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Word of the Week: Local-Washing

August 13 Matthew Stepanic

This week's Word of the Week was inspired by an article that was circulated in the office about local-washing. Local-washing hasn’t made it into the dictionary yet—I couldn’t even find it on [Note to Self: stick this definition in there after I’m done writing this blog post]—so I’ll have to do my own defining here based on how I understand it.

Local-washing v.

  1. to make unsubstantiated claims that a product is local
  2. to use local as a marketing claim that makes a business appear more local than it is in reality

The word originates from the concept of "green-washing," which means to falsely claim a product is environmentally friendly. For consumers sincerely interested in purchasing local products, local-washing is a crime.

Some stores commonly confuse customers by selling produce, like lettuce or tomatoes, and displaying a sign in their produce section that generically reads, “Local Produce.” Without mentioning which products specifically are local, or what qualifies a product as local, a customer may perceive that they are being tricked into purchasing products that they think are local, but in reality come from far away.

Stores are often confused as well about what exactly local means. Stores, restaurants, and distributors all have a range of definitions for local, most of which have been created to address their own circumstance. For instance, some stores will define it as local to Alberta or local to Western Canadian or even local to all of Canada.

Even then, do any of these definitions address where, how, or who grew/made the food for the benefit of a certain locality? It's no wonder that even though stores see the marketing potential for local, they still don't know how to define the word at the centre of the storm.

Ask us, and we'll let you know that there actually is not enough basic labelling and signage in stores to identify where a product has come from (never mind whether it is local or not). Moreover, there could be more labelling to identify what's most local of all options present.

Stores do not lack the motive to label transparently, but rather the means to accurately label and maintain signage and information in a contantly changing environment.

Incidentally, that's the service we are working on here at Localize. We have refined a crowd-sourced and dynamic measurement of localness, taking into consideration the dimensions of economy, ownership, and sustainability. Then we work with stores to keep their signage up to date, honest, and articulate in exactly what local means.

If you want to learn more about the crimes of local-washing, I recommend this excellent article (the one that inspired this blog post) from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance:

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