“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.