When I have out-of-town guests, one of the places I love to take them is my neighborhood New Seasons Market. What makes it a tourist-worthy stop is that it's not only a great example of a thriving Portland alternative to national chains, but it’s also a store that strives to make grocery shopping an engaged and thoughtful experience. A big piece of that is deepening the meaning of “shop local” by making it their business model to provide consumers with local options.

Much of New Seasons' success comes from providing customers with the option of choosing locally-sourced products, and these products are highlighted throughout its stores with labels and shelf tags. “We hope to help our customers make the connection between choosing local products and their own livelihoods,” New Seasons’ Community Relations Manager Claudia Knotek explains. In addition to highlighting local options New Seasons takes steps to educate its customers about the environmental impact of their choices, particularly when it comes to selecting seafood. By partnering with the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch New Seasons labels seafood with a red/yellow/green rating system that offers customers quick and simple guidance to the most sustainable food sources (green for most sustainable, yellow for questionable and red for non-sustainable).

New Seasons' color-coded seafood tags offer guidance to help shoppers select the most sustainable options.
New Seasons' color-coded seafood tags offer guidance to help shoppers select the most sustainable options.

Thanks to businesses like New Seasons, we’ve come to expect to find items labeled “local,” or “organic,” and even find sustainability rankings in many of the places we shop. It would seem that with all these options, Portlanders are able to shop local and live sustainably without really having to give much thought to the choices we make as consumers. But is this really the case?

When terms like “local” and “green” become mainstream, the meanings become blurred and the terms are used loosely with a wide range of interpretations. We can fall into supporting something because it claims to be local or sustainable, without being aware of exactly how local or sustainable that option really is. For example, how much are you really doing for the local economy or the environment when you buy a product that was made in China, even if you purchase it at a locally-owned shop?

The Local Question: It's Complicated

Paul Sykes, owner of Sykes Wood Fenders
Paul Sykes, owner of Sykes Wood Fenders

Portland neighbors shop, choose and support local in a variety of ways in hope of supporting the local economy. There are many different interpretations as to what shopping local really means, and there are a variety of opinions as to what truly constitutes a local business. Once you start talking to people, you realize that it’s difficult to nail down the definition of local business. Purists will tell you that local businesses in Portland must be owned by Portland neighbors. Others will say Portland metro or regionally-owned is okay. Franchises, even if they are locally headquartered don’t make the “local” list for many discerning shoppers. Some folks even feel that once a local business grows and begins offering its product beyond Portland, it no longer counts as local. For example, in an article in the New York Times, Portland artisan Paul Sykes was quoted saying of Stumptown Coffee, “I don’t even go to Stumptown. I go to a more local place.”

When asked about how she decides how to shop locally, Rebecca Gilbert of Stumptown Printers notes that she tries to buy from smaller companies first, “but I wouldn't choose not to buy Stumptown Coffee simply because they have been successful in expanding beyond Portland.” Gilbert points out that there’s added value to a local business that becomes successful and expands. “I think of [Stumptown Coffee] as providing quality jobs for a lot of Portlanders,” says Gilbert, “and I want to support a mid-sized business that is successful.”

Landscape architect Caitilin Daum also considers Stumptown a local option: “I'll support Stumptown, because it’s a good quality product and they are furthering business practices that I can believe in, and because I have some hometown pride.”

Daum also makes the point that there’s more to shopping local than who is selling it. “The source of the product, not just who is selling it, is definitely important to me,” she says. “The fact that something is being sold in New Seasons or a co-op does not forgive the fact of how it was manufactured/grown or where it was shipped from.”

Local musician Paul Silveria notes that local “has a spectrum.” For him, the local factor is most important when buying food, but it is balanced with other considerations. “I'd rather buy organically grown produce from 100 miles away than pesticide-grown food from 25 miles away. Buying seasonally helps prevent me from buying produce (organic or not) from Mexico.”

Why Shopping Local Matters

Polly Rask, owner of Local Goods
Polly Rask, owner of Local Goods

One of the great things about living in a city with so many “local” options is that we can be even more thoughtful about our consumerism and maximize the impact the dollars we spend have on our local community. Being a thoughtful consumer involves more than patronizing local businesses. Polly Rask, owner of Local Goods [now closed], a neighborhood shop that features local and sustainable products, believes that it’s important to educate people about how the choices we make as consumers have a real impact on both a local and a global scale. “Very small changes can make a huge impact,” she says

The positive impacts of shopping locally are diluted when you buy products that are produced in China or made from unsustainable practices or resources. Thinking more deeply about the impact you have as a consumer means doing some light investigative work and weighing your options.

It's Personal

Charles Heying, author of Brew to Bikes.
Charles Heying, author of Brew to Bikes.

When it comes down to it, shopping local is a deeply personal decision. There are many good reasons for shopping local. The first step is to identify why you think buying local is good and how it matches your values. From there, you can evaluate how your shopping choice support or don't support those values.

“I buy local because it supports my friends and neighbors, people I know or who know people I know,” says Charles Heying, author of Brew to Bikes, a recently published book that celebrates and analyzes Portland’s local artisan community. “One of the wonderful things about Portland is that it is very much like a village,” says Heying. “Everyone seems to know somebody who makes something.”

Like many Portlanders, both Rebecca Gilbert and Caitilin Daum try to make shopping choices that live up to their ideals. They both know that every single thing they buy won’t fit into those ideals, but they do what they can to be thoughtful and deepen their impact as consumers. When trying to do her part to support the local economy, Gilbert starts from home and moves out from there. “My ideal is to buy something made directly from the person who makes/grows the item, and ideally that item is locally sourced and sold,” she says, “I try to shop at small stores and purchase items made in Portland. I work ‘outward’ from there. If it's not made or grown in the Portland Metro area, then I look for items from the region (Washington/Oregon/Northern California), then from the Western States, then the United States, then the continent (Mexico/Canada), then I go on from there.”

When deciding where and how to spend her money, Daum considers the world reality that she wants to promote. When buying produce, for example, she thinks about the impacts on environmental and human health where the product was grown. “I don't want to support commercial industrial agriculture, even if it is in Oregon, so the local card won't go too far with me there,” she says.

You Get More Bang for Your Buck

Tony and Gael Fuentes
Tony and Gael Fuentes

Tony Fuentes, owner of Milagros Boutique and producer/host of pagatim.fm’s LaunchPad Radio, a show that focuses on new economic initiatives and innovators, points out that “shopping at local businesses lets your bucks provide the most bang to your local economy.” Every dollar spent at a local independent business has a potential return of three dollars or more in local economic and community benefits and local business ownership also means that important decisions about the local economy are being made by people who live in the community and who will feel the impacts of those decisions. “On a local level, business is inherently personal,” says Tony Fuentes, “and values beyond the financial bottom-line can have a tangible role in decision-making.”

When compared to national chains, local retailers and restaurants purchase a higher share of their products from local sources, and none of their profit is sent to an out-of-state office. “I like buying something wonderful from a storeowner and knowing I'm helping put food on their holiday table and the table of their employees,” says Supportland’s Katrina Scotti di Carlo, “not having most of my money transferred in a national headquarters somewhere else.” In turn, these neighborhood-owned businesses give back to the local economy through buying local advertising, paying state and local taxes, and spending their profits in the same community where they do business.

When you spend one dollar at a locally owned business, an average of 45 cents stays in the local economy. The same dollar spent at a business with an out-of-community headquarters only leaves about 14 cents in the local economy. “That 45 cents for every dollar is super significant to our well being as a community,” notes Katrina di Carlo. “Economically, it creates jobs where the employer/owner relationship often times ensures less layoffs and provides a living wage.”

Supportland founders Katrina and Michael Scotto di Carlo
Supportland founders Katrina and Michael Scotto di Carlo

Shopping locally has also proven to give a serious boost to the local economy. In the 2008 study, “Local Works! Examining the Impact of Local Businesses on the West Michigan Economy, The Business Alliance for Local Living Economies found that even “a modest change in consumer behavior–a mere 10 percent shift in market share to independent businesses from chain stores–would result in 1,600 new jobs, $53 million in wages, and a $137 million economic impact.”

You can further increase the bang for your buck by selecting a locally-sourced product from a neighborhood-owned business. “By choosing to support farmers, ranchers and manufacturers from the Pacific Northwest, we’re not only keeping the money from those purchases circulating in our own area,” notes New Seasons’ Claudia Knotek, “but the food travels less and is fresher when it hits our customers’ plates.” She points out that by choosing to buy locally sourced products, “you’re supporting the folks who rely on the same community network that you do, and you’re helping them take care of their own families. And they, in turn, continue to produce food for you and yours.”

Local Businesses Define Local Character

Matt Higgins, founder of Coava Coffee Rosters.
Matt Higgins, founder of Coava Coffee Rosters.

Portland is known as a city that is passionate about supporting local businesses and nurturing homegrown artists. We are proud to shop local, and this shared value is reflected in the City of Portland’s Climate Action Plan, which calls for 20-minute neighborhoods where every Portlander will be able to walk to essential services and amenities within 20 minutes of their home.

Portland’s unique local businesses create the character that defines the Portland community. “How many visitors to Portland have a stop at Powell’s Book on their to-do list?” asks Milagros’ Tony Fuentes. “To maintain the local businesses that help define our sense of place, these businesses need to be a priority in our choice of where to shop.”

Katrina from Supportland agrees, “I usually encourage people to shop local so that the character of Portland they love so much exists into the future.” When people drive out of Portland’s neighborhoods to do their shopping at big box chain stores, they are literally driving dollars out of the community. “When that indie business that you enjoyed ‘looking’ at, but never patroned closes—it bums everyone in the community out,” Katrina notes.

How to Develop (or Improve) Your Buy Local Habit

Egg Press, a letterpress studio in Portland's NW Industrial neighborhood.
Egg Press, a letterpress studio in Portland's NW Industrial neighborhood.
Set a Goal

You don’t have to swear off all chains stores and non-local business or products to make a real difference in your local economy. Even a small change in your shopping habits can make a big impact. The best way to start is to set a goal.

  • The 3/50 Project’s recommendation to commit spending $50 at three locally owned businesses each month is a great way to get started on the buy local habit.

  • The Supportland rewards card is another way to steer your shopping choices to local options. When you shop at any of the (currently 67) local businesses within the Supportland network, you get points on your card that can be used to get special rewards and discounts from the network’s participating local businesses. For the holiday shopping season, consider taking Supportland’s holiday pledge. It states, "I pledge to try to buy X% of my holiday gifts at locally-owned this season." You get to choose your own goal, and it is posted on Facebook so you can share your pledge with friends.

Explore Your Neighborhood

One of the best things about Portland is how its planning goals include 20-minute neighborhoods. In many parts of the city, neighbors are able to meet their daily needs within a few blocks of their home.

When you get out and explore your neighborhood, you may begin to notice that there are quite a variety of locally-owned shops and cafes that offer many of the items you may have been traveling out of your neighborhood to purchase. Portland is the first place I’ve ever lived where I could walk to the bank (which is regionally based), then go next door to the neighborhood pet supply store (which emphasizes holistic and environmentally-friendly options), pick up a bottle of wine from the adjacent wine shop and finish up my errands with a coffee made with beans roasted in-shop and a bagel made fresh at the neighboring bagel shop. Some resources that can direct you to Portland’s locally-owned and sustainable businesses include:

  • Portland’s ReDirect Guide, which directs you toward sustainability-focuses businesses

  • Supportland, a network of 143 locally-owned businesses

  • The Sustainable Business Network of Portland, a network of locally owned, independent businesses that are not publicly traded or franchises of publicly traded corporations.

  • Neighborhood Notes' Localist, our directory of businesses, services and amenities in Portland's 95 neighborhoods, which helps neighbors with their purchasing decisions.

Ask Questions, Do Some Research

While we are fortunate to have shops like New Seasons that provide labeling and information to help us make informed shopping choices, it’s up to us to find out more about where a product comes from or the practices used to manufacture it. For example, it’s great to get dairy products from a local farm, but not so great when you learn that farm has been cited for EPA violations and is responsible for polluting the region’s water table.

If there’s a local brand that you’ve been buying, take some time to research it on the Internet and find out more about the business practices behind it. If you have questions about a product carried in your favorite neighborhood shop, ask questions of your local shopkeeper. Many local business owners put a lot of time and effort into selecting the products that they carry, and they can be a wealth of information when you are trying to decide which goat cheese, hand-crafted gift or Northwest wine to buy. When you dig a little deeper and find out more, you’ll feel even better about the decisions that you make.

Shop Your Talk

Seafood sustainability rating system at New Seasons.
Seafood sustainability rating system at New Seasons.

Remember the red/yellow/green tags used to rank the sustainability factor of New Season Market’s seafood selections? When you go shopping, consider mentally ranking potential purchases based on this system, and factor the sustainability ranking in when you make your choices. Set your own standards for each color, or use the guidelines below.

Products made in a far-off land in a factory with questionable labor practices and/or with unsustainably sourced materials.

Purchases made at a national chain store.

Products made in a far-off land in a factory with questionable labor practices and/or with unsustainably sourced materials. Purchased at a local neighborhood business.

Locally made products purchased at a national chain store.

Products made by a local artisan with locally sourced or recycled materials. Purchased at a local neighborhood business.