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While the rise of globalization has enabled us to get to know our vast world and introduced us to many different cultures, it has also changed the way we consume, significantly increasing our consumption of foreign goods. Let’s take a closer look at the environmental and economic impacts of this practice and the benefits of switching to local buying.
By Stéphanie Houle
Purchasing international goods might seem tempting. The product offering is so broad – almost endless – and prices are often lower, even with customs costs taken into account.
However, the impacts of foreign consumption on the environment and the economy are much less attractive, calling into question our buying habits as consumers. It has been shown that some 66% of consumers seeking lower prices and buying products from abroad  would be willing to reconsider their purchases if retailers shared more details about the environmental impact of overseas shipping.
Regarding environmental impact, the numbers speak for themselves, particularly when we learn that the food we eat travels an average of 2,600 km in North America before making it to our plate.
The transport of food and goods over long distances produces pollution and contributes to greenhouse gas emissions. It also generates other collateral damage and irritants, such as noise, traffic and smog formation, which can cause breathing difficulties, among other things.
Plus, to reach us, a product has travelled across other countries or oceans and required additional packaging to protect it throughout its journey.
And even worse, if we are not satisfied with the product, additional transport and packaging are required to return it.
From an economic standpoint, buying products from abroad promotes employment overseas and does not contribute to the local population's employment. It also encourages the flow of money out of our country, which means that profits are not necessarily reinvested in our country if the company is based elsewhere in the world.
What then is the best way to mitigate these impacts?
In Canada, buying local is facilitated by "Product of Canada" or "Made in Canada" labels, which mean that products must respectively contain 98% Canadian ingredients or materials, or a minimum threshold of 51%, in addition to specifying that the product includes imported materials. Quebec does not have precise definitions in this regard.
One thing is certain – most Quebec consumers agree that businesses and brands must lead changes in consumption behaviour. And that applies to eco-friendly, socially responsible or ethical consumption.
However, buying local also depends on the willingness of the population. It has been argued that this goodwill brings concrete benefits.
A study by LOCO in British Columbia revealed that for every $100 spent locally, $63 is recirculated in the community, generating 4.6 times more positive economic impact than money spent at non-local businesses. Furthermore, local retailers make a smaller margin on the products they sell. A large part of their profits is used to pay salaries, rent, electricity and other related costs that contribute to the local economy.
Fortunately, the growing desire to consume more mindfully – such as opting for "locavorism" or eco-friendly fashion – ccombined with rising transportation costs is causing a decrease in products purchased abroad and shorter distribution channels. The outcome? Less greenhouse gas will be released through transportation, and related expenses will also be reduced if travel distances are shortened.
Buying local allows us to understand better how products are made (ingredients, components, origin, manufacturing processes, etc.) and what’s behind our purchases. This is especially true when visiting public markets, nearby stores and local farms, where we can have direct contact with the producer, manufacturer or artisan and ask questions.
While we’re making progress – 60% of people today frequently buy local versus 55% in 2009  – there’s still room for improvement.
Here are some tips on buying local and reducing your purchases of foreign products:
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