It’s all about the carbon footprint. From Wal-Mart’s demands on its vendors to Maersk’s “Triple-E” mega-ships that put “environment” right upfront, companies across the supply chain face increasing pressure to reduce emissions. The shipping industry, so dependent on diesel, gasoline and bunker fuel, is reminded of the demands every day.

These efforts, of course, should be applauded, but here’s another, well, throwback way shippers, carriers and consumers can make an immense impact: Buying, selling and transporting locally.

Numerous studies in the U.S. and overseas have weighed the pros and cons of buying locally vs. traditionally. Our traditional way of buying food, for example, has evolved rapidly over the last 50 years. Today, we can go to any local grocery store and find any number of food types — from produce to meats to chocolate — that isn’t native to that region. We buy it, we take it home, and we eat it. Often we don’t question where it came from, and often we don’t care. For years, that has worked just fine for most Americans.

Buying local, the definition of consumerism in the pre-globalization, pre-industrial age, is regaining popularity for numerous reasons. Locally purchased food, which is picked closer to ripeness and spends considerably less time in transit, contains fewer chemicals and more nutrients, making it overall healthier to eat, studies show.

Many also believe that buying locally will help to slash emissions produced by heavy trucking. This is true — and false.

Miguel Gomez, a Cornell University professor of Applied Economics and Management, in April co-authored an article in the monthly journal “Food Policy” analyzing so-called food miles, the distance food travels from the farm to destination — that is, the consumer’s house. When dairy farmers focus on selling some products locally, thus reducing the distance traveled, the cost of assembly decreases but the cost of processing and distribution increases, the report concludes. That usually equates to higher shelf prices — not unlike when you pay a premium for that locally produced microbrew over the Miller Lite shipped cross-country. In short, tradeoffs are often necessary when it comes to localization.

Last year, the University of Minnesota studied the food miles of three major beef companies in the area: Kowalski’s, Thousand Hills and Sunshine Harvest. From farm to slaughterhouse to distribution center to market (1,645 total miles), Kowalsksi’s beef, which follows a traditional sales chain, used 1.92 gallons of fuel per 100 pounds of meat (with 45 to 50 animals on a truck at the same time).

SunShine Harvest, which follows a direct sales chain method and ships just three cows per truck per trip, used 2.18 gallons of fuel per 100 pounds of meat for a 75-mile trip.

Following a regional supply chain format may be most environmentally responsible, according to the study. Thousand Hills, which buys, processes and sells beef regionally but hauls more meat at a time than SunShine, used only 0.69 gallons of fuel per 100 pounds of meat.

In this scenario, SunShine wins, and so does the planet. But can buying locally endure in an increasingly global environment? One where consumers are used to getting not only fresh salmon but their choice of the fish from Chile or the Atlantic? One where farmers in Washington state sell fresh cherries in Japan, those in New Zealand send lamb to Canada and where vintners in France can sell bottles in the United States at prices below the prices of wines produced just down the road?

And, if so, what does it hold for the future of the cold chain, which helps provide a better standard of living, whether that means fresh vegetables or life-saving medicines? Sustainability, yes, but could that and all its components — refrigerated carriers, container owners and lessors, warehouse operators, and, yes, farmers — be sustained?

No doubt, when it comes to taking that next step in emission reduction, it could well take three sides of the coin: less distance required from shippers, shorter distances traveled by carriers, and more selective purchasing from the customer — self-imposed restraint of trade, if you will. But with an economy dependent on rapidly increasing global trade, it sometimes feels like we’re taking one step back for every two steps forward.

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