to the community.  Many of the people who live here work for  these companies---should they quit their jobs because they are helping non-local businesses be successful?And our nonprofits heavily depend on the grant making arms of these nonlocal banks, grocery stores, and yes, energy providers to fund their operations.   In many cases,  making a connection at a business or community event with someone who works for these companies is the way it all starts.   Do you want these nonprofits to refuse this money? Even the BOCC took funds from Whole Foods---decidedly non-local--to help fund the food processing center. How many local  people do you know that get pensions from TIAA-CREF or other funds that invest in non-local business stocks?   Are you suggesting that those funds don't benefit the community?  Chris Derby  (UPS francisee) and the many other local franchisees who pay taxes in this town,  provide services that we all use, and participate in the community deserve more respect than they've been shown.     So do  companies like  Harris Teeter, Whole Foods, Remax, Morgan Stanley, Wachovia, Google, Progress Energy, AICPA,  O2 Fitness, and others who can't meet the gold standard of "local"  as defined by some.   They provide jobs, goods, and services  a lot of us depend on. 

Wonderful statement, Anita.  You're absolutely, positively correct.

Anita, how would you define a local business? 

The UPS owner is a good local citizen. Our the Food Trucks everyone raves over all owned by people who live in Chapel Hill, Carrboro and Orange? Or is it only local by where the Round-Up is.If we start getting that granular with local, then I guess I can't shop in Carrboro, because I live in Chapel Hill and I am not buying local produce, because my CSA is in Efland. And I guess my son's guitar teachers aren't local because while they live in White Cross, they are originally from Wilmington?It's kind of hilarious to me as a Southerner, born in Richmond, to hear a bunch of folks, my mom would call Yankees, complaining that something is not local. I think we have to be careful about regionalism, becoming Balkanization.

The buy local campaign is a farce, greenwashing.These little campiagns will do nothing to solve our issues. It is time to start thinking, and acting, bigger.

Of course, all of this philanthropy and various other levels of community involvement ensure that we will be dependent upon these corporations. This is not by happenstance or because they are infused with the spirit of generosity and a commitment to improving the world.Take Duke & Progress Energy for example. These corporations are masters at making communites dependent upon them. The people who run these corporations care nothing about anything but their profits. They lobby and lie for the right to pollute and ruin ecosystems, to force rate-payers to take financial risk on their behalf, and to charge rates which enrich their contingency of executives at extremely high pay rates. They have us so hog-tied that, even though they have been granted monopoly status, they are still allowed to spend huge sums of rate-payer money on bribes to the media which we are absurdly supposed to believe is actually advertising.Rather than express our appreciation for the energy, jobs, and donations they provide we should be impressed with the success of municipally-owned utilities across the country (including our own OWASA) and recognize the superiority of that type of organization.The other large corporations are similar in varying degrees to Duke & Progress. They certainly have more in common with these Hall of Fame plunderers than they do with authentic local businesses. In fact, the survival of a healthy and just society may depend upon our success at freeing ourselves from the death-grip that these corporations have on so many aspects of our lives.  

"Of course, all of this philanthropy and various other levels of community involvement ensure that we will be dependent upon these corporations. This is not by happenstance or because they are infused with the spirit of generosity and a commitment to improving the world."Says who?  Which boards of "these corporations" do you sit on which give you the insight to assume you know the motivations behind their decision making process?  Which CEO's have told you why they elected to participate in local communities?  Where's the non-politicized research that backs up your statements?I applaud your passion and commitment to support local businesses, entrepreneurs, and causes.  Unfortunately, your positions on "these corporations" is filled with sweeping generalizations, loosely tied to or completely detached from reality, and is, in general, insulting.  Not only do "these corporations" make decisions for a myriad of different reasons (including civic responsibility, and, yes, including profit), but many of "these corporations" also directly and indirectly support local businesses and communities through grants, access to goods and services, and employment.  Many of us involved with "these corporations" are pretty doggone proud of what we do, and derive a great amount of satisfaction from how we're able to add value to "Main Street".There's room in this town for ANY business, regardless of size, that's committed to working hard to provide a good and reliable service, in a consistent and positive manner, while returning value to their shareholders and community. 

UPS is an international shipping company. There are no local options.The local UPS stores do not engage in community involvement to make us dependent on them. I work with the UPS store on MLK to print ECHHS's PTSA newsletter. They do it because they are generous and are committed to the community and, of course, to have a good reputation. In my opinion, they deserve it. 

Anita, I appreciate your comments.  The fact that local, homegrown businesses do not have a franchisor to help develop the brand or provide support is why I find it so important that when we campaign for support of local businesses, we focus on businesses created by local entrepreneurs.   I certainly don't disparage franchises and have no problem with even corporately owned chains being part of our Chamber of Commerce.  They are providing services and creating jobs in our community.  I just feel that the spotlight on "local" is too broad.

I agree that to a certain extent it is where the profits go, but the Steel Cut Oats I buy at Weaver Street are not produced in NC, so in order to be local, I am not allowed to buy them? If I could only buy 100% local products, then I would likely get scurvy in the winter from lack of vitamin C. Although, I guess I could fill my root cellar full of locally grown sweet potatoes. The Chamber is doing an excellent job with the Our Local Deal. Perhaps, you can get a grant to live 100% local and prove me wrong that you will be able to get local fuel, local cars, even a locally made bike.Obviously, I am going to extremes, but so are you.

Follow where the profit goes, understand who ultimately controls the decisions in the company, and ignore the simple charity. UPS makes a profit. A big one last year actually, up over 50%. The profit they made came from our local communities and went into UPS's piggy bank who hoard it to flaunt on CNBC and the next shareholders meeting.   And I have heard that the charity work at UPS stores are part of the signing deal to own the franchise. PR PR PR.But getting back to the silliness of "locally owned", please consider this scenario; if I buy materials from china, but open a mom and pop shop and sell it in Carrboro, should I be considered a local business? Buy local has been co-opted and turned into another greenwashing campaign becasue there is no really good definition of what "Buy Local" means.The 3/50 campaign has already addressed this issue;http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_3/50_Project  

Like other folks have pointed out the problem with buy Local campaigns is defining what is considered local and what is not.  In towns like Carrboro it would be more productive to have a shop local campaign because you are simply asking consumers to think about local shops first.  In Carrboro most stores are locally owned so getting consumers to think about what shop in town provides the goods they need is more productive than confusing everyone with the concept of Buy Local without defining what that means. In addition, if we have a board of alderman in Carrboro whose goal is to push consumers to shop locally they need to put their money where their mouth is and led by example. My understanding is the Weaver Street road construction is being done by a Durham County construction firm, not a Carrboro/Chapel Hill or even Orange county owned company, that is a lot of dollars flowing out of our tax base. There is one copy shop in Carrboro, a few steps from town hall, yet a majority of the town copies are made from Kinko's in Chapel Hill, a national firm whose revenues flow out of our town/county. These are just a couple glaring examples of a local government that says one thing but does another.  I am absolutely in favor of supporting locally owned small businesses, I own one, but to just throw that catch phrase out there is poor leadership by the Chamber or the town of Carrboro.  If the Carrboro Board of Alderman or the Chamber want to promote a buy local agenda they need to define it and support it with actions.

State law prescribes the bidding procedure and we are not allowed to show preference for an Orange County contractor over a Durham County contractor (or even over a contractor from another state).

defined by county lines.Supporting local farmers is a good thing to do wherever local food is available - Carrboro Farmer's Market, Durham Farmer's Market, Saxapahaw General Store, Chatham marketplace, etc.Same with local bookstores - Flyleaf in Chapel Hill and the Regulator in Durham are both great local bookstores worthy of our support. We should be supporting local businesses wherever they are and helping to create healthier communities wherever they are.  

This debate misses another aspect of the issue: How would a truly local shipping company exist?  The nature of the the business that UPS is in is non-local.  Their competitors are all large national (and international) corporations - just like UPS.  The fact that UPS has local franchisees (in this case a guy 20+ year resident of our communty) makes their endeavor more local than FedEx, so what is the issue here really?  I guess the implication is the OurLocalDeal.com should have some local-ness standards?  Maybe.  Although I never got the impression that ourlocaldeal was meant to be anything other than a strictly commercial operation of the most ordinary sort.  Am I missing something?

I have wondered many times about the "local" thing.  Using it as a shorthand for "big chain vs one store locally owned" is one thing but otherwise it seems so arbitrary.  Some points: Local vs Non-Local is a dichotomy.  But actual location is a continuum.  So is CH local?  If so then anything outside of CH, including Carrboro, is non-local.  Is both CH and Carrboro local?  If so, anything 10 feet outisde of either is non-local.What it boils down to is if you make the distinction between Local and Non-Local you're making a dichotomy out of a contuuim, which upon close analysis is abusrd.  (Note that the dichotomy/continuum thing can be applied to many issues, political or otherwise.) Is Starbucks on Franklin St local?  Geographically speaking, yes it is.  By the chain/non-chain standards that some hold, no, it isn't local.Should it matter?  Well, the question in response to that question is, how big would a difference have to be?  Assuming you believe Chains  = Bad and Local (whatever that means exactly) = Good, as seems to be the de facto position of many around here, how big would the difference have to be to matter?  Would Starbucks selling a cup of coffee for $1 while a "locally owned" coffee shop selling the equivalent cup of coffee for $1.50 mean you'd still buy the local cup?  How about $2?  $5?  $10?  It becomes the dichotomy/continuum question again.  It's funny how often that pops up.  Very strictly speaking, "local" equates with poverty.  Wealth is created by exchange between humans and the fewer humans involved the less wealth is potentially created generally speaking that is.  When they find a trible that's been isolated in a remote junle for a long time, the tribe is invariably poor (by our conventional standards that is, including communication standards, in which case if you want to tell me they weren't poor, you have to use their communications standards, in which case you''ll never be able to communicate with me). So we should want non-local humans involved in the loop somehow.  After all, if we just built a fence aruond CH/C and shut out the rest of the word we'd soon be backwards.  For that matter, if New York City built a fence around itself and shut out the rest of the world it too would eventually become backwards.  If you think that you thihnk I'm wrong then note that if you really thought I was wrong then you wouldn't be on a computer in the first place, especially one connected to the internet.  Humans create wealth, either directly or indirectly.   For that matter, not only do humans create wealth but humans create the concept of wealth.   Lastly (since this is getting long) if people did just dislike anything non-local then there'd be one big, giant thing that is pretty much the antithesis of local that everyone all be against.  Any ideas on what that might be?

Hardly anyone actually makes decisions based upon the facile broad-brush approach that every transaction must be made with a purely local business. First of all, it's impractical in the same way that many of us have to drive while wishing we weren't polluting at the same time.The big chains are, on balance, in opposition to local economic health. Lowe's treats their workers like inhuman parts of their machine. Home Depot is a greenwasher of the 1st degree. Yet I buy from both places if the alternative is to drive 50 miles or wait an extra week for some product. I much prefer Fitch and Talbert's for most building supplies. Fitch is about as local as you can get in the building supply business. Talbert's is close but it's headquarters is in Roxboro. That's local enough for me.Restoration Woodworks in Efland is a great local business. Of course, the windows & doors they sell are not manufactured there (although they do fabricate some interior doors on-site). We do what we can to help our neighbors in business. I certainly don't mind transacting with a local owner of a franchise, especially if I know the person & know I'm helping provide income for them and/or their family. On the whole. I'd rather deal with businesses that are as local as possible - local farms, shops, building trades sub-contractors, reataurants, bookstores, etc. I know that money spent there will recirculate multiple times in the community, that they represent a web of local relationships beyond their economic impact, and that they are much more resilient components of our community than WalMart, Lowe's, Applebee's, etc.   

I signed up after they removed the birthday as a required data field.  I have already purchased one for movie tickets to the Lumina. I think it's a good service. For the website, they may simply mean local as "within a small number of miles from your southern Orange county residence."As to what is truly local or not, Portlandia has provided the definitive treatment of this question. 

Your video link left out the part later in the episode where they go visit the farm and become part of the farmer's cult, which is definitely the highlight of both the episode and of any conversation about the meaning of local.But on a more serious note, I think Our Local Deal is a good service - certainly better than Groupon or Living Social when it comes to actually highlighting local businesses. More to the point, it allows each of us to define local in our own way. Personally, I'm not a big fan of (most) franchises, but I'm willing to judge them on a case by case basis. Others may feel differently, and hey, that's cool, as long as your behavior is consistent with whatever logical reasoning you use to determine local. What's important, to me, is the conversation. I care less what any one person's view of 'local' is, and more that whatever that definition is, that they're using it when making their purchasing decisions. If someone else's definition of local includes things that I wouldn't include, honestly, I'm just happy that they've given enough thought to trying to define it at all, because there are so many people in this community that haven't even made it that far!

is having a firm definition really more important than acting on it as much as possible?  Because it seems to me many, many people feel powerless to act on what they'd like here.  My (usual) example (although this is now moot because my wife has a regular job and isn't actively catering) -- my wife cannot buy local ingredients for her catering work at a price that allows her to sell her stuff.  Even if your definition of local includes state of NC sold at Food Lion,  it still *requires* a trip to BJs to buy her stuff because we don't have that option in CH.As they say, your mileage may vary, but for me, our local policies are causing more harm to the environment when we drive to Cary and buy from wherever.   Oh yeah, back to your point --  do I have to have a firm definition of local to be valid in stating that I'd really like more options in what I can buy locally?

...just buy less.Maybe if we cannot buy local we should just not buy?  I don't think that is a message you will hear from the Chamber of Commerce.:)


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