Among the comments on my blog post yesterday, someone made a really interesting and fair point that I wanted to respond to more fully than my comment allowance would permit - I so I thought I'd take it up here.
The point I wanted to respond to is this:
I don't quite understand the desire to buy local. If something can be produced better, cheaper, or faster by someone else, why would I want to do it inefficiently here? Yes, I could benefit the local shop owner. But I do it at the expense of someone who needs the money more. And the local shop-owner can do something that can't be produced better, cheaper, or faster by someone in Taiwan.
The issue at stake here is what can be called 'the journey of the pound in my pocket'.
In the Bible, blessing is always seen in terms of increase, be that prosperity or fecundity. Spending money is a form of blessing, so we have to think carefully about where we want to direct our blessing.
For the Christian, an important principle of spiritual obedience is Christ's command to love our neighbour - and of course He took that from the teaching of the Jewish Torah.
So in spending money we are mindful to remember to bless our neighbour.
Here are the reasons I try to shop locally.
1) I can watch that the producers I am blessing and supporting are compassionate. I can visit the farm or the shop and see how staff are treated, or if I am buying animal produce, how the animals are treated. When I lived in Aylesbury we bought eggs from a place where you went to the shop along a track through the fields where the hens were, and could see their conditions for yourself. In a supermarket, there are only eggs on a shelf from a place far away out of sight that I cannot check.
It is important to me that the goods I buy are produced with compassion and integrity, and I do not believe an unscrupulous producer would tell me the truth. I like to be able to see for myself.
2) If I buy from a small local business, a high percentage of my money stays in the community (depending where the goods are sourced). Part of the reason the US is in debt is because the US buys a high proportion of goods from China, but because of Chinese currency kept artificially low, the Chinese have no reciprocal need to buy from the US. So there is a steady leakage of financial advantage to China. Enriching China is not necessarily a problem, but rising debt in the US is. Sourcing goods from one's own country creates stability and prosperity. This was Gandhi's point about Khadi cotton.
So if I buy my potatoes from a local greengrocer, sourced from a local supplier, both of them employing local staff, the money I spend will roll around within the community where I live, creating stability and prosperity. It is a form of loving my neighbour. Also in that small owner-run shop, the greengrocer can have his kids in the shop with him if his wife has to go for a hospital appointment, and he can choose to make room in his staff for his cousin's son with Downs Syndrome, and his elderly dad can mind the shop for the day while he takes his family to the fair. He also has the intellectual stimulus of autonomy and responsibility in running his own business - and if he wants to he can tithe to charity, maybe putting 10% of my potato money in the Quaker meeting collection for poor and destitute people :0) .
If I buy my potatoes at the supermarket, I know that the hardnosed supermarket people have cut the suppliers to the bone. The supermarket chooses the bargains, but it is the suppliers not the shop who stand the cost of special offers. The staff who work there are only units - they cannot bring their children to work or have their elderly dad stand in for them. The staff will spend their money in the supermarket probably (they will have incentive schemes), so though in one sense they spend their money locally, they mainly spend it in that shop. So only a tiny percentage of my pound returns to bless my community - most of it is barrowed away to increase the bank accounts of shareholders and big businessmen. That is not unethical per se, but it is not how I wish to spend my money.
The goods on offer in the big, cheap supermarket are cheap either because they pay our producers so little they are putting them out of business, or because they have sourced them from overseas in conditions which sometimes represent our export of exploitation, poverty and abuse of human and animal life.
Cash crops grown overseas are often a short-termist and unsustainable way of dealing with poverty, creating social and financial vulnerability, removing the freedom of indigenous peoples to make real decisions about the use of their land, and often resulting in serious impoverishment of the community and the environment - like the prawn farms that have ruined the agricultural lands in some parts of the world, or the rainforest that has been cut down to the detriment of all of us to create cattle ranches for cheap beefburgers sold by food giants.
I don't think it can be the case that all supermarkets are bad or that all their products are unethical - but I do know that it would be extremely difficult for me to verify.
3) There is also the issue of food miles (or the transportation of any manufactured goods), which does immense environmental damage that we ought to take seriously. As the time of Peak Oil comes upon us, we have to take this seriously. The more locally to their point of consumption goods are sourced and produced, the lower is the environmental impact their production creates.
Modern life has become so complex that I don't find it easy to uphold a principled way of life. Sometimes, for example, a big chain out-of-town supermarket may sell very ethical goods (eg British organic vegetables or Alpro non-GM soy milk) where the corner shop has only goods at higher prices than I can afford made by corporate giants whose business practice I distrust, and wilting vegetables long past serving much nutritional purpose.
Shopping carefully is something I regard as one of the largest ethical responsibilities of the household. It is a spiritual thing, not just a chore. It's one of the reasons I choose to live very simply, because that gives me the spaciousness in my life to make the decisions of household management as if they were not merely a task to be done, but also a form of blessing, a testimony, a witness, a creed and a prayer - all of which I believe they are.