In Alice in Wonderland, Humpty Dumpty declares: “When I use a word, it means what I choose it to mean, neither more nor less.”

Well, get ready to tumble down the semantic rabbit-hole again, for giant corporations are trying to co-opt the meaning of one of our important words: “local.” It’s important because small businesses across the country have created a very positive, grassroots economic movement, based on being local producers, providers, and marketers. Over 130 cities have “local business alliances,” with 30,000 businesses enlisted.

The movement has been phenomenally popular with consumers who like the flavor and personality of local enterprises, and the fact that their consumer dollars stay in their community. So, now other businesses want in on the action—such outfits as Frito Lay, Wal-Mart, Starbucks, CVS, and Barnes & Noble.

These global brands are using TV ads and other promotions to hawk their mass-produced stuff as “local.” The sprawling Barnes & Noble chain, for example, cheerfully asserts: “All bookselling is local.” Hellmann’s, a division of Dutch-owned Unilever, is claiming that its mayonnaise is local because most of its ingredients come from North America. That isn’t local—it’s loco!

An executive of a public-relations outfit that’s helping promote this perversion explains the supposed logic behind the corporate power play: “There is a belief that you can only be local if you are a small and authentic brand. This isn’t necessarily true,” she says. “Big brands can use the notion of local to their advantage as well…It’s a different way of thinking about local that is not quite as literal.”

Wow—wouldn’t Humpty Dumpty be proud of her? To connect with the genuine local business movement, contact the Institute for Local Self-Reliance:

Jim Hightower is a radio commentator, writer, public speaker, and the 2009 winner of the Nation/Puffin Prize. He's also editor of the populist newsletter, The Hightower Lowdown.

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