Corporations co-opt "local"

As the movement to buy local gains momentum, chains try to get in on the action and confuse consumers
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HSBC, one of the biggest banks on the planet, has taken to calling itself "the world's local bank." Winn-Dixie, a 500-outlet supermarket chain, recently launched a new ad campaign under the tagline "Local flavor since 1956." The International Council of Shopping Centers, a global consortium of mall owners and developers, is pouring millions of dollars into television ads urging people to "Shop Local" — at their nearest mall. Even Wal-Mart is getting in on the act, hanging bright green banners over its produce aisles that simply say "Local."

Hoping to capitalize on growing public enthusiasm for all things local, some of the world's biggest corporations are brashly laying claim to the evocative word.

This new variation on corporate greenwashing — local-washing — is, like the buy-local movement itself, most advanced in the context of food. Hellmann's, the mayonnaise brand owned by the processed-food giant Unilever, is test-driving a new "Eat Real, Eat Local" initiative in Canada. The ad campaign seems aimed partly at enhancing the brand by simply associating Hellmann's with local food. But it also makes the claim that Hellmann's is local, because most of its ingredients come from North America.

It's not the only industrial food company muscling in on local. Frito-Lay's new television commercials use farmers to pitch the company's potato chips as local food, while Foster Farms, one of the largest producers of poultry products in the country, is labeling packages of chicken and turkey "locally grown."

Corporate local-washing is now spreading well beyond food. Barnes & Noble, the world's top seller of books, has launched a video blog under the banner "All bookselling is local." The site, which features "local book news" and recommendations from employees of stores in such evocative-sounding locales as Surprise, Ariz., and Wauwatosa, Wis., seems designed to disguise what Barnes & Noble is — a highly centralized corporation in which decisions about what books to stock and feature are made by a handful of buyers — and to present the chain instead as a collection of independent-minded booksellers.

Across the country, scores of shopping malls, chambers of commerce, and economic development agencies are also appropriating the phrase "buy local" to urge consumers to patronize nearby malls and big-box stores. In March, leaders of a buy-local campaign in Fresno assembled in front of the Fashion Fair Mall for a kickoff press conference. Flanked by storefronts bearing brand names such as Anthropologie and the Cheesecake Factory, officials from the Economic Development Corporation of Fresno County explained that choosing to buy local helps the region's economy. For anyone confused by this display, the campaign and its media partners, including Comcast and the McClatchy-owned Fresno Bee, followed the press conference with more than $250,000 worth of radio, TV, and print ads that spelled it out: "Just so you know, buying local means any store in your community: mom-and-pop stores, national chains, big-box stores — you name it."

THE REAL BUY-LOCAL MOVEMENT

In one way, all of this corporate local-washing is good news for local economy advocates: it represents the best empirical evidence yet that the grassroots movement for locally produced goods and independently owned businesses now sweeping the country is having a measurable impact on the choices people make.

"Think of the millions of dollars these big companies spend on research and focus groups.