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Back to the Future: One Idea from the 1960s

November 19, 2011 - Ray Tsuchiyama

Probably more than 80 percent of all things consumed or used by Maui residents (from our shirts to diapers to cars to vegetables to bottled water from France and Italy) were imported from somewhere else, and for many man-made things, once used, remain on Maui (a landfill or in the homes of psychologically-challenged hoarders). Ironically, some recyclable items, like beer bottles, are shipped, using a lot of fossil fuel, to a factory somewhere on Oahu or Mainland, then shipped again back to Maui, and the cycle begins again.

This conundrum is not new.

In the 1960s the former head of the now-named Hawaii State Department of Business Economic Development and Tourism used the example of detergent to drive down fossil fuel usage and promoting local products. Simply, detergent is a liquid or powder with cleansing chemicals that is mixed in water in large steel drums powered by small electric motors. Everybody washes clothes at home or at their parents’ home or at small businesses dedicated to sell time on the washing machines. Every adult resident in Hawaii buys detergent sometime during the year – and there is a range of choices in boxes or plastic bottles at every store on Maui, from Costco to Minit Shop.

In the apocryphal story, the former Hawaii economic development agency head asked “What if all the detergent used by everybody in Hawaii was made by one factory located in Hawaii (or, more specifically, why not build a small detergent factory on Maui for 160,000 residents)?” This simple question was posed not in 2011, but in the mid-1960s, barely a decade after Statehood that ushered a New Age for Hawaii, like a Technicolor Dream shifting from the Black-and-White Territory of Hawaii (T.H.) Dark Ages. It seems so easy (and would fulfill Maui sustainability ideals of local sourcing and less use of fossil fuels and transportation), but the challenges of a tiny factory for one item – detergent – is daunting.

To begin, very few factories (making anything) are built in the U.S. The trend is to shut down factories, not make new ones. There are fewer and fewer people around us who are experts in building factories and operating factories. The phrase “economies of scale” mean that it is cheaper in the long run to build one huge factory on the Mainland to supply several Mainland States + Hawaii with detergent.

The second issue is about Maui as a player in a competitive market (a “planned” economy evokes the worst of Russia/Communism and bare shelves at stores). What if “Maui-Brand Detergent” was priced higher than Mainland-imported detergent – and few bought the Maui brand? This is not unlike some local products, like delicious local Maui onions and milk from Up-Country local cows. In other words, will a MBA “Maui-Brand Detergent” business plan result in profit or bankruptcy over the next three years?

In order to pursue a policy to make Mauians adhere to local-only products, the Maui County government cannot ban all imported detergent (imagine fishing boats smuggling crates of detergent at Sugar Beach). Nor can Maui County slap a tariff on imported detergent; other Mainland States (where detergent is manufactured) may put tariffs on Maui products, and a domestic economic war ensues (all this is a half-joke). Following economist Adam Smith’s ideal, consumers vote for the best product by purchasing it in numbers exceeding all other competitors.

In some Western European countries, local governments implement education programs about using local products (even starting at kindergarten), and are experimenting with incentivizing citizens (some involving taxes). Trying to change people’s behavior always begins in education, and ends in either incentivizing or punishing people.

Globally, the choices for local governments to bring out the best in citizens for the greater good (even for Maui Nui) is difficult in an economic system where the TV/Internet/media promotes brands and more brands, and consumer spending drives the economy. The first Big-Box stores on Maui must have mesmerized Mauians, who journeyed to Honolulu annually for Christmas shopping and walked up and down Ala Moana Shopping Center like pilgrims to a sacred spot.

In 2011, to restrict Mauian consumer choices, after years of perceived-deprivation outside of Oahu’s glittering malls, will lead to Mauian revolt – unless there is a consensus among a majority of Mauians that there must be dramatic changes to how we live our lives on Maui Nui and what kind of legacy we leave to our children and grandchildren.


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