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Women walk past a mural reading 'Shop local, stop the virus', in Galway, Ireland, on Sept. 9, 2020.

CLODAGH KILCOYNE/Reuters

Karima-Catherine Goundiam is founder and chief executive officer of digital strategy firm Red Dot Digital and business matchmaking platform B2BeeMatch.

Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, we’ve seen a huge push for people to shop local. The messaging usually focuses on three main areas. First, it highlights the importance of supporting small and medium businesses that may be struggling to cope with the sudden economic change instead of further enriching megacorporations and their billionaire CEOs. Second, it points out the convenience of shopping close to home (taking advantage of curbside pickup and local delivery) to avoid the shipping delays that have become common under COVID-19. And third, some messages aim to appeal to people’s sense of pride in their country, province or city.

Each part of this messaging makes sense on the surface, but as a small-business owner who’s heavily involved in international trade, I think the “shop local” narrative can be a little too simple.

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Small businesses are everywhere

It’s true that many small and medium enterprises (SMEs) have been struggling and failing because of COVID-19, with the sudden and drastic changes in demand, supply chain delays, lack of foot traffic and the urgent need to undertake digital transformation. It may seem like shopping local is the solution to helping them stay afloat.

In truth, small businesses exist everywhere, not just close to home, and shopping at them helps sustain the small-business ecosystem everywhere. Many SMEs, particularly those that serve small market niches, rely on international sales. Supporting small businesses is a great way to help them survive, but if your priority is to put your dollars into the hands of the little guys, you can do that without restricting your purchasing choices to your city, province or even country.

As well, while it’s understandable that you may want to avoid delayed delivery, shopping local may not solve your problem. Supply chains, shipping processes and delivery times have been disrupted all over the world under COVID-19, and the effects are unpredictable. With the exception of super-local, same-day services such as when you order takeout from your favourite restaurant, your package may not necessarily arrive faster from a nearby shop than it will from one located farther away.

Local isn’t local

It’s very difficult to be a purist about shopping local. If you scratch the surface, almost every business that appears local is in fact part of a much broader system. Your favourite local business probably imports the raw materials for its products – or the products themselves – from elsewhere. They probably use services based in other parts of the world. Their aftermarket services (maintenance, repair, instructions, updates) may rely on foreign expertise.

And even if all their materials, human resources and manufacturing processes are local down to the last nail, the various online platforms providing everything from payment solutions to advertising to social-media channels are located all over the globe. For instance, Shopify is Canadian, but Twitter, Facebook and Google aren’t. Every time a local company advertises on one of these platforms, and every time you use one of them to find the local products you’re seeking, your purchasing behaviour is part of an international trade network – even if you’re buying from a business just around the corner. As we’ve learned over the past year, it’s incredibly hard for an SME to survive without having a solid digital presence, so these international platforms are crucial to how small and local businesses connect with even their most local customers.

‘Local pride’ messaging only tells part of the story

While it may be tempting to wave your flag and channel your dollars close to home, local pride isn’t actually a sustainable or smart way to approach supporting those businesses. For instance, Canada’s own international sales are crucial to our economy, and trade agreements are two-way streets. If we want our exports to continue to feed our economy, then imports come with the territory. Strange as it may seem, shopping across borders is actually part of doing right by your local economy.

Taking a broader view also recognizes that different places are home to different specialties and areas of expertise. For example, Canada’s aerospace expertise is internationally recognized, and most of the markets our aerospace companies serve are a flight or two away. By the same token, we import a huge quantity of vehicles, machinery and plastics. As another example, Canada’s health care and wellness expertise and products are in demand internationally. Nonetheless, we’re relying on international suppliers for masks and vaccines to help us turn the tide on COVID-19 because some crucial things are just not available locally. In short, we buy the best of what other countries have to offer, while people elsewhere are buying our best from us.

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Buying international is not antagonistic to buying local – and vice versa. Both are crucial parts of the larger economic landscape that sustains us. Whether we need new socks or new software, we all benefit from that landscape. And, as businesspeople and as consumers, we can benefit even more when we understand just how deeply we’re all interconnected across borders.

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