I’ve logged thousands of driving miles all over the US in the last few weeks. I visited large and small towns in California, the Pacific Northwest and Tennessee. In these trips, one doesn’t always have a choice over which road to take, but you always have a choice about where to eat, shop and sleep along the way. I want to encourage you, as you travel this summer, to take a few extra minutes to choose local.
Buying local is very frequently cited as one of the best choices you can make for the environment. In reality, when you start to dig in, it can get complicated. Over ten years ago, Tesco, a grocery store chain in Britain, started putting carbon labels on food. Customers and British farmers were in an uproar that locally grown lamb had a bigger carbon footprint than lamb imported from New Zealand. Despite the food mile difference, the farming methods of Britain vs. New Zealand mattered way more. A national hotel chain may have made very significant investments in renewable energy, energy efficiency, and low-flow fixtures whereas a smaller independent hotel or inn has not. If you want to find both local and eco-friendly, one guide is the Green Seal directory.
Stronger data exists for the benefit of buying local on the local economy. Research done by Michigan State showed that 73% of every $100 spent in local business recirculated in the local economy, whereas only 43% of money spent at national chains stayed local. Small businesses also donate 2.5X more per employee locally than national chains.
However, my case for choosing local is more than the environmental and economic benefits. It is that choosing local often creates more memorable, unique and connected experiences, which ultimately enhances your personal wellbeing as well. For example, one night we slept in a complex of eight treehouses in the Redwood Forest. Obviously that wins for uniqueness, but we also spent a lot of time getting to know our fellow treehouse neighbors. The next night, we stayed at a small chain hotel with a beautiful view of the ocean and a very nice staff, but didn’t connect with any guests. As an extrovert, of course the first was better. But even my introverted daughter cited the sense of community in the treehouses as one of the benefits. The research backs her up: talking to strangers does boost happiness. Small, local establishments increase the likelihood of these conversations.
The explore function on Google Maps can be your best friend when seeking local restaurants right off the highway. It lists the restaurant, food type and a rating that I found to be pretty on target. My daughter cites the little pho shop across from Cal State Humboldt as her best meal of the trip, something totally unplanned, and ironic, given the time and effort put into choosing other meals.
I owe Mr. Stevens credit for reminding me of the benefits of seeking out small, local venues for entertainment. In Nashville, there are literally dozens of large, multi-floor music venues up and down Broadway. So when we ended up in a small, windowless, albeit well-known dive bar several miles away, I was somewhat skeptical. Then the music started. Turns out, we were at the fiddler’s record launch party where they treated everyone as friends and family, and the bluegrass was incredible. It was an unforgettable night.
Consistently when I think about the best meals I have, the most memorable night’s accommodation, the most interesting events, and the best conversations over the last few weeks, they all happened when we chose smaller, local options. So while the environmental benefits might not always be crystal clear, the social, economic and most notably, personal wellbeing benefits are well worth the extra effort.
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