Sunday, May 20, 2012

How much was that? Counting sustainability and fairness in costs at the supermarket

At the *insert name of a large supermarket chain here* checkout, as my on-special environmentally-friendly olive oil got scanned, the Peppy Checkout Girl serving me exclaimed: "That was half that price last week! You should have bought it then." I mentioned that I don't go to *large supermarket* very often, but needed to on this occasion. I asked her why it was cheaper. She said that "...there are always huge discounts just after a bulk purchase". She then spent some time trying to convince me to check out their specials online weekly. I said that I was pretty happy with the price anyway, and she looked dumbfounded and stopped chatting to me with so much enthusiasm.

This bothered me for a couple of reasons.

Olives from Jordan (via Wikipedia)

The first was concern that Peppy Girl wasn't thinking of where the product came from, the story behind it. She was just concerned with the cost to her. The product I bought has environmental credentials. It minimises inputs, minimises soil erosion, and maximises soil health. This is part of sustainable farming; looking after the land during food production, so that we can produce food in the long term. We have the option when shopping to buy these products, and know we are contributing to better environmental practices and food security. Not all products are environmentally friendly; many products may even be having a detrimental impact on the environment at the cost of future generations ability to eat.

And it wasn't just about how the food was produced. Peppy Girl was thinking about her pocket, and not about who is actually paying for the food. When we pay low prices at the supermarkets, it is great for us; super cheap groceries. But, is that the real cost of the food? There is a tradition that at low prices to consumers, farmers may not be getting a fair deal (UKFG, 2005). With a fair deal being a price that covers production of the food and allows them a comfortable life. However, there is mixed information available regarding the exact nature of deals between producers and retailers (ABARE, 2005), and it is very difficult to tell if this product or other products are a fair price.

February 26th: Fairtrade fortnight!
Fairtrade products (via Richard Thomas aka Flickrich on Flickr)

The second reason was whether the low cost of the product is reflective of its sustainable and environmentally-friendly credentials. The week before I bought the olive oil, it was about $3.00. When I bought the oil, it was $6.00, and still on special. This seems very very cheap. Why? An environmentally sustainable products cost more to produce. This is because they often use less land with more land in conservation, produce less, it is more labour intensive, and they use specialist practices, all of which cost more. As a 'speciality product', the trade off for the high cost of production is by getting a premium price, or higher price compared to non-sustainable products. How much did the retailer pay for the oil? Was it enough to cover the cost of the oils production, environmental sustainability and for the livelihood of the farmer?

I don't like to be negative, and I hope that making food production processes more transparent and accessible to consumers will help people understand where their food comes from and what choices they can make. A national sustainable farming scheme, like Target 100, aims to promote sustainable farming practices, bring farmers together and educate consumers about environmental practices. You can also download ethical guides for iPhone, such as The Good Shopping Guide, Shop Ethical and Sustainable Seafood Guide by NGOs and researchers, which help to make more informed decisions whilst shopping. Other national labelling schemes have been previously discussed as a way of helping people to make more informed choices about what they are buying, and their environmental and social credentials.

What else can we all do when we shop?
* Go to your local farmers markets and stores (my favourite producer owned stores in Canberra are Choku Baijo and Lost River Butcher), and buy direct from producers
* Look for environmental credentials on the product: organic, biodynamic, sustainable, environmental, Landcare, Fairtrade etc.
* Download ethical guides to take and research whilst shopping

And ask yourself: why is this so cheap? Are the farmers getting a good deal? Does the product have environmental credentials?

For me, knowing where that product came from, the environmental story behind it and that the farmers got a fair price is the most important choice for me when shopping. I desperately wanted to explain to the Peppy Girl why cheapest isn't always best for the environment, for the producer and even for Peppy Girl's future.

There are many more ethical, environmental, and fair produce arguments in this debate, and you can check out more of them here:
Target 100
Ethical Consumer Guide
Organic Certification - Australia
Australian Academy of Science: Sustainable links
Fairtrade Certification and Aust/NZ
A blog post I wrote about sustainable eating.
There are also many books available on this topic, with interesting debate.

What are your thoughts on sustainable food and supermarkets? Prices? Labelling? Are you worried that paying low prices could result in non-sustainable practices? Are you a producer that is concerned or thinks you are getting a fair price? Perhaps you are a retailer who is experienced in Fairtrade? Please share your comments and ideas below.

1 comment:

  1. I try to buy only sustainable foods myself, so I shop at farmers'markets whenever I have the courage to mosey through crowds (London's markets are just SO full of people!), and I go to an upmarket grocery store that claims to have better credentials on the fairtrade/sustainable front. Food in the UK is very expensive -so much more than in North America- but I like to think that the premium I pay goes to farmers who really tend to the land.

    While it sometimes feels like sustainably produced foods are expensive, we can't afford to think about our pocket books alone: food security for ourselves and future generations is at stake. When I think that we are losing 100 billion tonnes of arable soil each year due to urbanisation/deforestation/misuse of land through industrial farming practices, I cannot help but wonder why soil degradation isn't a bigger issue.

    Anyone who cares about the current state of the environment needs to open their eyes to this problem. I have little hope that talks in Rio will amount to much, however. Though I try to participate in letter campaigns to governments, sign petitions to protect land and traditional farming practices, and whatnot, sometimes it feels like the only thing I can do to make my voice heard is to pay a little more for food produced in a sustainable way. If a real farmer, someone who practices real soil husbandry, can get a few pennies more for doing right, maybe he can help spread the gospel of sustainable practices.