Starbucks Isn’t Alone: Local-washing Is the New Black

photo from The Stranger
photo from The Stranger

Our post last week about 15th Ave Coffee & Tea—a coffee house that Starbucks opened this summer in Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood but chose not to brand with its trademark sea creature logo—elicited a whole bunch of response from readers. Some of the readers stated that Starbucks is just plain evil. Others complained that it’s lame to hate on chains just because they are chains. But in writing the piece my intention was not to advance either argument. It was to highlight and extend the discussion that Adaptive Path’s Peter Merholz started in his blog, focusing on Starbucks’ strategy behind the 15th Ave Coffee & Tea. Merholz posited that for Starbucks’ attempt to paint 15th Ave as a one-off, small, neighborhood coffee joint, even though a massive corporation owns it, is a losing proposition.

“Faking it is not a good strategy in bed or in retail,” he wrote.

But in creating the 15th Ave Coffee & Tea shop, Starbucks is really just following a trend in marketing. Sure, the authenticity-imbued, non-chain feeling of the small coffee shop is an attractive element, but I think the bigger emphasis is on the local-ness of the place.  Marketers are starting to co-opt the recent focus on buying local—eating locally-grown food and patronizing locally-owned businesses. And as a result, we now all need to learn a new derivation of the word greenwashing: local-washing.

This new trend was deftly described by Stacy Mitchell, a senior researcher with the New Rules Project, in a July 9 article. (The New Rules Project, and Mitchell, are already highly critical of big box stores and mega-retailers, accusing them to disrupting local economies, etc. All stuff you’ve likely heard before—and perhaps agree with—but I think it’s important to note that the group is behind the article.)

The funny thing about Mitchell’s article? It ran in 25 different local weeklies around the country. So it’s a story about local-washing that is not locally-sourced news (except for the additional reporting that some of those weeklies contributed to the story).

Anyway, in the story, Mitchell illustrates some examples of local-washing issued by corporations such as Unilever-owned Hellmann’s mayonnaise brand, Barnes & Noble, Frito-Lay. Earlier this month, Jonathan Hiskes at Grist turned these and other examples of local-washing into a photo essay, which was repeated at Treehugger.

The story and the photo essays will make you feel contempt for these big-box stores and multinational brands trying to crash—and cash in on—the local party. But I think it’s important to examine what is and what isn’t local-washing—and what is and what isn’t local. And whether “local” should really be a must-have in terms of how to spend one’s dollars.

Sure, it’s hard not to cringe when Wal-Mart hangs a “Local” sign in its produce section. But if the fruits and veggies displayed there are grown locally, they are local.

Plus, highlighting localness (even falsely) is a big marketing strategy right now because consumers want local. And maybe that’s the problem. Maybe those who promote local-food and local-business have had too much success conveying the local-is-good message and not enough conveying the good-is-good message.

In Forbes, Elizabeth Eaves argues that “the absurdity of these language-abusing corporate responses to localism highlight what’s been wrong with the movement all along, namely that it has no coherent intellectual underpinning. Locally grown food is sometimes, but not inherently, higher in quality than food from farther afield. Locally run businesses do sometimes, but not always, make more genial employers. Locally grown food is sometimes, but not intrinsically, easier on the environment: The energy it takes to grow tomatoes in a northern climate can easily exceed the energy it takes to truck them in from a warmer place.”

It’s a harsh indictmen—especially the claim the movement “has no coherent intellectual underpinning.” It seems wrong to call localism a movement on its own. Seems more accurate to say it’s a subset of a broader push for sustainability. What do you think? Are Barnes & Noble and Frito Lay and Starbucks going to debase and devalue an important movement toward local purchasing, or are they just exploiting a trend in the sustainability movement—one that failed to get a comprehensive message across to consumers?

Freelance writer Mary Catherine O'Connor finds that a growing number of companies are proving the ways that they can make good financially, socially and environmentally (as the triple bottom line theory suggests).With that in mind, she contributes to Triple Pundit, as well as to Earth2Tech and other pubs focused on sustainability. She also writes The Good Route, an Outside Magazine blog that addresses the intersection of sustainability and the active/outdoor life.To find out more, or to reach her, go to www.mcoconnor.com.