Michael Barry may have founded a company called the Global Connections Initiative, but his suggestion for people and businesses is to be a little bit less connected from the global trade network. Buying locally produced goods and services whenever possible is good for the economy and the health of the planet, he says.
“The local movement, particularly in farming but across the board in all areas of business, offers some kind of hope that if more areas go local it can mitigate climate change,” Barry said.
Barry will speak at the Living Local Expo on Saturday, March 19, from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. at the Rider University Gymnasium at 2083 Lawrenceville Road. The expo, sponsored by Sustainable Lawrence, the Green Teams of Ewing and Lawrence, and other organizations, promotes local vendors.
Dozens of local businesses will have booths at the expo, including organic farms and solar panel installation companies. In addition to Barry, speakers include activist land use attorney Katherine Dresner, Carol Nicholas of the Greater Mercer Public Health Partnership, Rodney Richards of the Hamilton Township Environmental Commission, and Ed DiFiglia of the Stony Brook-Millstone Watershed Association. For more information, visit www.livinglocalexpo.net.
Barry grew up in Queens, where his father was a salesman for the aerospace industry and his mother was an office manager. His career has followed an unconventional path that has led him to become a sustainability advocate. After high school, he worked as a professional musician and eventually became a production and marketing manager for Laughing Buddha Records.
“When the music business got completely commoditized and you could stream music for pennies, I went into marketing for small businesses and corporations,” he said. He went to Post University in Connecticut for his MBA and then got into marketing and later moved to Princeton with his wife, Miran, where the couple founded Princeton Creative Marketing, an agency that focuses on small businesses, nonprofits, and the arts.
At Global Connections Initiative, Barry aims to “illustrate the interconnected nature of our existence on this planet along with the challenges we face individually, as members of societies and as citizens of a global community.”
Barry said from what he has observed, the buy local movement has gained traction in recent years, and with good reason. “There’s been a 250 percent increase in small organic farm over the past 10 years,” he said. “If I go to Blue Moon or Cherry Grove Farm or something, I can buy carrots that haven’t traveled anywhere. There’s no shipping cost or carbon emission or exploited worker issues.”
Those local carrots may come with a higher pricetag than what you would pay for mass-produced carrots at a supermarket, Barry admits, but on the other hand, more of the money you spend will go back to the local community. Citing a study by the advocacy group the Institute for Local Self Reliance, Barry said that out of $100 spent at local businesses, $45 will go back to the local community versus $14 if the same money was spent at a “big box” store.
Some economists have disputed the viability of “going local” for products that can be produced more efficiently elsewhere, noting that trade over long distances has been a feature of civilization for as far back as humanity has existed. If people in one location can produce food more efficiently, it makes sense to specialize in that crop and trade with neighbors rather than try to grow everything. For example, a 2008 USDA study found Idaho, thanks to its potato-friendly environment and soil conditions, could grow 383 hundredweight of potatoes per acre of farmland, while in Alabama, farmers could only get 170 hundredweight of potatoes per acre.
That means that if Alabama wanted to grow local potatoes, producers would have to use more farmland, fertilizer, water, pesticides, tractor fuel, and other resources than if they just imported them from Idaho. The greater efficiency of Idaho potato production can be seen at the checkout counter, where Idaho potatoes are usually the cheapest option.
Presented with this example, Barry argues that big agriculture was only less expensive due to the “huge subsidies” it receives from the government. “I think there’s a lot of mythology around food,” Barry says. “You could grow potatoes in your backyard and they’re going to be as good or better than what you’re getting from Idaho.”
Barry admits that it would be next to impossible to try to live only on locally made goods and services, but said that there were more local options than most people realized. For example, businesses that need brochures printed may reflexively go to Staples or Kinkos little knowing that there are locally-owned businesses that do the same thing.
Barry notes that despite cost pressure from Amazon, local book stores have survived and in some cases even seen a resurgence. “The independent book store is kind of coming back,” he said. Another business with surprising local options is banking. Community-owned banks have popped up in Princeton and nearby towns, challenging the supremacy of big consumer banking chains.
Barry says Princeton, with its numerous independent restaurants and small businesses, was a good example of a community that supported locally-owned businesses.