“Local-Washing:” A Dirty Business

“Local-washing” was probably only a matter of time. Call me naïve, call me hopeful, or call me trusting. Whatever I was, I no longer am. My understanding of the local food movement was turned upside down last week, when I visited a small bucolic farm off a dirt road leading down to the James River. There, a premier artisan cheese maker turned my head when she asked, “You’ve heard of local-washing, haven’t you?”

Local-washing is a simple concept, and amazingly easy to execute. Steal the name of one or more local farms, and use it to gain street cred for your business to attract local foodies. Ride the wave. Capitalize on the good vibes. Caterers might advertise on their menus local meat, cheese, milk, butter, and produce. Restaurants might suggest they patronize a specific farmer by writing convincing website copy like, “When we think of local cheese, we think of Ms. Bucolic Cheese Maker,” and then wax poetic about the savory delights of Ms. BCM’s unparalleled cheeses.

But what if it’s all a lie? What if that restaurant has never, ever bought any—not even a single round—of Ms. BCM’s cheese? What if the caterer doesn’t ever serve up that farmer’s grass-pastured meat?

Such deception is now gaining steam, and stories of these slimy practices are making the rounds as local farmers share with each other their disappointment, humiliation, and outrage.

Exploitation and false advertising surely are subject to legal action. But most farmers spend every spare minute trying to turn a profit, so few would have the inclination, time or money to launch a lawsuit. A good friend of mine once advised, “Never get into a fight with a skunk, for you’ll always end up stinking.” Farmers like my friend seem to know this, instinctively.

Lower quality products may be served up, using your good name, and who’s the wiser? Who’s hurt? Isn’t this just a harmless foodie version of “name dropping”?

Local washing is hardly benign; it is more like a pernicious cancer that slipped into the local food bloodstream. Integrity has three key components: say what you’ll do, do what you say, and admit when you messed up. When business has integrity, it earns trust. The local food movement has never been just a matter of geography; it has always been based on core values of earning community trust through integrity.

Imagine a street artist executing copies of Van Gogh, and trying to sell them as the real deal. Or imagine a journalist who wins a Pulitzer Prize for a story that never happened. Or imagine knock-off watches sold as Rolexes, or clothes that are sold with phony labels, or a story stolen from an unknown writer. In not one of these cases, not one, would society look the other way and say, “Oh, that’s so lame, it’s harmless.” In each of these cases, society invokes safeguards to help protect truth in advertising, which means we do care about accuracy, integrity, and authenticity.

If farmers are not taking purveyors of “local washing” to task, then it is up to the local food movement to take up the cause, to protect its own integrity. Many solutions are possible. Let’s get thinking, use our creativity, use social media. Just like there are movie reviewers who give star ratings, why not begin a movement of local food reviewers who investigate and authenticate with star ratings how well a restaurant, or caterer, or store, or cafeteria, actually lives up to its claims? Reclaiming our food means ensuring integrity, authenticity—and truth in advertising.

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6 Responses to “Local-Washing:” A Dirty Business

  1. this was great. I really enjoyed reading this. I had no idea this was going on???? As a non profit, 7cc cares deeply about the subject you mentioned… I think this movement with people like you are going to shame the food industry forcing a revolution

  2. Mark says:

    Thanks for a great article. Sadly, you could change the word food to flowers and the same applies.

  3. Jen says:

    Thanks for posting this very important article! I’m going to take your suggestion and investigate with farmers about their sourcing. One thing about sourcing is that restaurants don’t always source ingredients consistently. Sometimes they’ll commission orders and sometimes they won’t. They might say they’re working with ABC Farms, but only do so bi-monthly or with certain ingredients. It’s tricky business.

  4. Ed Dowding says:

    Great article and points well made.

    A related phenomenon is when food service companies do trade *some* of Ms. Bucolic Cheesemaker’s cheese, so put it on the menu legitimately, but most of the cheese they use is cheap bulk.

    We can minimise this practise by making it easier to get good food in good volumes and good prices, and by strengthening the relationships between businesses – people rarely cheat people they know.

    At Sustaination we help businesses work more closely together, building meaningful, mutually beneficial trade relationships. We give businesses the tools to map their suppliers and outlets, and giving a noticeboard for local trading – a place to discover, connect, trade, and learn what works.

    To combat localwashing we’ve made it ‘wiki’ style so that anyone can add / edit a connection. People want to work with their local businesses to help them improve their suppliers, and this is a great way they can help.

    We’ve found that for those businesses who do collaborate it is a matter of integrity and pride, as well as good business economics, and they want to tell others about it to raise the opportunities for everyone.

  5. Joan Farren says:

    Am I so naive that I would not think that restauranteurs would do this?

  6. “Integrity has three key components: say what you’ll do, do what you say, and admit when you messed up. When business has integrity, it earns trust.” – If only Washington politicians lived by this simple creed. If our so-called leaders are corrupt (owing to special interest corporations from campaign donations), average people and businesses are encouraged to have corrupt thoughts and business practices. Too bad it always shortchanges the farmer, the average individuals who have no power. Thankfully, there are people like Wendell Berry and Vandana Shiva who people can look to for inspiration to start doing SOMEthing to make the world a better place. Glad you found me and glad I found you Tanya! – Kaye

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