Q: Should I Buy Local?

A: We all value supporting local businesses: Money stays in your local economy.  Very sexy, right?  I’ve believed in this same thing for a long time: “Hey, I’ll pay a little more and support a local vendor.”  But, is it really right as often as we think?  Many of us are willing to pay a good bit more in order to support local vendors.  Does that make sense?

Let’s look at some people’s treatment of feral cats.  They feed them but don’t do any more.  Of course, a few cats make a few hundred feral cats rapidly.  A year later, the community is stuck with a few hundred scrawny, breeding flea-filled felines.  By helping these cats to meals for a while, we enabled the existence of several hundred cats living painful lives.

By irrationally supporting local businesses when there are more efficient options non-locally are we doing those vendors a disservice?  I think the answer is yes.

I’ve seen this multiple times with the desire to have custom apparel like t-shirts produced locally.  In the case of custom t-shirts, Internet printing makes all the sense in the world: more efficient operators should be providing custom printing because costs decrease with provider size.  The more T-shirts a printer buys, the cheaper their cost.  The same benefits of scale come with running a more modern printing press full-time versus a small-time or part-time one.

After watching local mom and pop printers barely scrape by, our irrational desire to buy local at all costs is actually hurting those people.  We enable them to fight another day in a war they shouldn’t be fighting against more efficient providers.

By not feeding the feral cats, we’re saving tons of future cats from horrible lives.  Instead of feeding them, we get them fixed and get them shots.  The same goes with small businesspeople producing in unfavorable markets.  If you want to help them, better to point them in the right direction than to prolong the suffering of chasing a business where others can do it better.

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