You’ve seen it in your grocery stores, your farmer’s markets – and likely in your materials libraries too. Alongside “sustainable,” “green,” and “clean,” there’s another buzzword associated with socially and environmentally responsible consumerism: local. Locally produced goods and materials are a growing consumer preference – and there are plenty of good reasons to source locally. It reduces the emissions caused by shipping and transportation and supports suppliers and manufacturers in the area, boosting and diversifying community economies. Plus, consumers have a strong affinity with locally sourced materials and feel good about supporting their communities and local economies.
But unlike “organic” or “fair trade,” “local” is not a concept understood or accepted universally according to specific parameters or certifications. Local sourcing typically means that a material is manufactured within a specific radius of where it will be used. But what radius? Definitions of the distance between production and consumption vary regionally and between manufacturers, designers, and certifications. In this article we may not be able to get to the bottom of what local means, but we will provide some references and tips to help you navigate the occasionally tricky criteria for local sourcing.
It’s About Geography
Although buying local tends to be associated with supporting smaller businesses, better workplace conditions, and smaller impacts on the environment, in reality it doesn’t necessarily mean any of these things. A product several states away may be manufactured in a much more energy- and resource-efficient, low-emissions way than one in your town or city. And a local manufacturer might be big or small, treat its employees well or not, give back to the community or not, etc. That’s why it’s important to do due diligence with any manufacturer, close or far, and find out if their practices meet your criteria in the areas most important to you.
Local According to Green Building Rating Systems
There’s no general consensus on how many miles or kilometers qualify as “local,” but several green building rating systems have defined it themselves, providing points or credits for projects that meet their requirements. LEEDv.3, for example, stated that to qualify for local sourcing credits, a percentage of all materials must be sourced and manufactured within a 500-mile radius of the project site. LEEDv.4 replaced this with a clause defining local sourcing as products extracted, manufactured, and purchased within 100 miles of the project. LEED no longer allows for a percentage of local materials to count towards compliance – instead, all materials need to be manufactured and extracted within the 100-mile radius. The Living Building Challenge (LBC) establishes a 500-kilometer radius (about 311 miles) from the project site – at least 20 percent of the project’s materials construction budget must adhere to this radius. It also introduces a second factor – the material’s weight. In order to earn local sourcing credits, LBC requires projects to source the heaviest materials within 500 km and the lightest materials within 2000km. They also make exceptions for building components that actively contribute to improving its performance, like renewable energy.
Carbon emissions for international freight represent more than 7 percent of all global emissions and 30 percent of all transport-related emissions, and they’re on track to increase fourfold as supply chains become longer and more complex, and logistics networks connect more cities across the world. Customers are increasingly demanding faster shipping, which has led to more frequent, smaller freight shipments – many that are less full or close to empty – and a greater demand for quicker, energy-intensive transport such as air freight. Here it’s important to note that not all kinds of shipping are built equally. Products can be shipped by air, road, sea, or rail. Of these, planes and trucks produce the highest emission levels, and each vehicle has much less storage space than, for example, a container vessel. Many products are shipped using multiple methods. This means that a material shipped on a full container ship from Europe to the US could be associated with fewer emissions than a material flown or driven by truck from one region of the US to the other – especially if the truck or plane isn’t filled to capacity. If you’re concerned about the emissions involved in shipping a given material from the other side of the planet, maybe consider some alternatives closer by.
What Makes a Material Local?
When a material makes a local claim, it could mean any of three things: its headquarters are nearby; manufacturing takes place locally; and/or the raw material originates from the area. A company with local headquarters or local manufacturing likely creates jobs in the area and is investing in the community’s economy. Many raw materials can’t be found in every region that they’re used, since many crops, minerals, and other materials are more suited to one region than another. That doesn’t mean that consumers should steer away from all non-locally sourced raw materials – instead, shoot for local companies that process, manufacture, or sell those materials. In conversations with potential suppliers, ask how they define local. If they’re shipping from another continent, find out what kind of transportation is used. And if there are better, closer alternatives, it might be worth taking a look.
The Living Building Challenge takes the idea of valuing the local even further. It doesn’t just have to be about sourcing materials – it can also be about ingraining locality into every aspect of a project, and ensuring that the project enhances and gives back to the area it’s built in. LBC’s Place Petal, one of its seven performance areas, aims to “realign how people understand and relate to the natural environment that sustains us. The human built environment must reconnect with the deep story of place and the unique characteristics found in every community so that story can be honored, protected and enhanced. The Place Petal clearly articulates where it is acceptable for people to build, how to protect and restore a place once it has been developed, and how to encourage the creation of communities that are once again based on the pedestrian rather than the automobile. In turn, these communities need to be supported by a web of local and regional agriculture, since no truly sustainable community can rely on globally sourced food production.” Some of the Place Petal’s imperatives include protecting, preserving, and contributing positively to the project area’s wildlife and nature, including cultural and social equity factors; helping to connect the community to locally grown fresh food; and contributing to walkable, pedestrian-oriented communities to reduce usage of fossil fuel vehicles. This more holistic understanding of place and locality ensures that building projects are truly improving the community around them.