Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Love Irish, Buy Foreign

I have mixed feelings about the Love Irish Food initiative - now appearing on products in Chez O'Neill on a daily basis. I'm a patriot and I love my country - as most Irish people do - but I'm not a nationalist: I don't subscribe to the 'my country right or wrong' mindset. Anyway, the folk behind the initiative explain their beliefs thus:

The vision of Love Irish Food is to help shoppers to make informed choices about buying Irish manufactured food and drinks brands. We hope to achieve this through a public awareness campaign which it is hoped will help make shoppers aware of the positive consequences of buying Irish food and drink brands, and ultimately lead to a change in behavior and buying patterns.

In short we are asking people to consider buying just one more Irish brand in their grocery shop, as this one more will make all the difference in terms of helping to create a sustainable environment for food and drink manufacturing in Ireland.

There is nothing wrong with this per se - 'better informed choices' is the bedrock of most improvements in human welfare after all - but I have doubts about the assumptions behind the assertions. Firstly, I don't think it is wise for Irish food and drink manufacturers to bet their future on Irish consumers. Apart from there being too few of us, our spending power is under pressure from falling after-tax incomes (and falling numbers in jobs paying taxes). We've been in a single market/single currency zone for some time now: so any Irish manufacturer that hasn't adjusted to that reality (and to the sizeable opportunities it creates) is a little behind the curve, to put it kindly.

Moreover, taken to extremes we could end up in a 'little Irelander' mindset of sourcing everything indigenously - which would be disastrous in the medium to long run. As Aoife Hanley and Holger Gorg have recently pointed out: the more Irish companies purchase foreign inputs, the more profitable, innovative and successful they become.

I'm all for innovative Irish solutions to Irish problems - as explored in Capitalising on Culture, Competing on Difference by Finbarr Bradley and James J. Kennelly - but I think we have to be careful about a turning inwards of our analyses and our prescriptions. As today's WEF Global Competitiveness report 2009-2010 reminds us: the global competitiveness of Ireland as a place to do business is continuing to deteriorate.

Our future success will depend on anticipating, understanding and meeting the needs of the world's consumers - not just Irish ones.

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