The blog formerly known as   Fake Plastic Fish

November 12, 2008

What is Local? Expanding the Definition

The topic of this month’s APLS Carnival is “buying local,” which seems to be an important factor in the sustainability movement. In the SF Bay Area, we have year-round farmer’s markets where local producers bring us their fresh crops all year. So for someone attempting to live plastic-free, it’s not hard to add “buying local” to the mix.

Except when it is hard.

Several months ago, I asked your opinion about which was better environmentally — plastic-wrapped local cheese or waxed plastic-free cheese from Ireland. And surprisingly, most of you voted for the Irish cheese, saying that regardless of plastic, it’s probably just better.

So it seems that some folks make exceptions to the local rule when it comes to foods from “expert” regions of the world. But I have a few more exceptions and redefinitions to add to the mix. I get that buying local is better for the environment because it reduces fuel miles and because foods grown locally do not need as much in the way of chemicals and energy to keep them fresh. But there’s another reason: community. And sometimes “community” is not found within a 100-mile radius of where you live.


One of my new favorite Etsy sellers is Cat Domiano, aka The Green Cat, who is a blogger friend and one of the founding members of the Take Back The Filter campaign. One of my first interactions with her was when she made some cute mice for my new kittens last year. A quilter, she recently decided to use up scraps of fabric she’s been storing by making coasters and napkins and cat toys and selling them on Etsy.

I had no qualms about ordering cloth napkins from Cat (who lives in New York), even though I could have bought some cloth napkins here in Oakland, for the following reasons:

1) Cat is my friend.
2) I knew that Cat wouldn’t send me any plastic packaging (including plastic tape!). She’s a Fake Plastic Fish reader and trying to reduce her own plastic waste.
3) Supporting Cat is supporting the environment because she’s likely to spend her money in ways that are environmentally-friendly. Right Cat?
4) Supporting Etsy sellers is a way to make sure that the craftspeople creating the products we purchase get a fair price for their creations because they set the prices themselves!
5) Supporting each other’s work creates community — even if we live many, many miles apart. It’s a different kind of local, isn’t it?

Oh, and when I told Cat I was going to post about her napkins (which are awesome) on Fake Plastic Fish, she wanted me to let you know that she’ll do some kind of discount for Fake Plastic Fish readers, so if you place an order, let her know you read about her shop here.


Sometimes local really is local. This is Dan from The Green Bean Cafe at Forest and Claremont, just a few blocks from my house and right on my way to BART each day.

At the Green Bean, I can fill up my travel mug with fair trade organic coffee and have a sandwich made and placed into my reusable container. (Yes, the container is plastic. I haven’t found a better non-disposable alternative yet, but I’m working on it.) Better than supporting Starbucks, certainly. But more important to me, I’ve gotten to know Dan and his business partner Brett over the years, and I have a great time every time I visit the cafe.

Dan is one of the funniest guys in town. He and I don’t necessarily agree politically (as I discovered on election day) but we agree in other basic, human ways. In fact, he and Brett have set up a container at the shop for local folks to drop off used Brita filter cartridges instead of mailing them to us. And he gets really excited when people bring in their filters.

Besides the coffee, the food itself might not all be organic or local, but the spirit of the place creates community in a world where people too often find themselves separate from each other. These guys know pretty much everyone in the neighborhood, which is rare and precious in our disjointed world.


But sometimes, there are real conflicts between buying locally or buying from a large, impersonal corporation. A while back, there was a discussion on Burbanmom’s blog comparing the soap she got from a local goat farmer to Dr. Bronner’s castile soaps. And I found myself with the same quandary.

I had been buying soap from a local woman at the Ashby flea market. I was supporting her simply because she was local. I didn’t know her personally and I never asked about the ingredients she used in her soaps — fair trade? organic? I do believe they were free of synthetics.

But after reading the discussion on Burbanmom, I actually switched to Dr. Bronner’s soap bars. They are 100% organic. 100% fair trade. The wrappers and containers are made from 100% post-consumer recycled materials. Here is a company trying in every way possible to be sustainable. They are not local to me, and I don’t have a personal relationship with them. But maybe those things don’t matter.

Or maybe Dr. Bronner’s creates a different kind of community — a meeting of like minds coming together at the organic foods shop to refill their peppermint soap bottles. This company has been around so long and created such good will in the green and “hippie” community that they maybe deserve to be honorary “locals” wherever you happen to find their products.


So I guess all things being equal, I’d opt for a local product over a non-local one. But I don’t stress about that one criterion. I do the best I can, and then let many other factors help determine my buying choices.

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Green Bean
14 years ago

I am with you, here, Beth. In general, I opt for local but if I have a personal connection with someone, then community comes in. Not only is it about building community but encouraging people who are willing to do the right thing, who are taking a risk. It’s a tough choice, sometimes.

14 years ago

I dropped off 3 filters to The Green Bean, and Dan was really helpful. I felt kind of weird bringing in a bag of filters to a coffee shop, but he led me right to the bucket.

I had to remind myself that he was not simply an employee, but in fact, had knowledge of the campaign, and probably owned the place.

kale for sale
14 years ago

Thank you for pointing out the grey areas of local. My friends look at me crooked sometimes when I explain that I’m buying from a certain further away grower because he has dimples or that I claim the independent book store in the next town as my favorite instead of the one down the street. But I’m with you, personality is a big factor. Not that it always wins for me, but I consider it.

14 years ago

I’m a huge fan of Dr Bronner’s. We’ve been using it for years! Usually we try to buy locally, but we do buy Dr Bronner’s poducts.

14 years ago

I think similiar to this is the idea that there are many things like soap that we could all make ourselves but it’s not always feasible for us to make them in the most green and sustainable way and if we can support someone that does so then it’s money well spent. Instead of not making say soap out of convience we are making a conscious effort to support individuals and companies that are doing things the right way.

The Green Cat
14 years ago

Beth, Thanks for the shout out. I love the photo with poor Soots peeking in (What? No mousies for me??)

Sure enough, here’s the FPF Reader discount: Simply place an order before 12/31/08 and put “plastic15” in the “notes to seller” section. I’ll send you an updated invoice with 15% off your purchase (excluding shipping).

14 years ago

I am a big believer in buying locally- but like you I find sometimes it is not a great option. I too use Dr. Bonners soaps both bar and in the bottle. The bottle is recyclable here and I use such a small amount of the soap when I shower. Much less than any other soap or shampoo. I agree with Tracey, that “The important thing is that we are thinking it through, not just consuming.” I recently have been in my own dilema about produce- I discovered my neighbor hood green grocer buys local whenever possible, and he can always tell where his produce comes from. The down side is he cannot always tell you if it is organic or not. But I feel better buying from him rather than the Safeway,where they don’t know where anything comes from. And Dr Bonner’s is made in Escondido so not that far away from you

14 years ago

Your posts always make me think! BTW, you probably already know this, but Life Without Plastic has some pretty good stainless steel lunch containers you might try for takeout. I wish they made them a bit bigger…

ruchi aka arduous
14 years ago

Hey Beth,

What a fantastic post. I think you are absolutely on the money that sometimes geographically local isn’t the most important consideration. It’s a complicated thing, but it sounds like you’re making the choices that are right for you which is what really matters!

Anarres Natural Health
14 years ago

Dear Beth,

I share your thoughts and processes. It's a complex calculation: I opt for my neighbourhood print shop with the friendly helpful immigrant family business thing versus the social justice print shop father afield.

I always urge my local options to get greener so I can buy their stuff. But I have it pretty good at my coop with bulk local organic tofu and other easy options.

Dr Bronner's is an amazing company – the only ones who use recycled plastic bottles. They are suing a bunch of body products manufacturers for using the term "organic" when they use petroleum ingredients. Watch out for that!

The important thing is that we are thinking it through, not just consuming.

Love & RRRevolution, Tracey