Whether it’s recruitment or buying food, Mallen Baker says things are not always as simple as ‘local is best’

Wal-Mart was recently sued in the US by a group of 10 immigrants who said the company had unfairly sacked them. Why? In order, allegedly, to provide jobs for local people.

Of course, giving a preference in hiring to local people is something that is often extolled as a virtue. It helps the company to reflect its local community better. It shows its commitment to putting wealth into that community. And so on.

But all of these apparently simple and obviously right formulae get tested by tough cases. Should Wal-Mart avoid hiring immigrants because it is focusing on a local hire policy? How long does someone have to live in a state before they become local?

This is one of the universal flashpoints. We have seen French workers rioting in the offices of Total protesting about the loss of local jobs. Indeed, when Danone – some years ago – proposed closing a couple of factories while the company overall was still making a profit there was a huge wave of condemnation. It threatened to shred the firm’s carefully cultivated profile as a bastion of social responsibility.

A job’s a job

I remember being interviewed once by a radio station in the US during one of my trips there. We were talking about responsible business, and the interviewer asked what could be done about these dreadful companies that were closing down factories that employed good American workers, and moving them instead to India or other parts of Asia.

I swallowed hard, then said what the man least wanted to hear. I understand, I said, that anyone here that has lost their job and seen jobs move out of their community is going to feel aggrieved. But what’s the inherent value of a job? Is a job for an Indian worker, who may be based in a community considerably poorer than that region of the US, of less inherent value than a job for an American worker who, at the end of the day, also needs a job?

All about me

Is a company irresponsible just because it doesn't base jobs in “my” community? What if the inflated wages I demand mean that it can’t compete with other companies, and it goes bust as a result? Do I feel good about that outcome?

The other context in which local is generally considered to be good is sourcing. Every restaurant in the country now claims to be sourcing its ingredients locally. Generally, this is just seen to be a good thing because it is support for the local economy. Often, it is also billed as being the route towards a lower carbon footprint.

And in many cases, it is. There’s not much doubt that getting locally grown carrots, especially if they haven’t then been trucked up to Scotland to be packaged before being sent back down again, has a lower carbon footprint than getting ones that have been flown in from Peru.

But the formula is not a simple one, and is often tested by hard cases. New Zealand butter can have a lower carbon footprint than British butter, because the conditions there mean that the animals eat grass all year round, rather than artificially produced feed.

And then there are the social consequences. What does it mean for Kenyan flower growers if we eschew air-freighted flowers?

The power of local is not in doubt. Just look at the lengths that some of the supermarkets will go to make you believe you’re buying local food when you’re not. Just because there’s a British flag on the packaging, it doesn’t mean that the principal ingredient may not have come from Thailand or the US.

Local choice

But I believe that the social responsibility movement makes a mistake when it extols local as a demonstrably ethical element in its own right. People should have the choice to favour local products – and they should be able to do so with confidence that the company that sells them is not misleading them.

Some of the best things come from farther afield. The true environmental impact of a product is more complex than just food miles.

Don’t get me wrong. I am a great fan of local, seasonal, fresh food. That is a preference for quality, first and foremost.

But let’s just be more alive to the unintended consequences that can follow when you adopt a simple approach to what you think might define an ethical product.

Mallen Baker is founder of Business Respect.

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