Is local shopping the answer to happiness?

Everything is amazing and no one is happy. It’s the catchphrase of the first world. According to Helena Norberg-Hodge the answer is simple: shop local.

Norberg-Hodge presented her documentary The Economics of Happiness at Melbourne Uni in conjunction with the Australian Conservation Foundation last week. The doco serves up localisation as a way to improve the environment, increase a sense of community and improve local economies. It’s the same concepts Carrotmob is built on so I thought I’d go along and check it out.

A sense of community
The idea for The Economics of Happiness began in the small villages of  the Ladakh region of the  Himalayas where Norberg-Hodge spent many years as linguist. She noticed how connected village life was and how content the people were – plenty of leisure time, the basic necessities, time with friends and family. As globalisation impacted on their lives, the contentment was eroded and envy set in as they saw everything they were missing out on.

Back in the first world, when shopping in local stores and markets the number of conversations shoppers have increase. Everyone gets that it’s a nicer experience to shop locally rather than at Coles and Safeway. But it’s also less convenient and more expensive.

A reality show aired on the ABC recently on shopping through the ages. It fast-tracked decades of change on a British high street. Customer after customer talked about how they loved the sense of community in the high street but when prices were deregulated shoppers went for cheaper prices and convenience. Specialty shops closed down and supermarkets took their place. The ‘chamber of commerce’ on the show blamed consumers for buying cheaper and more convenient but it didn’t look at what policies could be put in place to encourage more local shopping.

Norberg-Hodge’s message is “start with local food…it should be up to society to set the rules for business and not the other way around.” She’s right. But the reality is business works on what the market wants. And at the moment we tell business we want fast and cheap. And economies of scale mean cheap only gets provided when a business is big (global).

Local business, local dollars
For $100 spent in a bookstore, $45 stays in the local community with the local bookstore compared to only $13 in the chain. Norberg-Hodge says government  should  have  regulation, tax and subsidies that encourage small, sustainable business rather than pouring subsidies into big business.  San Francisco has legislated that all government institutions get their food from local sources. This means schools and hospitals are benefiting their local community, not only socially but also economically.

Environmental and cultural savings
In the US and the UK products like coffee are imported and exported in almost exactly the same quantities. When you look at it like that the wasted fuel and resources really makes no sense. And again, Norberg-Hodge says concerns that third world countries won’t survive without first world trade don’t stack up.

Interviewed in the documentary, Vandana Shiva said 15 years of study in India showed small biodiverse farms produced three to five times more food than larger industrial monoculture farms set up for exporting. Shiva is the founder of Navdanya International which aims to provide alternatives to the global food system. She also says smaller farms produce more jobs for locals.

Local = happy?
So is localisation the answer to global happiness? Village life might be connected but it’s also hard. I don’t think we’ll ever stop people from striving for a better life and I don’t even think we should. My dad grew up on an orchard. And I grew up with stories from him of my grandpa pacing up and down during every hailstorm, muttering “We’ll be ruined, we’ll be ruined.” Wherever you are, life on the land is hard and there’s no getting around that.

There are also plenty of young people in the first world who grew up in ‘connected villages’ who have been happier ever since they left. But neither of these thing take away from the premise that localisation is better for the environment, the local economy and could assist with alleviating third world poverty.

It’s up to you and your government
The take away for me was, we all need to start making bigger picture choices around where we spend our money. Fair trade is good but local is better. But even that’s not enough. Regulation does impact on consumer choice as the shopping reality show highlighted. It doesn’t even need to cost us if taxes go hand-in-hand with tax cuts. The Australian Conservation Foundation Better Than Growth report gives plenty of examples such as “By reducing pension taxes while increasing fuel taxes, Germany reduced greenhouse pollution by 2.6% while increasing employment by 0.5%.”

And on the eve of the federal budget announcement it made me think about the carbon tax.  Even though there still isn’t any detail (and I am not a scientist or an economist) my research tells me penalising bad environmental practice (while providing tax breaks or incentives in other areas) forces change. Business goes where the easiest profit is and government has a part to play in making the easiest profit a sustainable one. Unless you set consequences, people don’t change their behaviour. You see it in schools, in jails and in workplaces. And what is business but a collection of people whose core purpose is to make a profit.

And if your consumer choice is Carrotmob we’re working really hard to set a date at Fed Square soon.

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