Thursday, February 3, 2011

Great idea, but you're doing it wrong! What does "local" mean anyway?

I get a variety of reactions when I tell people about my shopping in New Westminster experiment and those reactions generally fit in to three broad groups.

1. "Oh my gawd, that's going to be impossible!"
This reaction is the one that is most surprising to me. Also surprising is that I've gotten this reaction from some merchants in New Westminster. While I certainly can't deny getting swept up in a consumer frenzy now and again, it's always at the back of the mind that most of the stuff I buy fulfills wants, not needs. I didn't (and still don't) see giving up shopping outside New West as any sort of particular hardship. There's plenty of food here after all and if there does end up being something I can't get here, going without for a year doesn't seem like such a big deal.

2. "Uh-huh. Huh. Interesting."
These are the people, who, like me, don't think limiting myself to New West is a hardship.

3. "Ooh, good idea. But you're doing it wrong."
People who have this reaction generally have difficulty with how I have defined "local." I've always been clear that I was using "local" in its geographic sense, not in the "independently owned business" sense that some would prefer. It's not that I disagree with organizations like LocoBC, who both praised my experiment and chastised it (albeit gently) recently. Far from it. I think it's fabulous that more and more people and groups are promoting shopping at independent businesses and making more informed consumer decisions.

It's just not exactly what I'm doing. It's not that I didn't think about shopping only at New West's independent businesses this year. I decided though that I really want to deal with New West as it is, not as I (or others) may wish it to be. (And let's face it, I knew I would have to buy my toilet paper and light bulbs somewhere. Cutting out all big chains would probably have meant my family and I would end up sitting in the dark sometime this year, wiping our butts with newspaper. I'm into this experiment, but I'm not that into it.)

Sure, I've got a picture in my head of an ideal New Westminster: one full of dozens of unique, diverse, independently owned small businesses that attract not only local residents but people from all around the Lower Mainland. But that's not reality, at least not right now. Not yet.

I want my experiment to reflect the reality of what shopping in New West for a year looks like for the average consumer. And that means my choices are between some locally owned businesses and some big chains. It's fascinating to me that if I stuck to shopping at stores only within walking distance of my home my choices range from as local as one can get (produce and flowers grown at a tiny farm about two blocks away) and, well, Wal-Mart, where much of the merchandise is imported from China.

I want my experiment to deal with the reality of New Westminster's retail landscape as it is today. That's not to deny I'm hopeful it will look different tomorrow.