Ethical shopping
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Date: 27 May, 2005

roast beef


'It is, at the risk of getting personal, all your fault.'

Steve Tomkins says we're all to blame for the lack of ethically-produced products on our supermarket shelves

Don't you just hate the way that supermarkets start putting Christmas stuff out in September?

Admittedly, if that isn’t the least topical observation you’ve read all year, you can eat your hat (I’m hanging on to mine). But bear with me a minute.

Why do they do it? To annoy us? Perhaps. Because they’re monstrous profit machines without a thought for anything else? I’m not saying no.

But here’s another reason to consider: because we buy them. And it’s no use you acting all innocent about it, because someone does, and it's not me. (Except sometimes.)

Being fans of the bottom line as they are, no supermarket is going to fill its shelves with mince pies in October and then throw them away a few weeks later because nobody wanted any.

However annoyed the British public get about Christmas starting in September, if we didn’t see pink tinsel for £2.99 and go 'Ooh all right then', it wouldn’t be there.

Here’s another story for you. I tried making Thai Rendang Daging last night. I know, impressive isn’t it - and not out of a jar, all actual ingredients and everything. Except that the recipe called for some galangal.

I don’t know what it is or what it looks like, but I now know that no local supermarket (or anyone else around here) sells any. This annoyed me. '27 varieties of processed cheese,' I muttered as I stomped up the ethnic aisle, 'but no bloody galangal. What’s that all about, eh?'

But on calmer reflection I figured, why would they have any? There’s not a great demand for it in Lewisham - including from me, till tonight. Shops sell what people buy. I used cheese string instead.

And here’s one more story (three for the price of one while stocks last, your statutory rights are not affected). A couple of years back, being the groovy kind of fellow I am, I wrote a letter to the said supermarket, saying I was disappointed at how few fair trade products you could find there.

They replied saying that they would be happy to supply them if there was a demand, but there wasn’t. Lewisham didn’t particularly want to buy fair trade, so they couldn’t sell it. A bit spineless, you might think, but what do you expect?

But push your trolley round there these days, and what do you see? Fair trade bananas, grapes, coconuts, sugar, Geobars, flowers, and more tea, coffee and chocolate than you can shake a galangal root at.

Why? Because the supermarkets were shamed into re-evaluating their ethical framework by my moving letter? I suspect not. All that happened was that we true believers bought the fair trade stuff they did have, encouraged other people to do so too, put more on the shelf, more people saw it, more people bought it. Shops sell what people buy.

Now, I wouldn’t particularly want to disagree with the 'Everything Is The Supermarkets’ Fault school of thought. But the moral of my threepack of stories (21p cheaper than buying them separately, 32% more packaging) is that we the public get the supermarkets we deserve, so everything that’s their fault is also our fault.

What explains the insanity of wrapping cucumbers and broccoli in plastic? Shops have no reason to spend time and money doing this, except that they shift more that way. i.e., it’s because we buy them.

How can farmers justify the horrific treatment of chickens crammed all their lives long in tiny cages? The same way that we do, if we buy ‘barn’ eggs and chicken meat. How can they change to free range if we don’t buy it?

Why are supermarkets so ludicrously fussy about stocking only perfectly shaped fruit and veg? Because we don’t buy the others and they end up throwing them away.

Why do they drag apples here from the four proverbials of the earth when there are more than 2000 different varieties grown in the UK which we’ve never heard of? Because they sell, stupid.

It is, at the risk of getting personal, all your fault.

We have (I put it to you, with a compelling thump to the tub) to take responsibility for our own trolleys. We all know the kind of food we want suppliers to provide: less packaging, fewer additives, produced more locally, farmed humanely, with a fair deal for the workers. Here’s how to achieve this: buy the kind of stuff you want to be sold, rather than the cheap and nasty.

But ‘cheap’ is the problem, isn’t it? Unfortunately, our pockets are at war with our consciences. Money talks louder than justice (or at least louder than a self-appointed moralist with a laptop), and the less of it you have the louder it gets.

But here are one or two thoughts to bear in mind next time you go out trolley pushing.

1. We spend a smaller proportion of our money on food than any society in the history of the world. You only have to go back fifty years, and there were granny and granddad spending twice as much of their pay on food as we do. If anyone can afford to spend a bit more on food, it’s us.

2. There’s really no such thing as a bargain. If you want to pay less than you need to for your food, someone has to cut corners. Whether it’s food and mouth or world poverty, we get what we pay for.

3. You don’t have to be a 24/7 ethic-warrior with guts of steel to make a difference. Every pot of fair trade coffee you buy is one better than none at all.

4. Look at all that stuff in your trolley - the green and the greasy, the saving-the-pennies and the spoiling-yourself, the healthy and the heart-stopping. It’s all going down the toilet when you think about it. Why not spend some of your budget on something that amounts to a bit more, like justice for example, which will never go down anyone’s toilet, or go runny in the bottom of anyone’s fridge? Now that’s what I call making life taste better.


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