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Two Steps Forward

Local: A glimmer of hope for a post-pandemic world

Local food, manufacturing and retail could see a revival as we strive for community resilience in the new normal.

If you squint just a little and tilt your head just so, you can begin to see the shimmer of silver linings coming out of this moment — a few reasons to be hopeful about our post-pandemic future.

That may seem a bold and reckless statement at a time when so many things still seem to be falling apart, if not downright broken, and while the daily toll of the virus continues to mount. We’re hardly out of the woods, but we’re inching inexorably forward.

Among the bright spots is the newfound appreciation of healthcare workers, schoolteachers, waste handlers, police, EMTs and other essential employees — not to mention the brave shopkeepers and restaurant workers whose establishments remain open to enable us to buy food, medicine, liquor and other vital goods.

There are also glimmers of hope about the world we’ll be stepping into in the not-too-distant future. In particular, there’s the rebirth of "local."

Local what, exactly? Well, food, manufacturing and retail, and probably several other things.

Let’s start with food, since almost everything in life does.

There are glimmers of hope about the world in which we’ll soon be stepping into. In particular, the rebirth of 'local.'
Local food systems are becoming increasingly appreciated and valued, from community-supported agriculture (CSA) to grow-your-own gardens, farmers markets and direct-to-consumer sales by local farmers. There’s no real rationale for this — none of these things ensures a virus-free food supply (and food supplies haven’t been implicated in spreading the virus) or necessarily enable people to shop from home (although some CSA farms deliver).

What it does have to do with is growing interest in becoming more self-reliant as well as the increase of cooking at home and the search for healthy options during a homebound few months. (Beyond COVID-19, a lot of folks are grappling with the "COVID-15.") It also may have to do with food shopping in an open-air, less-crowded environment, which seems safer than the aisles of a supermarket, although farmers market shoppers may need gloves and masks and no longer may be able to touch or taste the produce in the ways they once did.

There’s also a food justice element to this, as neighbors work the soil in empty lots, often in neighborhoods that lack easy access to stores selling fresh produce. These gardens are part of a long line of such projects dating back more than a century: vacant lot cultivation associations in the late 1800s; school gardens in the early 1900s; War Gardens during World War I; relief and subsistence gardens during the Depression; Victory Gardens during World War II. By 1944, near the end of the war, Victory Gardens produced 40 percent of the nation’s vegetables.

Will local food systems and community gardens fall by the wayside once the pandemic ebbs? Don’t count on it. While Big Ag won’t be going away any time soon, localism is here to stay. The notion of resilient local food systems is growing like a weed.

Make it local

But food and ag are just the first course.

Local retail in general stands to gain, once folks are released from their sheltering at home. According to a recent study by EY, "Consumers show greater preference for shops, restaurants and brands that feel local."

EY’s research found that more than four in 10 consumers expect their shopping habits to change drastically in a post-COVID world. About a third said they would be willing to pay more for local brands.

Those findings sync up with earlier research. In one study, by A. T. Kearney, grocery shoppers said they value local foods even more than organic foods, in part because they associate local with being fresher and of higher quality. Sixty-eight percent said local food contributes positively to sustainability, compared to only 50 percent for organic foods. (It should be noted that there is no definition of "local" food, unlike "organic," which in the United States is legally defined under federal law.)

The pandemic provided a wake-up call about the importance of having a local manufacturing base.
The return of manufacturing is another part of the new localism. There were already some trends away from Chinese manufacturing prior to the pandemic, as Ken Patsey, president and executive director of Manufacturing Works in Cleveland, told Crain’s Cleveland Business last month. He noted that wages in China have been increasing, making it more expensive to make products there. The Trump tariffs provided yet another incentive to move manufacturing out of China. Some of it is returning stateside.

The pandemic provided a wake-up call about the importance of having a local manufacturing base. The ability of factories to quickly pivot to make masks, PPE, testing kits, hand sanitizer and other vital goods during a critical moment has demonstrated the need to bring back significant manufacturing and production capabilities to U.S. shores.

And then there’s the circular economy — specifically, the part where "people are using, fixing and sharing more than ever," as my colleague Lauren Phipps wrote recently. "Bartering is back," she added, "and gift-based economies are thriving, as neighbors exchange and offer through platforms like the Buy Nothing Project, NextDoor and Facebook."

Even secondhand is experiencing a revival — and an upgrade, sometimes being referred to as "recommerce." According to a survey (PDF) conducted in December by retail analytics firm GlobalData, "Coronavirus has dramatically shifted resale shopping behavior in the baby and kids category and beyond." The survey found that 39 percent of parents buy secondhand "to help people in their local community."

Granted, it’s early days, and a lot of this will be slow in coming. There will be much economic carnage to clean up: empty stores; restaurants; factories; malls; and other edifices that will need to be refilled, repurposed or replaced. Main Street in many cities will look war-torn for a while. City budgets have been decimated by the dramatic drop in sales tax receipts and the dramatic increase in public services.

But over time, families, neighborhoods, cities and companies will claw their way back to health, in every sense of the word — physical, psychological, financial, social.

Along the way, there will be a renewed focus on local and resilient communities, as we collectively work to ensure that we can better survive whatever calamity is next to come.

I invite you to follow me on Twitter, subscribe to my Monday morning newsletter, GreenBuzz, and listen to GreenBiz 350, my weekly podcast, co-hosted with Heather Clancy.

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