Is Buying Local Really the Best?

In 2007, a study by New Zealand’s Lincoln University1 created controversy when it re­leased its conclusion that lamb grown in New Zealand and shipped to England had a lower environmental footprint than lamb raised in England. On the surface, this sounds like a preposterous proposition, and there is still a great deal of disagreement over the study. However, what the study suggested, and ac­knowledged, was that not every piece of land is as adept at raising food (or manufacturing products) as every other piece. Regional dif­ferences can have an impact on that capability, especially in agriculture. The reasoning and calculations used in the study claimed that because England was so developed and its farmland was now so devoid of natural grazing land, in order to maintain lamb, English farms [53] required considerable fertilizers and watering (among other factors) and equipment that used different types of fuels. The summary calcula­tion was that New Zealand lamb accounted for 1,520 pounds of CO2 per ton while lamb raised in England accounted for over four times that much at 6,280 pounds of CO2 per ton! The same was also found for some dairy products and fruit.

So, while stores like Tesco in the UK and Whole Foods in the U. S. try to develop label­ing that indicates how many miles food has traveled (in order to support the idea of local food), this doesn’t tell the entire story. It’s not difficult to imagine that Alaska and Norway probably aren’t the best places to grow oranges, nor that Sudan has the water to grow rice. The point is that trying to forcibly augment these places in order to reduce food miles will come at a cost. Imagine what it would take, for ex­ample, to grow fresh food at science stations in Antarctica. It’s not hard to imagine that it may just be easier, with lower impact, to fly the food in as needed (as costly as that is). But, at what point does this trade-off swing in favor of growing or raising food locally?

Remember, this isn’t just limited to food.

Not every factory in the world is going to be equipped to make an iPhone or a Boeing 787. Some centralization is going to be important if, for no other reason, than to gain economies of scale. Again, it’s not clear at what point it makes sense to decentralize manufacturing, assembly, recycling, and disposal (say, if you have to put anything in a landfill). Only by tracking the full costs and impacts of these activities across the entire life cycle and set of issues can a consumer make an informed de­cision. It’s going to be a long time before we have that data, though.

It’s not difficult to imagine that Alas­ka and Norway probably aren’t the best places to grow oranges, nor that Sudan has the water to grow rice.

But this doesn’t mean that designers can’t be­gin making informed decisions. We can’t be disheartened by the complexity or lack of an­swers. We can still arm ourselves with enough understanding to start making better choices. As designers, we also need to stop thinking in absolutes, where we only value the optimal re­sult. Change often comes in small steps, which is okay as long as they’re in the right direction. Just because we can’t construct the most ideal solution doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t be making every solution better along the way. That’s one of the premises behind the Natural Capitalism framework.

In general, designers can use Table 7.1 to cal­culate CO2 impact, and then with data from companies and suppliers, easily and quickly calculate overall impact. This is a good rough guide that, when combined with estimates of other life cycle impacts, can help developers make better decisions.

Special circumstances and known regional differences can then be taken into account and weighed along with other factors.

… this doesn’t mean that designers can’t begin making informed deci­sions. We can’t be disheartened by the complexity or lack of answers.


Updated: October 1, 2015 — 3:57 pm