How local is local?

By Terry Link

This column tries to focus on “local” as part of the sustainability ethos, where we minimize our ecological footprint while strengthening our social fabric and sharing our economic prosperity.

In my recent efforts to help local enterprises make more sustainable decisions for their organizations, I admit to an ongoing frustration with determining where things are made. In one of my earlier articles on toilet paper I noted the difficulty of identifying which specific products and brands are actually produced at the approximately 20 paper/pulp mills in Michigan. There is no easy source of information on this. The “Buy Michigan” efforts are almost entirely built around foods grown or processed here but very little on the hardware we use every day. If, as some development folks suggest, our state’s economy needs to rely on manufacturing, why is there such a vacuum of information on what is actually made here? One hunch I have is that the push for companies to be global encourages them to camouflage where they really make their products. We certainly see lobbyists for global concerns fighting every effort to share this information with consumers. It could also be that companies that run paper mills, for example, make similar (if not identical) products under different brand names.

So consumers who want to support local manufacturers, if for no other reason than the reduced transportation costs (environmental and economic) that would benefit all but the transport companies, can’t find out where our stuff is actually made. How much of the Meijer brand stuff is made here in Michigan, let alone in the U.S.? We’ll never know, as the packaging only tells us it was ”distributed” by Meijer, not where it was made. Manufacturers and the state and local economic development teams need to do a better job of getting that information to the marketplace. Markets only work well when there is accurate and full information available.

In looking through the Michigan Manufacturers Directory recently to assist a client in purchasing locally made food containers, I noted that we have at least one paper mill (Dunn Paper) that produces sandwich wraps and food service papers for use with baked goods, breads, and coffee. Another —Manistique Papers — uses 100 percent post-consumer recycled paper and Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI)-certified pulp to make food service takeout bags. Can any of our local food service operations buy these Michigan-made products for use when they sell to us? Do they even know they have a choice?

The ”local first” movement is asking the question. Let’s help Main Street first, not Wall Street or some Caribbean tax havens. Having decisions made closest to the point of impact increases the likelihood that local concerns are addressed. We all know stories of companies where a new CEO comes in, cuts all the less profitable divisions (determined by how much profit one desires to make as opposed to how much one needs to stay sustainable), and then receives a bonus while workers and employees in those places lose economic security. Nonprofits are not exempt from this distancing of decision making. National nonprofits too often make decisions without considering the impact on local communities, as they are more about sustaining their operation than the places in which they are situated.

Grassroots, locally owned, placed-based entities (profit or non-profit or in between) are more likely in it for the long run, committed to the places the owners live in. We see this in our area’s very active neighborhood associations. We see it in the Greater Lansing Food Bank, in our Capital Region Community Foundation, the Lansing Board of Water and Light, and in school PTAs. The commitment to the local benefits us all.

Local economic development, particularly as it pertains to the basics we all need for life — food, water, shelter, energy, and health care _ is the approach that is most sustainable. Supporting those locally based enterprises that are committed to building a stronger and more prosperous community for all — owners, employees, customers, neighbors, and citizens — is the wise choice. Recently I attended the national conference for the Business Alliance for Local Living Economies (BALLE) in Grand Rapids. I hope to report back in the coming weeks about how other communities are growing their economy, sharing the prosperity, strengthening their communities, and preserving the places they call home. Film at 11.