Location:United Kingdom

An avid tea-drinker who likes nutmeg in her coffee and warm lavender-scented quilts. She knits, crochets and partakes in random acts of craftiness (and kindness). She likes obscure works of literature, philosophy and the idea that her mind exists separately from her body. She enjoys moving furniture around, literary criticism and baking bread. She writes haiku about nettles, would like to swim with seals and become completely self-sufficient. She writes as if her life depends on it, listens to beautiful music, and loves her darling husband Mr. VP.

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Friday 1 June 2007

Supply and Demand: Ethical Shopping and How To Go About It.

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at PhotobucketIt’s one of the most popular pasttimes – everyone does it, usually once a week, and it costs big bucks. It saps a good chunk of our wages each month, and we really need them to survive – or do we? I am of course, talking about supermarkets and our complete reliance on them as a nation to be our food providers. From the early days of relying on either our own abilities to grow food ourselves and cook it (late 1800’s), to buying from small, local co-operatives (pre-war) we now need supermarkets more than ever. One supermarket in the UK boasts a store in every single postcode barring one (now being developed) and in every £8 we spend in the UK, £1 is being spent in their shops, and as a consequence they now make billions not millions in profits. Though nowadays they are not looked upon as modern-day wonders, people are starting to see their true colours – as the nastier underbelly of consumerism, which as a nation we’d rather not look at. But why, despite this knowledge, do the public still flock to them in their thousands, daily, for their fix of factory-farmed chicken and sweat-shop-produced clothing? There is one very simple reason: the cost. Why pay £10 for a t-shirt which is organic, when you can buy one for £2? Same colour, same look but one is a fifth of the price. And in this sad world, money really is everything. We now buy more than we ever did, yet the money we pay year-on-year for that shopping is actually decreasing.

When I started becoming interested in green issues, it was more about hidden chemicals in products than the wider shopping-sphere at large. I shopped at supermarkets and enjoyed the consumer-driven life as before, I just bought ecologically-friendly items from healthfood shops rather than buying the supermarket equivalent. Interest spurred me on to find out more than just the basics of chemicals in cosmetics – what about chemicals in our food? My finds were again shocking, but not surprising in the slightest, and short of eating completely organically, what on earth could I do? I began making lists of vegetables which weren’t heavily-sprayed with chemicals, I ate seasonally, and was a staunch vegetarian. It was when I started looking at the whole process holistically – from the farm the food was grown at, to the supermarkets and eventually the end-user – that I saw inherent flaws in every step. Farmers weren’t being paid enough to take care of their land and livestock properly, the supermarkets were squeezing every last drop of profitability possible (with as many underhanded methods as possible…) and the consumers were making this happen by supplying the most important thing: demand. There would be no supermarkets at all if there was no demand for them. Supermarkets would close virtually overnight if no-one went to their shops for a week. But the likelihood of that happening are almost non-existant.

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at PhotobucketMy friend who made the comment which triggered my Sanity Mechanisms post said that supermarkets by their nature would never be “green” or “compassionate”, as big businesses (or at least businesses who were to succeed) weren’t made big by being kind. It would be foolhardy to think that this wasn’t true – business is ruthless and if you have a compassionate chink in your armour a competitor will exploit this. There is always a bad-guy somewhere. But as in the sanity mechanisms post before, it is the consumers’ ultimate choice as to whether we continue down this route of “cheap is best” or whether we are willing to pay more to get an ethical product.

So with my eyes opened even further, I started looking at supermarkets themselves. If they wouldn’t change their ethical stance, then I’d change mine – and therefore start making the changes that will be necessary for everyone to make if they really do want to make a difference. If you have or want to shop in a supermarket, your choices that you make whilst shopping control the demand aspect. If no one is buying battery-farmed chickens, the supermarkets will stop selling them. Try small things at first, always always always use your own bags-for-life (strong re-usable bags made of anything – jute, hemp, plastic or cotton) and reduce waste created. If you know you’re not going to eat 4 heads of lettuce – for heavens’ sake, STOP BUYING it!

When it comes to buying food (in supermarkets) we have a few basic guidelines that are adhered-to at all times. They are as follows:

  • We don’t buy fruit or vegetables that can be grown in the UK but aren’t – for instance, potatoes from Israel. There is no need for this.
  • We do not ever buy fruit or veg from a foreign country – it’s UK or nothing. No Spanish strawberries in December or Peruvian asparagus in February. This also means an end to bananas and tropical fruits. The two exceptions to this rule are lemons and oranges. They both come from countries which are within the EU (typically Spain, Italy and France), are more than likely to be shipped in by sea rather than plane and pesticide use is small.
  • Source fair-trade and organic food where possible, but buying locally produced food should always trump this – trade is fairer than with a third-world country who are open to exploitation, less food miles (most of our seasonal veg came from 7 miles away!) and less pollution.
  • Learn about the supermarkets’ individual ethical policies and shop accordingly – see below.
  • Avoid anything GM – not because it’ll give you three heads, but because it has been shown to enhance resistance of bacteria to antibiotics, amongst many other things. It is really bad to mess with nature, this is no exception.
  • We don’t buy any pre-prepared food. I cannot remember the last time we had a ready-meal (we don’t have a microwave!), it must’ve been at least 5 years ago.
  • Eat seasonally – in Winter root vegetables, parsnips, carrots, cabbages, potatoes, onions and swedes are the way to go – in Summer let loose, eat yourself silly on strawberries (English of course), lettuces, tomatoes and peas. This is how our bodies were designed to work!
  • Be aware of which animals are naturally free-ranging and which is always intensively reared. Lamb is always free-ranging because it needs to build muscle and eat grass, pork on the other hand is kept in appalling conditions in darkened sheds, living in their own faeces and sometimes attacking each other out of boredom.
  • Stay away from American rice and corn, if it’s not GM (most American corn is GM) it will definitely have been shipped a minimum of 4000 miles. There was afood scare about American GM rice a year ago, the EU has banned its use in many things now.
  • Avoid buying from countries whose political regime is cause for concern – such countries for us include China, Viet Nam, Israel and the US.

I will proceed the list by saying that although we shop in a supermarket, we only do so for a small number of items which are either ethically produced or local (dog food, 100% recycled toilet rolls, tinned tomatoes etc). For the last two years we’ve bought almost all of our meat and milk from our local farm-shop, which we’ve found to be not only cheaper than supermarkets in some cases, but the stuff they sell is of amazing quality. I’ve seen the cows and pigs myself. I know I also harp on about growing your own vegetables, but even making a dent in your supermarket shopping bill has to be a good thing. It is so easy to bung a few potatoes in a pot and cover with soil, even the newest gardeners can’t fail to have a crop of yummy potatoes within a couple of months. Add some tomato plants, some courgettes, salad leaves, peas and beans – the easiest vegetables to grow – and you’ve got a variety of homegrown, organic vegetables to feed your family. It isn’t hard, but it takes a willingness to do it.

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When it comes to the ethics of individual supermarkets, a quick search online will yield results. Apart from recent scandals which usually make the headlines, dig a bit deeper and you can find some rather interesting stuff. One such Interesting Thing is the link between Lord Sainsbury (yes, of the same supermarket chain) and his interests in GM research. Although his supermarket chain refuse to sell anything with GM in it – and were one of the first to rebuke GM in a big way, he has big stakes in companies which are trying to work on some sort of “gene patent”. Now I do not believe that GM is going to give us three heads (although if they thought it’d make money, they’d have a go…) but it has shown that the possibility for new strains of antibiotic-resistant genes to be created, possibly transferring to human beings. All we need is another MRSA or Clostridium difficile type outbreak in our hospitals – except this time it might be more potent and cause many more problems. That is why nature really shouldn’t be meddled with – we are opening Pandora’s boxes left, right and centre without giving due thought to the consequences. So Sainsbury’s aren’t on my list of “ok supermarkets”, but they are much higher up the chain than… Asda and Tesco – Asda for being associated with Walmart, possibly the worst supermarket chains in the history of supermarket chains (they even made a film about it – with a really good website), and Tesco for being so profit-conscious that it won’t do good for its industry, even though it has the power to.

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at PhotobucketThere are good things in the pipeline though, going green isn’t the hippy option anymore, and you’re considered rather draconian or “backward” if you don’t use energy-saving lightbulbs and ecologically-friendly options, which is a good thing. The un-friendly alternative should always be made as difficult to use as possible, which is why I’m all for taxing of 4×4’s and stopping selling traditional lightbulbs etc. It surprised me no end that shops such as New Look and Evans are both (excuse the pun) cottoning-on to the Organic ideal, and whilst most of their clothing isn’t organic and does come from sweat-shops (but I’m guessing a Nike sweatshop is worse than an Evans sweatshop, although I could be wrong…) it’s a huge step forward to see them stocking this stuff. It means that they know demand is there, and will hopefully start to integrate the organic fibres into their normal lines. Plus looking at the stuff, I prefer the organic designs.

Many are put off by the prices that they perceive farmshops to charge – and this is the bit that gets me the most. I have met people who are completely unwilling to spend any more than they absolutely have to, to get the food they want. It’s not about where it comes from, or what suffering the food or the planet has had to go through to get it – as long as it’s there and it’s cheap. The only way we’re going to make a difference to those people who ignore morals and ethics in persuit of price is to make farmshops and growing-your-own easier and more publicised than the supermarkets. The price they charge is a fair one – and it’s the price we should pay for our food.

But my words here are very much preaching to the converted – those who are educated enough to read blogs, are usually savvy in their shopping and pretty eco-friendly, it’s the people who currently shop at Tesco and Asda who need the kick up their backsides – and short of mounting some sort of publicity-grabbing protest antic, I’m not sure there’s much I can do outside of my words… Which leads me on to ask you all a question – what do you think I can do to get the message across to the people of the world to start being responsible in their actions? Any ideas?

— images courtesy of BBC news and Getty Images.

14 thoughts on “Supply and Demand: Ethical Shopping and How To Go About It.

  1. India says:

    Well, it’s so hard, isn’ it? Often, the people who will isten are the ones who are already interedted!
    I have been listening to the MOre Hip than Hippie podcast for some time now – there’s a link on my current post. I have finally come to agree with them on the ‘evangalising’ issue. It tends not to work and puts people off. In fact, I have found that if I say something about a green issue, folk at work ignore it. SOmeone saying the same thing. but not thought of as ‘green’, is at least listened to. It’s frustrating. But I am going to try to be an example and choose when/how I get my message across. I think that on a personal level more may be achieved with a dripping tap than a torrent.
    What’s your view on this approach????
    PS – although I have always cooked from scratch, being prone to the very occasional ready meal, it was ‘Not on the label’ by Felicity Lawrence that opened my eyes to many more issues than I had been aware of. Great also if you want to lose weight – took us about 3 weeks to decide just what the heck we were going to eat from now on!

  2. Mr VP :-) says:

    Nicely written. Most people are happy to buy free range eggs nowadays, even though they are a little bit more expensive, so all it takes is people to vote with their purses, and change can happen. Maybe in 100 years people will look back and wonder what these mythical “Super” markets were, as they do all their shopping at their local farmers’ market. I do hope so.

  3. Amy says:

    I find very much that fresh organic fruit and veges picked from an orchard tastes alot better than shop brought. I was told at one stage that some shop owners will polish their fruit with furniture polish to make it look better. Doesn’t sound too appetising does it?

  4. Mhairi says:

    Well written – was in New York recently and there is a big drive for green issues there too (’bout time). Last nights knitting group we were discussing a documentary on processed supermarket food – enough to put everyone off.
    I do shop at supermarkets, but do not buy processed or intensively farmed food. I try and use farmers markets etc.
    Tesco’s organic food is shipped from afar – you have to watch the labels.
    Marks and Spencers do provide local produce (English Strawberries in London, Perthshire in Scotland!) , but for some reason buying local here in Scotland is not easy (most exported? I think) Still its worth the effort.
    There was a gentleman behind me in the cafe queue at Jenners who asked about the food (he was muslim,trying to avoid ham) – perhaps thats the way forward – constantly asking about the food and turning down the bad stuff.

  5. willow says:

    Good post. I read through your list of things to do while shopping and like most people who are reading this post,I already do those things. It is important that we continue to “be the change we wish to see in the world”.

    The power of many people making small decisions about what they purchase does make a difference, think about supermarkets deciding not to stock GM foods, or only stock free range eggs. Waitrose now only stocks fair trade bananas and all its own label fish is sustainably sourced, all the Co-ops own label chocolate is fair-trade. These changes are all presumably in response to public demand.

    I don’t remember the exact figures but I do know that on average we spend a much lower proportion of our income on food than we ever have and that seems to be the root of the problem. We expect food to be cheap and resent having to pay a realistic price for it.
    I suppose its up to those of us who are fortunate enough to be able to make an ethical choice to continue to do so. After all the “tipping point” when the number of people doing something is enough to make a big change is often a surprisingly small number. When I started buying organic food which was probably about ten years ago it was very difficult to find and there was little in the supermarkets. In fact I remember reading an article in which M&S said they would not go into organic food as it would always remain a niche market! Think how quickly things have changed, if we continue to buy local foods (and leave those potatoes from Israel on the shelves) the supermarkets will change – they need our custom.

  6. Sarah says:

    Oh I completely agree!! I saw an item on the news on Thursday morning about some “Guerilla Baggers” who were handing out homemade tote bags to people on the street in an effort to stop people using plastic!!

  7. Jane says:

    I am actually very optimistic about consumers having an impact on food production.
    Personally I don’t shop in a supermarket but I also think that, as most people do, it is important that supermarkets’ “green” efforts are applauded and supported by their customers.
    I once went to a “green tourism” workshop where there were various speakers ranging from the owner eco bed and breakfast to an airline manager. The small business was supported and applauded for switching to energy efficient lightbulbs – the airline manager derided because he had only managed 70% glass recycling, not the 85% target. In reality it was the airline man who would have had the biggest impact and I felt that he should have been applauded for what he was trying to do. There seemed to be a preconception that he would be insincere just because he was from big business. I believe that the customer can ensure that this isn’t the case.
    The figure that always shocks me is that in the last 35 years we have gone from spending the modern equivalent of £200 a week on food per household(this is as a percentage of average wage) to spending £85. Spending on mortgages, clothes, cars, holidays and electronics have gone up to fill the gap – I certainly know no-one who has £115 sloshing about in their purse at the end of a week.
    But I think we are near a tipping point – the figures on organic baby food are amazing which suggests that a large percentage of people associate organic with high quality and safety, and are prepared to pay more for that because it is for their child. (Yes it is ready prepared but one step at a time).
    My favourite farm shop is not organic but has a big sign saying their crops are grown “with sun and dung”.
    Know your farmer.
    Good post

  8. Sarah says:

    I am Sarahs mother and an ancient who remembers the days without supermarkets.I lived in Plymouth during my early years and still remember being sent to the local greengrocer evry Saturday morning for a stone of potatoes.(A stone is 14 lbs ) and not actually able to carry them in one trip but had to make 2. We picked fruit in the summer as a family and if there was a glut it was made into jam or bottled.
    Society has changed so much since then that most people cannot conceive how they could manage without them, plastic bags, disposable nappies, cars, a 2 income household, at least one cheap flight a year!! and it really has been my generation that we can mostly blame.I could go on It is very easy for me to do more ” old fashioned ” things now as I have recently retired and therefore have a great deal of time to do things like grow veg etc but I used to work very long hours and life would have been very difficult to do without the convience of supermarkets etc.
    Last week when shopping I refused plastic bags from the checkout girl and got a very stange look I take my own reusable ones now. I think we all have to do our own little bit to help We have a great local Farmers market at Lark Lane on the last Saturday of every month which I would recommend to any one in this area (Merseyside) and very good local charity shops worth a visit at the same time.
    recycling has become much easier now as we have very large bins for a) garden products and b) all paper,cardboard, plastc bottles(even shampoo ones),cans etc. These are collected on alternate weeks and we now only dispose of a tiny amount of rubbish each week.
    For the future I believe we all have to do our bit and we can influence other people close to us who in turn will take the message even further. Blogs like this help to spread the word.Good luck Mary

  9. says:

    your posts make me feel all bright and happy! i think i said it before, but it’s so nice to be reminded that you’re not the only ones living life in a certain way!! i hate supermarkets! i go about 5 times a year in cases of total necessity, and even then go in needing one thing, go straight for it, and come out with just that one thing and nothing else. we find that we hardly ever shop, and when we do we don’t buy lots, but we always have what we need and we don’t waste. make our own bread, cakes, biscuits, jams, cordials, grow our own veg, get eggs from our friends’ hens, buy most other stuff (flour, rice, pasta, olive oil, cleaning products etc. as organic and green products from the italian equivalent of something similar to an ‘organic, local, small-scale buying cooperative’ (not good at putting that into words i’m afraid). swap unwanted clothes and objects with friends rather than throwing them out. re-use and recycle when possible, save abandoned furniture to make nice and ‘new’ from things found thrown out… refuse to watch tv and so don’t get sucked in by the adverts either. and have been experimenting life without a fridge since january, so far we’re surviving! it may sound extreme to read, but it really isn’t, it easy and good fun, in reality we’re not extreme people, just simple ones who don’t like excesses, and like to think about the rest of the world too. sorry for the ramble, your excellent post got me all inspired!!! have a good day, and have fun :)

  10. mimi says:

    What a marvellous post, and echos just what we have been thinking about a lot recently.

    Two ideas for spreading the word- to target people who need a nudge in the right direction- perhaps cooking something yummy to share with them, (cakes to work for example) and when they ask for the recipe or say how nice they are, say how you use eggs from the farmshop which makes all the difference, and they are soooo reasonably priced etc.

    The other has just come out of the jumble of my mind so apologies that it is not more polished. Now we are trying to do without the supermarket as far as we can, I have started a list of what I can buy where. For example there is a health food stall in our market that is great for risotto rice, but a Hollands and Barrett that sells really good porridge oats. The cheese stall in the market also sells free range eggs very reasonably. And so on.

    I am sure each town and village must have variations on this. Perhaps a way to spread the word would be to share your list of alternative places to shop than the supermarket?

    I think I will make mine into a mini booklet/zine style thing, probably a sheet of A4 (recycled of course!) all decorated up pretty that I can fold up and give to any interested party.

    The problem with this is how do you get them to the people who need them- the ones that don’t know they need them at the moment? Mass copying would be expensive. Hmmm. And I don’t want to start a war by leaving them in the supermarket itself. Perhaps a few by the cookery section of the library? Perhaps an email address on them that people could email if they wanted a copy for a friend?

    Just thoughts….what a jumble my mind is today! I need to go and do some shelf tidying and smooth out all the tangles I think. That or some knitting!

    Thank you for such an encouraging post!

  11. Anastasia says:

    this sounds interesting – Im going to print it out to read in detail!!!

  12. Moonroot says:

    What a great post! I learned several new things and more importantly your post is so positive it really makes me determined to shop more wisely in future. Thank you!

  13. Leanne says:

    AMEN! Again, another post that completely explains why you continue to keep me inspired and passionate about this whole way of life! Is it OK if I make copies of your post to hand out at our farmers market? Pretty please, Tash?!

  14. Lisa says:

    Hey Tash,

    At last getting round to reading your post, and as usual it is fantastic.

    We do our bit, I try to buy as little as possible in Tesco’s (the only decent sized supermarket close to us) but do try to buy more locally in our little co-op (fairtrade goods) and general store in the local village.

    I always tend to use the fruit boxes when shopping as we recycle them when sending out orders to shops, but as many have said, you get a bit of a strange look when you refuse the carrier bags!

    We’re very lucky in that we have an organic veggie hut close by that sells a selection of stuff as well as fruit and veg. They are planning to open a farm shop fairly soon, so hopefully the majority of our shopping will be done there. We also get all of our meet from a local farm, they deliver free on a Friday and it all comes vacuum packed, so minimum packaging, although we do plan to have our own pigs and sheep one day!!

    I have recently tried to organise a milk delivery to our little hamlet – between us all we could have made it worthwhile for the dairy to deliver out to us (organic aswell), but not for just a couple of us. One neighbour, who uses about 12 pints a week was keen at first and then suddenly decided that she “couldn’t cope with the micro-management of it all, what with having 3 kids, etc” so has decided that she would rather buy from Tescos and freeze half of it??? Where is the sense in that? And she’s supposed to be the “green neighbour” hah!

    It amazes me how some people come over so green on the outside, i.e. living in an eco-house, but then choose to burn a lot of their rubbish rather than recycle it? Shop in Tescos rather than locally? You would think that they would be the easiest to convert, unfortunately not. This makes me really sad, but luckily there are more like ourselves that do our bit, rather than take the convenient route.

    One of our egg customers really makes me smile, him and his wife are retired and have decided that they no longer wish to shop in Tescos! He’s always asking me where to get this and that, and when I’m going to start selling my veg! If only there were more like him!

    Lisa x

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