October 22, 2020

Made in Australia: Can ‘buy local’ maintain its momentum?

Whether it’s jam, jewellery, your local cafe or building supplies, ‘love local’ initiatives have had a huge year. But is it a permanent movement or just a moment in time?

In January, a council in NSW’s Blue Mountains launched a Love Local campaign urging residents to spend an extra $20 a week with businesses in the area. The aim was to help the local economy and its people recoup revenue lost after bushfires kept visitors away over Christmas and New Year, usually one of the busiest times of year.

It was a gesture repeated across Australia.

As donations inundated fire-fighting and bushfire recovery organisations and charities, online initiatives like Buy from the Bush, Empty Esky and @spendwiththem simultaneously sprung up. Frustrated by the devastating fires on top of years of drought, flood and ensuing financial hardship, individuals created these initiatives as calls to arms for Australians to get out their wallets and support regional communities. And they were a hit – according to The Land, some retailers enjoyed sales that doubled their annual income in just two weeks.

Then came COVID-19.

Adding a pandemic to the mix

The intensity and breadth of recent natural disasters saw regional communities around the nation suffer, inspiring in Australians an element of patriotism to rally around. COVID-19 added two new distinct elements to the ‘love local’ equation: a requirement for consumers to stay geographically local and a literal lack of product supply.

The first encouraged people to spend their money in local stores, either in person or through deliveries. The second gave manufacturers of all sizes throughout Australia the opportunity to rise to the challenge. For example, when masks, personal protective equipment and hand sanitiser became some of the hottest items around, and demand outstripped supply, local businesses pivoted to respond.

Many retooled and repurposed their facilities so they could make much-needed medical supplies and equipment.

Breweries began making hand sanitiser, exhibition equipment providers plastic pharmacy screens, and one face mask manufacturer went into overdrive. As Industry, Science and Technology Minister Karen Andrews said of Australian firm Med-Con in May: “In February, they were the only Aussie manufacturer of face masks and their normal annual production was around two million a year. By the end of this year they will have produced 59 million masks and gone from 14 to 98 staff.”

For Ben Lazzaro, Chief Executive of the not-for-profit Australian Made Campaign Ltd (AMCL), COVID-19 meant ‘love local’ suddenly took on a different perspective.

“The pandemic very quickly highlighted our over-reliance on imported product and provided an impetus to address that imbalance,” he says. “I think it brought it home to a lot of us that the way we choose to spend our money can have an impact on Australia’s self-sufficiency as well as our economic future.”

A stronger Australia

A classic study by the New Economics Foundation, an independent economic think tank based in London, found that the way you shop can have a big impact on how much money stays in the community. For example, choosing locally-grown produce can double the amount that stays within the community. Buying from local manufacturers also plays a role in creating jobs and boosting the economy at every level from local to national.

In its 1960s heyday, manufacturing was Australia’s largest employer, contributing 30 per cent of GDP and employing 26 per cent of the workforce. Today, those figures have fallen to just 5.6 and seven per cent respectively. Could the current drive to buy Australian-made products help reverse this trend?

“Rebuilding Australia’s manufacturing sector won’t happen overnight – and it isn’t a question of trying to wind back the clock,” Lazzaro says. “We’ll always need some imported products, but we need to move the needle further towards local manufacturing. And processes must be put in place to reflect what manufacturing will look like in a post-2020 world.”

He believes that many Australians are aware of the value that buying Australian brings to the economy. Choosing local produce and food as well as manufactured goods creates new jobs as it strengthens local economies – and people are starting to think more in terms of value than simply product price.

“They’ve also become more aware of the impact of their purchasing decisions,” he says. “We all know someone who has either lost their job or had their hours reduced, and I think that makes us think harder about where we spend our money and how we can reinvest in the future.”

Giving back to the givers

Whether drought, flood, bushfire or global pandemic, 2020 has dealt repeated blows to millions of Australians. But it’s also seen us respond with both generosity to those in need and ingenuity in business thinking. NAB, for one, has teamed up with Small Business Australia to promote the Buy Local program to its small business customers, encouraging people to buy locally.

An initiative that brings together major corporations to use their power and reach to provide small businesses with resources and support, its other key supporters include Australia Post and Telstra.

For Bill Lang, Director of Small Business Australia, the initiative was sorely needed.

“We need to help as many small businesses in Australia as possible survive the economic impacts of the pandemic and make the changes they need to be financially sustainable in the future.

“That might be helping them stay well physically, mentally and emotionally, or it may be helping them get into a position where they can serve their customers either face to face or online.”

In Lang’s view the support for initiatives like Buy Local must continue well beyond 2020.

“We see this as now a long-term trend, particularly as we all become much more aware of the deep contribution of small business,” he says.

“Small business owners, beyond being the economic backbone of the country and the major employers in Australia, are the hearts and souls of their communities. Who provides work experience for high school students? Who sponsors the local footy club? Who provides the part-time job for uni students, or for families where part-time work is needed?

“The answer to that is small businesspeople, so it’s absolutely critical we give back now and help as many of them survive as possible.”