Because so much of the world’s culture (food, clothes, stuff) is manufactured and distributed by multinational corporations that imperialize with branded consistency across the countries of the globe, it is tempting to think that maybe the world is getting a little flatter, that the planet is deflating a little and ways of eating and dressing and being are possibly becoming homogenized as cultural diversity is swallowed by corporate agendas. Or maybe I’m the only one with this worry and no one else is kept up at night by woes of brand ubiquity tending toward impending cultural homogeneity.
I’ve literally watched small, local businesses making unique-the-world-over things close their doors upon the arrival of Big Business bringing a copycat store that seems to have dropped from high homogenous heaven. I’ve seen it happen in my small rural New Hampshire hometown and in Panama’s dwindling indigenous communities. Couple this with headlines of rural environmental degradation (by big business) and mass migration to cities and it’s easy to loose sleep and stay up planning the funeral of dying cultural nuances.
But to do so would be to put the nail in the coffin before checking the vital signs one last time. The stories we tell ourselves about the way things are depends on what evidence we see or don’t see and on how we arrange what we’ve chosen to look at.
It is tempting to say that McDonalds or Wal Mart are the same wherever they land, but they are similar rather than identical, and the distinction between clonal replication and thoughtful variations on a theme is crucial to recognizing that a tendency towards homogeneity is fundamentally different than an arrival at homogeneity. Cultural variance has a half life; you can slice it down to nearly imperceptible slivers, but you can never erase it completely. The Wal Mart in rural New Hampshire and the McDonalds in Changuinola, Panama will never be the same as the Wal Mart and McDonalds someplace else (let’s say Oakland) because New Hampshire and Panama are not and will never be California.
The Wal Mart in my tiny New Hampshire hometown sells moose stuffed animals and NH made maple syrup that I guarantee you cannot get in California Wal Marts. McDonalds in Panama and other Latin America countries serve galleta Maria McFlurries and rice and beans for breakfast. These massive global chains survive in all their transplanted homes because they have learned to be just a little bit like the places they invade. They study their invasion sites and know that they have to incorporate (take into their body) the local flavors and routines in order to exist as a corporation (body built by lots of taking in).
Corporate homogeneity doesn’t mute out local color; it just swallows the cultural rainbow. To see the original colors you have know how to look. You can’t just see Golden Arches and claim that they blotted out the original local diet; you have to look at the McDonalds menu to see that it has incorporated the rainbow of local food into its offerings. You have to learn to peer through the translucent skin of big transnational business to see the relics of what they ingested in order to exist. White light only dominates until you find a prism and remember that all light contains a rainbow of red, green, and, blue.
Of course fast food chains in someplace like India are partly responsible for the growing number of omnivores in a country traditionally all veg. But the populations who refuse to convert to non veg are the reason paneer wraps are listed above chicken McNuggets on the Bangalore McDonalds snack menu. The ways in which monolithic corporate forces incorporate the local rainbow into their business manuals isn’t always the most respectful of the existing cultures. The inclusion of paneer or stuffed moose in the inventory isn’t a choice made out of reverence; it’s a decision calculated in full bottom line business sense. If stuff is too new no one will buy it. Consumers can be conditioned over time, and maybe Wal Mart means people buy more made in china t shirts and less clothes embroidered at the locally owned shop, but the presence of Wal Mart in New Hampshire is not going to reduce local love for McLure’s maple syrup. Aunt Jemeima’s is nice because it’s the same from coast to coast, but the country–from coast to coast–is experiencing a fascinating awakening and discovering that maybe there is less to love about homogenous sameness than we once thought.
Coffee’s ubiquitousness in American homes and hospitality businesses (really, all businesses) traces the developmental trajectory of national grocery store chains. Making coffee in a can labeled “Folger’s” taste the same in all fifty states once seemed like a daunting (and taunting) challenge to roasters and to grocers. Grocery brands experienced their own version of manifest destiny as they conquered markets from the east to the west and back again. It was a significant achievement to create products that tasted the same wherever you bought them. At the time, this was the sex appeal: buying something that seemed to come from nowhere, from some sort of Platonically idyllic plane hovering above all locals.
But it’s 2015 and we’ve determined–through several generations of experience–the hovering ether of nowhere to be quite empty. We’ve found that we actually like local diversity and want things to taste, smell, feel, and look like the places from which they come and in which they are made. Automated factories churning out sameness once seemed like a triumphant step toward progress. But today seems to be a time after the fall, after Enron and 9/11 and Lehman and Katrina and BP Deepwater Horizon. Facelessness has a price, one we’ve paid with our own money and maybe even with the lives of people we love.
We’ve rediscovered that, as people, we actually like hands and faces and voices and would like to attach them to the things we consume. The local food, beverage, and stuff movement is a reaffirmation of our faith in each other. And, rather than being a threat to the cultural rainbow, big businesses prove just how committed we are to the diversities that make different places different from each other. No one follows what the people demand like large corporations; their bodies cannot survive without taking in the rainbow and responding to changes in consumer preferences.
Coffee used to come in a can or a bland to-go cup and tasty roughly the same everywhere. Consistency was the target, and reliably consistent flavor is nice, but as I’ve started dabbling in importing, the most common request I hear is for something–anything!–no one else has. When something is local it is exclusive. There is value in the rainbow, and the rainbow is only getting brighter, whether we look at it in its natural habitat or glowing resiliently inside the corporate belly.