Most students, being a bit further left than the average citizen, are agreed: it’s important to buy ‘ethically’. Maybe we disagree about what that means, and maybe we’ve barely even thought about it, but we still know that it’s important to be ‘ethical consumers’. I was interested to see if ethics has an impact on the food industry and if so, what are the repercussions. This lead to an experiment of sorts where I shopped on two different weekends in different ways.
During the first weekend of term I set out with ethics at the top of my list; the priorities were to go local, fairly traded, healthy and independent. First thing that came to mind as a good nearly-vegetarian, was fresh, organic produce. However, my first attempt to contact local veg box schemes went without a reply, and neither of North Road’s greengrocers source organically. Next I visited the Gateway World Shop in St Nicholas’ Church. They have some beautiful products, though nothing fresh since the focus is mostly on what can’t be produced locally. The hundreds of Fairtrade logos are reassuring, and you can even buy environmentally friendly detergent! Lastly I visited a little stall at the back of the indoor market called Mother Earth, which was run by Steve, a friendly Liverpudlian. Mother Earth sells all sorts of whole foods in unlabelled, clear polythene bags but despite the plain appearance, the quality is incomparable.
With the onset of week two, it meant that it was time for another weekly shop. However, this time around the priorities were different – convenient, and cheap rather than pure and organic. Living near Dragon Lane meant that Tesco Extra was a no-brainer, so a five-minute stroll later I was perusing the aisles, trying not to get distracted by special offers on things I blatantly didn’t need. Needless to say I found everything on my shopping list, as well as some organic carrots and some Alpro milks that rank highly on ethicalconsumer.org.
So, what’s the verdict? Well, cycling into town (and back up the hill from town!) to traipse around various places on an ethical quest is certainly more time-consuming than a jaunt round the corner where it’s all under one roof. I also spent less money and got every single thing I needed, though the price difference on things like lentils, oats and peanut-butter is actually relatively little. Even at Tesco I was able to adhere somewhat to my ethical beliefs. However, the whole experience of entering that giant warehouse building feels more like a bizarre type of psychological vetting than anything else. I can imagine the white-coated men watching the store monitors and purring in satisfaction as people’s mental activity decreases and they become ever more submissive to ‘money off’ signs, 2-for-1 stickers and enticing labels that seem to promise an immediately improved life if you’ll only buy these finest sausages.
Perhaps my own dystopian impressions owe something to Kafka and Orwell, but there is something dehumanising occurring. It comes out even more clearly when you compare it to the walk through Durham’s centre, with its beautiful river, cathedral, and unexpected buskers. Sure, it’s a bit busy, but when you get into the market or the shop in St Nicholas, you’re not like sheep getting herded. Even better, you can talk to the people about their food; Steve in Mother Earth knows where all his is sourced from and is generally knowledgeable about the whole scene something that cannot be found in large supermarket chain.
But is all this really getting at the heart of the issue? I’ve talked about my own experience – my convenience, my money, my health. However, ethics is about being able to think outside ourselves. One window into the reality of it is to notice the amount of waste. How many bags of fresh produce are sitting with ‘reduced to clear’ stickers on them, close to going off? What happens to all the food that gets wasted? How was all that fruit procured so cheaply that Tesco still make a profit when they sell it for next to nothing and throw piles of it away?
These are the questions that we must tackle if we want to be ‘ethical’. If we don’t, we act like a non-human species – ‘consumers’ – instead of recognising that we are people who live by constantly relating to other people, even when that relationship involves trading our money for their hard work and the things they have that we want.
Photograph: Christopher Paquette via Flickr