I admit: I am not a committed consumer. So, there you have it.
Even worse: I am a lazy consumer. As an aggravating side condition, add to this that I hate shopping. A Saturday in the supermarket is to me like fertilizer for my genocidal thoughts. So it is out of mere self-care that I always sail full-speed through the aisles, taking little notice of what is mentioned on the labels. Price, I do check. Milk is milk, right. Homo economicus by accident.
I am aware: I am part of the problem. This was made very clear by the Panorama report of September 11th on Belgian television. I am co-responsible for the strangling pressure on prices that surges in the entire food chain, ultimately smothering our farms and squeezing our planet. I have known that for some time. I work with Vredeseilanden. I talk to farmers, here and in the South. I write world-improving texts about it. Here you go.
In statistics I find consolation for my imperfection. In different investigations up to half of the consumers indicate they consider issues like health, environment and fair commercial relations important when purchasing. Still, only a small percentage translates this care into effective purchasing behaviour of labelled products, for instance. We’re all well-meaning hypocrites.
Enough self-flagellation now, as it is obviously not only my fault. It is also the fault of supermarkets that focus their communication all on the same narrow price criterion. It is also the fault of the government which allows that a loss game is played and products are on the shelves that are not entirely right.
It feels comfortable to point the finger. However, who digs deeper finds that all parties in the food sector are prisoners of the same system. So it’s time that we as a society re-examine the rules of that game. Therefore: a modest and undoubtedly incomplete proposal to a plan of approach to make sustainable food more natural.
In the first place, governments must do what only governments can do: draw the lines of the court. Place social and ecological criteria higher from the start. Instantly we can make some expensive labels unnecessary. That is called “choice editing”, with an ugly word. Making better choices starts by not having to choose now and then. Just as we don’t have to choose between cars with or without security belt. And cars have not become worse or less affordable because of that.
Secondly, supermarkets, thanks to their scale, are allies for placing sustainable products at sharp prices in the market. FairTrade, Bio, Utz, Rainforest Alliance… the multitude of labels is today rather impeding the consumers’ selection process and an obstacle to upscaling. If fair trade bananas are no longer more expensive than other bananas, that is only because this scale has been reached for that product. Apart from that, much efficiency can be gained by a smarter cooperation between supermarkets, food businesses and farmers. Moreover, similar vertical cooperation in the chain can yield products with a distinct image which set you apart from the competition. On the disproportional power of supermarkets and food industry, many negative things have been written, and rightly so, but they can use that power also to lead sustainable products away from the luxury segment and into the mainstream.
Finally: the (lazy) consumer. That would be me. Consumers have more power than they think. Today, we have the communication means to demand and confirm transparency in the food chain. An app like Questionmark is a nice beginning. Also, if the sales price doesn’t cover the farmer’s expenses, I want to know what is happening. And why would consumer organisation Test Aankoop (litt: Test Purchase) have to limit itself to prices in its comparative investigation of supermarkets? Why not look further, to the policy of supermarkets towards their suppliers; their performance in the fields of ecology, animal welfare etc. Many companies are already accountable on these issues, and this way the laggards are strongly encouraged.
Perhaps, if we walk that road, sustainable food one day will be really the new standard. As a reminder of how things used to be, shops may then have one hidden shelf with only products labelled unfairtrade… a priceless and onerous niche in the range of products, which guarantees 100% social exploitation and environmental destruction.
I am not a bad person, I tell myself time and again. I would like to make better choices in the shop. That starts by not having to choose now and then, but it requires above all that I keep asking myself, together with you, where our food comes from. “Knowledge of agriculture and nutrition is part of the general civilized knowledge that everyone should have, just like knowledge of mathematics and language”, the Dutch professor Louise Fresco writes in her book “Burgers in Paradise”. She is right.
Quality food grown with respect for man and environment is not a luxury but a necessity. Also for lazy consumers.
Jelle Goossens, communications officer at Vredeseilanden