Friday, June 11, 2010

The future is small and local

I just finished reading a fascinating piece on GOOD, Can Walmart Compete with Whole Foods? What really got me about this particular article was not so much the Walmart/Whole Foods competition (seriously, the green movement needs to stop thinking everyone lives in big cities with access to stores like Whole Foods), but the fact that Walmart is buying and selling locally farmed produce, from small and medium farmers.

I've written a lot lately on small manufacturing, buying local, local systems of distribution, etc. This article kind of crystallized these thoughts. The future really is local. Looking back at the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, we went from a system where most people got most of their goods locally, to one where everyone could get everything from everywhere, so they did. I believe the next step is a system where people will begin to get what they can locally, and look to imports only when local is not available.

In the system that is still mostly in place for most things, large companies buy goods in bulk from other large companies elsewhere in the world. They can get these things cheaply because of a deep bulk discount, the low wages paid to workers elsewhere, and the lack of environmental standards. However, as more of the world becomes richer and expects higher wages and a better standard of living, the cost of importing goods en-masse no longer will keep up with shipping prices (and oil for isn't getting any cheaper either.) Meanwhile, because of technology and other advances small companies and individuals can provide goods (be it manufactured items, food, or other comestibles) at a price that begins to be competitive because of their much lower shipping costs (not to mention the relative quality of the goods).

Places can now begin to re-discover the flavor that makes them unique. Traditional arts and crafts can thrive in an environment like this. Varieties of produce available to the consumer will increase as farmers can really plant what grows well locally. Tourism will benefit as not all places will feel the same; each will have more local specialities available.

Admittedly, I don't feel this will happen overnight, and I don't think that the conversion will be total. The assembly line will still end up producing some goods that people want en-masse (I don't see artisanal toilet paper for instance). Hopefully tho local will return in many areas, and people will be able to connect to their communities again.

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