50 Buy Local

In Tahiti we discover markets with fresh fruit and vegetables from the island. We learn that buying local has various benefits for the community.

Contributes to achieving the following UN Sustainable Development Goals:

“Wow, so much food!” Floris marvels when we enter the large Carrefour supermarket in Tahiti. After seven months of mini-markets on small island communities, this oversized branch of the French multinational makes quite an impression on us. There is a wide selection of cheeses, meats, wines, and countless other delicacies. “Tahiti is indeed the land of plenty,” Ivar grins, referring to the immense offer of food that the largest and most important island in French Polynesia boasts.

We can’t resist the temptation and buy French cheese, American nacho chips, and a large jar of organic chocolate spread (free of rainforest-destroying palm oil). In the produce department we find locally grown pineapples, cucumber, carrots, and eggplant. Sadly, almost the entire product range in the rest of the store is imported. As Tahiti is a long way from everywhere, getting these products here causes significant transport emissions. We also wonder what the social consequences are of our purchasing these goodies. We decide to investigate.

Disappearing Money

According to Carrefour’s 2019 annual report, no less than 81% of the turnover is spent on purchasing goods. As these goods come from elsewhere, for our Tahitian branch that means that the vast part of the turnover flows abroad. Although the local employees receive wages and local sales tax is paid, still only a relatively small amount of the money we spend at Carrefour benefits the local economy. And there are more downsides to stocking up here.

At large supermarket multinationals such as Carrefour, many employees receive only the minimum wage. By contrast, the annual salary of the CEO is a whopping €7.3 million, no less than 310 times the wage of the average employee, who earns just over €23,000. Half of the company’s net profit, some €106 million, disappears as dividend into the pockets of mainly foreign shareholders. Shopping at Carrefour therefore does little to reduce inequality – which hampers social and economic development – on the island. We decide to look for an alternative.

Shortening the Supply Chain

“That will be 450 francs,” the gentleman behind the small fruit stand states. Ivar hands him the equivalent of four euros and carefully puts the ripe papaya in his backpack. His mouth waters at the thought of breakfast with tropical fruit. “Where do the papayas come from?” Floris enquires. “From the island”, our vendor answers. “They were picked this morning.” That’s music to our ears. The short supply chain means there are few transport emissions, food waste is kept to a minimum, and most of the money ends up in the farmer’s hands. Those are all considerable sustainability benefits.

Local, independent food distribution does not always have to mean a single stand. At the cooperative “Local Farms”, several growers work together to offer their harvest on a small market just outside the capital Pape’ete. Delicious tropical fruits such as bananas, pineapples, and mangoes are on display next to courgettes, tomatoes, peppers, avocado, sweet potato, and fresh ginger root. It comes close to the large produce selection at Carrefour, with one big difference: almost every cent we spend here benefits small-scale businesses and the local economy.

A Central Place in the Community

In the very heart of Pape’ete is the “marché municipal”. The large, well-maintained, two-floor market occupies a central place in the city. On Sunday mornings in particular, it is a bustling place. It is open from 4 am onwards and dozens of stalls line the streets around it. Despite Covid-related restrictions, the market is remarkably popular. Fortunately, almost everyone wears a face mask. We disinfect our hands at the entrance and begin our hunt for local fruit and veggies.

We don’t have to look far and soon understand why the Tahitians get up so early on a Sunday morning. Fresh tomatoes, aubergines, bananas, mangoes, bread, and other goodies are plentiful and inexpensive. We ask several market vendors where they source their produce. Everywhere we hear that it comes from French Polynesia, especially Tahiti. It means that not just their profit, but also their expenses, such as wages, transportation, market stall rental, and taxes are local. As a result, the money generated by their activities almost entirely benefits the local community.

Increasing Local Prosperity

When we dive deeper into the advantages of buying locally, it appears that a lot of research has been done on the topic. According to numerous studies collected by the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, buying from local self-employed people boosts the number of start-ups and jobs in the region, strengthens the middle class, and brings in more local taxes, among other things. These local taxes support and maintain the public infrastructure on which the population depends and from which companies benefit, too. However, in their quest for ever increasing income per share, many multinationals set up tax avoidance schemes to reduce their tax burden, which denies their host countries millions of tax revenue. A local company simply doesn’t have that option. While that is beneficial to the community, it also makes it harder for them to compete against such multinationals. Buying local produce from local vendor therefore is not only more social but also ensures that money continues to circulate in the local economy longer instead of disappearing abroad. That further increases local prosperity.

The Buyer Decides

We have learned that it makes sense to be critical about the origin of the products you buy and decide carefully where you spend your money. Ask yourself: Is your money used to support local entrepreneurs so that they can pay for their children’s education and keep the money in the local economy for longer? Or does a large part of your money go to long, polluting supply chains, exorbitant management salaries, and foreign shareholders of a large multinational?

It is no coincidence that we have seen many fruits and vegetables of local origin in Tahiti. The island is fertile and these products have a limited shelf life, which makes long supply chains difficult and expensive. At the same time, we have seen other items of local origin, such as furniture, musical instruments, art, and clothing. The same principle applies to them: the more local they are, the more social benefits they have. With a sense of shame we think back at the imported delicacies we purchased when we just arrived. Should we avoid them altogether from now on? Ivar is practical: “Let’s not make buying them a habit. That way they will remain our guilty pleasure.”

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