Marketing is the language of commerce, and like any language it can be used for good or ill. Sometimes the line is hard to draw.
One of the latest marketing buzzwords to escape the hive is "local-washing," a variant of "green-washing."
Green-washing has been around for a while. It means making false or exaggerated claims that a product is environmentally friendly. Local-washing, then, means asserting (or suggesting) that a product or service is local when in fact it is not — or when using the term "local" is, at the very least, a bit of a stretch.
The new marketing technique takes advantage of the growing "localvore" movement, in which consumers favor products (food and other things) that come from their own region. The growing popularity of farmers' markets, business alliances like Indiebound (for independent booksellers), and region-based movements such as Local First Vermont are a few of the more organized manifestations of the increasingly popular "local first" way of thinking.
Big corporations are learning to take advantage. Wal-Mart stores, where an increasingly large number of Americans do their grocery shopping, now feature local produce sections. But according to Stacy Mitchell of the New Rules Project, "[t]he chain's] local-food offerings are usually limited to a few of the main commodity crops of the state in question…Yet this modest gesture has won Wal-Mart glowing coverage in numerous daily newspapers. Few ask…[whether this actually creates] more and better opportunities for local farmers than the grocers [Wal-Mart] replaces…Wal-Mart, like other chains, has learned that tossing around the word 'local' is a relatively inexpensive way to convey civic virtue."
Starbucks is rebranding some of its stores, removing their corporate identity entirely in order to disguise them as independent shops. Barnes & Noble encourages store employees to create video blogs about their favorite books as part of an effort to make individual stores "feel" more local. Supermarket chain Winn-Dixie touts "local flavor since 1956." HSBC, the huge international financial institution, calls itself "the world's local bank."
These techniques can seem disingenuous, even outright fraudulent. On the other hand, it's hard to blame the chains for availing themselves of whatever cultural developments are attracting consumers. They didn't get to be big corporations by being inherently evil, they did so by outcompeting in the marketplace. Now, suffering something of a backlash, they are casting about for ways to maintain their dominance.
Can big chains fool enough of the public enough of the time to make their local-washing campaigns succeed? Can we accept a certain level of exaggeration as a natural manifestation of market forces at work? Or is any degree of local-washing unacceptable deception?
Is more regulation needed? Vermont has strict rules about when a product can be labeled with the state's name. New York City's Greenmarkets permit only produce grown on farms within a specific mileage range of the city.
What do you think?
Meanwhile, stay tuned. No one knows how all this will shake out. See you at the Greenmarket!