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Should You Buy Local When Traveling?

Simple answer: Yes.

Ok.  So you’re the conscious traveler type concerned with how you impact the places you visit.  How can you spend money and still benefit the people, environment and communities you visit ?

Shop local.

I’m a big believer in putting my money where my mouth is. I strongly believe in economic and environmental justice .

Buying Clean Water in Haiti

Shopping local helps to support that goal.

The massive contribution of tourism money to many local economies is often overlooked and undervalued. The money you spend as a traveler pays wages, supports livelihoods, keeps local culture flourishing and helps to fund infrastructure development such as vital water, food or sanitation services. It matters.

The 350Project estimates that:

“For every $100 spent in locally owned stores, $68 returns to the community. If you spend that at a nation chain only $43 stays in your town. Spending it online and nothing comes home.”

ELocal estimates that:

Throughout the United States, only about 33.6% of the revenue from national chains is reinvested into the community, which is very low compared to the 64.8% return from local businesses.

And that:

If the people of an average American city were to shift 10% of their spending from chains to local businesses, it would bring an additional $235 million per year to the community’s economy.

Not to mention that we travelers can play a part that local shoppers cannot. The very nature of our visits creates new opportunities for low-cost, complementary products, tourism excursions, transportation and accommodation facilities. Think in terms of tours, performances and educational opportunities (cooking classes for me!). For poor communities, developing these products generally requires little capital and minimal skills training and even little marketing up front. This is to say that the manner in which you spend your money while on the road can help to create the experiential tourism industry based on local culture, ancient traditions and food that you seek.

Taos Farmer’s Market. New Mexico, USA

So why do it? Why buy local?

– Meet the locals. Isn’t that one of the reasons we go?

– For me one of the top reasons has to do with maintain and enhancing the unique character of a community and region. One-of-a-kind businesses create local flavor. We travelers don’t want someplace that looks like anyplace. We purposefully seek out the unique. Shopping local makes that unique possible. National chains aren’t forced to be creative or created products that benefit a specific community or region.

JOBS! JOBS! JOBS! In the USA, as in many other countries, small local businesses are by far the largest employer. When national chains enter a community they actually cause a LOSS of employment. ELocal estimates that the opening of a Wal-Mart reduces retail employment by an average of 150 jobs in the county of its location.


– Studies have shown that local business-people tend to keep their money in their community by purchasing from friends and neighbors thereby contributing to the strength of the local economy and enhancing the local tax base.

– Small businesses tend to support non-profit organizations far more (~ 250%!!) than do large businesses.

– The environmental impact of shopping local is huge. Locally-sourced materials have far lower transportation pollution issues and the tendency of local businesses to concentrate in the center of communities as opposed to the fringe means less sprawl (preserving habitat), less pollution and a higher quality of life.

– Small, local businesses are owned by people who live in the community – people who know and value the community.

– Taxes.  Not only does spending your money locally contribute to the tax-base of a region, but businesses in town centers (as opposed to the big box monsters on the edges) require much less infrastructure investment. Basically, they

Fishmonger. Bodo, Norway

are more efficient with public money.

How is that for a list? Convinced yet? Good.



The 3/50 Project, a grassroots movement to support local economies, has developed the LookLocal iPhone App to help you out. The app has 23,000 listings throughout North America. You just enter your location to reveal places nearby. I’ve been playing with it and its fun. It’s a simple app – bells and whistles this is not. Meet the locals and give back to the place you’ve visited. A Droid version is in development now.

Get it: LookLocal iphone App

Editor’s Note: This post originally appeared in November 2011 at A Whole World to Know.


See more photographs of Haiti at Around the World in Eighty Years

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