Blog Update!
For those of you not following me on Facebook, as of the Summer of 2019 I've moved to Central WA, to a tiny mountain town of less than 1,000 people.

I will be covering my exploits here in the Cascades, as I try to further reduce my impact on the environment. With the same attitude, just at a higher altitude!

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Local-washing: big business hijacks "local"

I suppose it should come as no surprise that large corporations are jumping on the "local" bandwagon. I discussed this briefly before in describing how Lays is claiming that they are a local company (local to whom, exactly?). And now, Starbucks, is taking advantage of the idea of local.

It appears that others are joining the "local washing" effort and co-opting these new buzzwords that people rely on when they want to choose a lower carbon or healthier alternative to industrial food. Unfortunately, the industrial food giants are saturating the market with confusing marketing.

In the article, The Corporate Co-Opt of Local, the author explains how big industry is altogether scrambling to join in. From the article:

This new variation on corporate greenwashing - local washing - is, like the buy-local movement itself, most advanced in the context of food. Hellmann's, the mayonnaise brand owned by the processed-food giant Unilever, is test-driving a new "Eat Real, Eat Local," initiative in Canada. The ad campaign seems aimed partly at enhancing the brand by simply associating Hellmann's with local food. But it also makes the a claim that Hellmann's is local, because most of its ingredients come from North America.....

Still another corporate strategy is to redefine the term "local" to mean, not locally owned or locally produced, but just nearby. "With the term 'local' being so nebulous, it seems ripe for manipulation," notes Mintel, another consumer research firm that counsels companies on how to "craft marketing messages that appeal to locally conscious consumers" and how to avoid "charges of 'local washing.'" The key, Mintel says, is for companies to decide what they mean by local and to disclose that clearly so as not to be accused of trying to misappropriate the term.

Corporate-oriented buy-local campaigns that define "local" as the nearest Lowe's or Gap store are now being rolled out in cities nationwide. Some represent desperate bids by shopping malls to survive the recession and fend off online competition. Others are the work of chambers of commerce trying to remain relevant. Still others are the half-baked plans of municipal officials casting about for some way to stop the steep drop in sales tax revenue.

Many of these AstroTurf campaigns are modeled directly on grassroots initiatives. "They copy our language and tactics," said Michelle Long, executive director of Sustainable Connections, a seven-year-old coalition of 600 independent businesses in northwest Washington state that runs a very visible, and according to market research, very successful "local first" program. "I get calls from chambers and other groups who say, We want to do what you are doing. It took me a while to realize that what they had in mind was not what we do. Once I realized, I started asking them, what do you mean by 'local'?"

For those of you unaware of the Starbucks local washing, there are a few stores in Seattle being "rebranded". Basically, they closed the Starbucks stores at several locations, remodeled them to look like an independently owned local coffeehouse and removed any Starbucks branding from all products and merchandise. But, it's essentially a Starbucks - with cooler baristas.

This has caused a bit of a ruckus in Seattle, particularly from those interested in supporting a local business over Bigbucks. And they feel pissed that Starbucks was trying to pull one over on them. I, for one, was rather offended by the sneakiness of the deal since I usually avoid Starbucks and their propensity for squeezing out the little guys.

Anyway, the article goes into far more detail than I'm providing here and makes a great read about what's going on with local washing, so go check it out.

What do you think about the local washing trend? Does it offend you or do you care?

Related reading:
Small Is Possible: Life in a Local Economy
Mega Food Manufacturers Go Local


Green Bean said...

Totally offensive! My only hope is that many people interested in eating locally tend to educate themselves on what exactly local means. Still, it just makes our job harder.

I noticed a sign outside of our Starbucks the other day advertising REAL FOOD. Another example of co-opting words from the local/Slow Food movement.

Anonymous said...

Real Food??? Then how come it tastes mostly of preservatives??

That really angers me. LYING to people to make them think you're an independent store when you're NOT is just repugnant.

Anonymous said...

I visited the new store on 15th, and I gotta say I was impressed. They nailed the aesthetic they were going for and it was an engaging atmosphere. Smart marketing.

That being said, I hated liking it. But it's not really different than Clorox selling some green product. We just have to choose our suppliers carefully.

When I first read, "Big business hijacks..." I figured you were talking about the anti-bag fee contributors.

Anonymous said...

I'm not really sure how I feel about the whole local thing. I know it's important to support local stores and resturants but often I have a hard time doing so. I do prefer to but my BF's fruit from the farmers markets (or get stuff from friends trees) but I can't eat any of that stuff myself due to allergies. And I found out wherer to buy the cows I drive all the time so I'll be buying that from now on. But I couldn't live without big companies. I would love to stop into a small family owned resturant that uses local food, but it's usualy not an option for me. I have celiac disease and can't just eat anywhere. I've gone hungry for over 24 hours in some cases because no resturant could feed me. So I'm sorry, but many chain resturants may not have the smallest footprint but they do have a few redeeming qualities. Take it from someone who ate nothing but white rice, chips, and candy bars for three days straight, they aren't all bad. More often than not I have bad luck with independently owned resturants.

But on the other hand, I will say this about Starbucks. I don't like sneaky underhanded tricks, and I will reconsider them in the future. I may not be able to buy tea/coffee from just anywhere but it's not something I need. In fact I think it's funny, if I saw a "rebranded" Starbucks I would have proably just passed on by anyway. Serves them right.

Robj98168 said...

I agree with the Green bean- this totally offends the very nature of me. Of course I understand tha hellmans (B AKA Best Foods) is made in North America- say they get their eggs in albequerque- how the f*** is that local to me in Seattle. I frequent a true local coffee shop- Burien Press- there you can meet the owner who built or rather remodeled the shop from a tatoo shop of dubious history inot a chic little "cafe" where my dog is as welcome as I am. That is how I define local. Not some corporate honcho wearing a name tag on one breast welcoming to the local Wal Mart. I just hope poeple aren't that easily fooled.

Eco Yogini said...

completely offensive. My pet peeve has always been the subtle manipulations companies do in order to make people feel like they are doing, purchasing, supporting something green... when in fact they are not. Like, for example, clorox and their greenworks.
Not everyone has the ability to investigate these companies and figure out just what they are doing- and those are the people that are taken advantage of. People like my mom, who thought arbonne was a chemical free company.
Consumers have a right to know when they are being manipulated. Informed choice does not come into play in this 'local-washing' situation.

Billie said...

Did anyone think this wouldn't happen? Somehow this doesn't surprise me.

I would hope that the average person would not be fooled by this but I suspect many people would be.

I don't purport to be a local shopper at all times although I make an effort.

Chiot's Run said...

I hate this! I have noticed that here in NE Ohio Lays has huge billboards on almost every major freeway that advertise that they're "local". Just because they have a plant here and buy some local potatoes means nothing. We do have a local potato chip company that's been in the area for years and only sells in the area, we choose to buy from them when we buy potato chips.

This is one reason you have to be careful about large corporate entities. I buy most of my stuff directly from the farmers that grow/raise it. When I need a grocery I shop at the small health food store that has only 2 local stores.

Farmer's Daughter said...

"Local" has become just like "all-natural" or "natural." There's no strict definition or government regulation/certification, so any company can use it.

It bothers me, because when we say our apples are "local" it's because they grew right out behind our farm market, on trees my dad planted 25 years ago, and were picked by my grandfather, dad, uncle, brothers and cousins. So hijacking the term local is really upsetting to me.

This is just another case where consumers need to be educated. We talked about Lays saying they're "local" in my Botany class, and the kids all agreed that they're clearly not local, and also not healthy. That was a good sign!

This is just another case of

Ashley Sue said...

I think it's wonderful Clorox got brought up a few times here in comments. Besides their GreenWorks line, Clorox bought Burts Bees a few years ago. The Burts Bees hq is here in North Carolina (Durham ROCKS), and all the stores here have "LOCAL" tags by the Burts Bees products... which is true in a sense, and then again, all the money actually goes to Clorox... hmmm...

I do agree with Billie. It's sad we can't actually feel surprised at this corporate effort to dupe the public. This tactic works, time and again. Now that McDonald's has started rebranding themselves with the whole "McCafe" thing (and even redesigned many McDonald's locations to look like a local coffeehouse/lodge), I know a ton of people who have become big fans of them.

Mainstream America still eats whatever the corporate giants feed them... but the revolution (aka awareness) is spreading.

Adrienne said...

Geez... I hadn't heard of "local washing" until now, and haven't seen any examples in person (yet). It's definitely offensive, but i wonder if fewer people will be fooled than are fooled by greenwashing. It's hard to know exactly what's in a bottle of window cleaner and whether it's "green" or not, but it's not hard to know that Albuquerque isn't close to Seattle (to borrow an example from an earlier poster). Hopefully it won't work and "local-washing" will disappear.

Noelle said...

I'm a member of my county's chamber of commerce, who has a huge "buy local" movement. But for the chamber, that includes any business that's located in the county, be it individually-owned or a big box store. The strange thing is that the chamber dues from the big box store actually help the smaller companies by improving the local economy... But on the other hand, they're not locally owned.

And then of course, we have the cases of local business owners who are not actually doing good, like the guy who got arrested for child porn, or the storefront that was actually just a front.

I guess what it means is that "local" like "organic" and "natural" sounds nice, but doesn't always mean "good." There's no easy way when trying to spend your money ethically. Just have to do your homework.

Anonymous said...

I gotta say - if Lay's is buying local potatoes and cooking them up in a local factory, they are at least honestly on the spectrum of local foods for me. And besides, the reality of the potato chip business is that the potatoes come from different parts of the country at different times of the year - so the "mom and pop local" chip company is probably using spuds from Florida in the early spring, just like Lay's is.

So yeah, lying or misleading is just wrong, but it is possible for a big company to also be legitimately local.

Eco Yogini said...

oh my- seriously Clorox bought Burt's Bees??? ack.

Lan said...

Ummm, okay, at risk of getting flamed...

I see your point about the underhandedness of putting a "local" flavor on something that is in actuality part of a large corporation.

On the other hand, Starbucks started in Seattle, so it *is* local to Seattle, and these local coffeeshops seem an effort to recapture the ethos that made them a success--and worth expanding!--in the first place. Say what you will about the Starbucks corporate behemoth, I credit them with the revival of coffeeshop culture around the country, and I think that's a Good Thing. Before Starbucks was ubiquitous, there were only a handful of coffeeshops in my medium-sized city. Once they proved that you can make money selling coffee drinks and a space in which to sip them, the number of independent coffeeshops grew.

Secondly, isn't it possible that by providing a more local/independent veneer to these hubs of the corporate behemoth, they're actually opening themselves up to becoming more like local joints? To becoming more a part of the communities in which they exist, rather than the McDonald's of the coffee world?

A lot of us have the gut reaction that corporate is bad, but we ought not forget that certain efficiencies and benefits are gained in a corporate setting (be that EEOC policies, health benefits, or simply cost benefits as a result of scale). Maybe this could be part of an evolution in business--an effort to combine the benefits of the big scale corporation with the benefits of the local community-oriented business.


Robbie @ Going Green Mama said...

You forgot about Wal-mart - which is now offering "local produce." While I'm glad to support local farmers, I'm concerned that Wal-mart would drive down prices for farmers, reducing their wages, too.

Lynn from said...


Reading this post made me embaressed to be a marketing professional! But I swear, we're not all this bad. Makes me realize how fortunate I've been to have great employers and clients.

The multiplier effect shows us that when you buy local, more of your money stays in your community.

I think it's sick that corporations are exploiting the local phenomenon, but I guess they think desperate times call for desperate measures.

Great post,

LynnieBee said...


Brad K. said...

I liked the line in Legally Blonde, that, as I recall, went something like "Whoever said orange was the new pink. . "

Marketers lie. Local washing will go the way of "thick and rich" - recall how watching the pearl dropping slowly through the Prell shampoo bottle sold tons of shampoo (back when "Petticoat Junction" and "Andy Williams Show" was on).

For people actually interested in eating and buying local - they will figure out, quickly, which is local-washed and which is local. For the masses following along after the latest marketing ploy - I expect there will be a bit of spill-over - some people will become aware of what buying local means for food and craft security. Plus, as Peak Oil bites and transport costs start making real changes in the costs of transporting goods over long distances - no one will need to local-wash. The difference will be a matter of two to ten times the cost - if non-local produce and products are still available.

In the meantime, be thoughtful, discuss how local your purchases are instead of the price to keep the topic alive with family and friends. And be careful about product claims. Always.