A shopping trolley for change?

Abbi Buxton's picture
Blog by
2 February 2011

As a consumer you have the potential to promote development through your buying habits. But how effective are you?

Initiatives are targeting consumers with better information that may mean they are able to make better decisions about the food they buy – decisions that support rather than undermine development.

The advance of technology gives enormous scope to bring the farmer closer to the consumer. Videos, pictures and personal storytelling are helping inform consumers about the realities of production. The popularity of celebrity chefs and their ability to explain in greater detail some of the issues involved in food supply and production has also helped to inform the consumer.

But consumers are often regarded as whimsical decision makers. Is better information enough to affect a long term shift in buying patterns that improves livelihoods for poor farmers?

Hidden messages and the latest craze

Labels and ‘sustainability certification’ – like Organic or Fairtrade – found on the products we buy in supermarkets often hide more complex messages. Emma Blackmore explores this in detail in her recent blog post on carbon labelling. Fairtrade, for example, is a complicated standard and Rainforest Alliance’s apparent emphasis on the environment overshadows its strong social aspects.

But more than anything, development is a complicated story and one that is not easy to communicate. The wider public is often exposed to simple messages in short bursts, such as following a humanitarian disaster.

The climate change debate, and recent scandals surrounding scientific knowledge, are clear examples of the difficultly in conveying complicated and multi-faceted messages on which there may not be one clear conclusion or where trade-offs are involved.

Information overload and mixed messages make it impossible for the consumer to ensure their purchasing habits are not just short-term fads shaped by the latest media craze.

New and effective channels are emerging

Celebrity chef campaigns, TV documentaries and product-linked websites are giving more information to the consumer. These can be very effective drivers of behavioural change.

The Big Fish Fight on Channel 4 has brought together top celebrity chefs to spur consumers and restaurateurs into action to “save our seas”. Jamie Oliver suggests asking your fishmonger for coley instead of cod or hake, which are being overfished. If he doesn’t have it, keep asking for it and he might just get it in.

Gordon Ramsey succeeded in convincing half of London’s China Town to stop selling, and start campaigning against, shark fin soup. This was largely by televising the brutal way in which baby hammerhead sharks are caught, have their fins hacked off while still alive and are then thrown back into the ocean (the rest of the shark is not worth enough to justify the costs of bringing it to shore).

And websites are allowing consumers to trace their products and meet the farmers who grew them. “Meet the farmer” is a new website being developed by Blue Skies. They already run a site called Care Trace in which you can trace your product and read about the farmers who grow it. “Meet the Farmer” will allow farmers to update their own content – a bit like Facebook but for the food and agricultural world.

What do you think?

  • Do you choose your supermarket because of its fair trading credentials?
  • Do you deliberately opt for Fairtrade or Rainforest Alliance produce, regardless of the price tag?
  • Have you ever traced your Waitrose pineapple to learn more about the Ghanaian producer group growing it?
  • Do you choose to ‘buy local’ to reduce air miles or do you buy to support poorer farmers in developing countries? (a clear example of competing development messages)
  • And what about your friends or neighbours?

Research suggests we often fall back on what is convenient, tasty or cheap.

Every year we spend £700 billion on food – but, according to the Ethical Consumerism Report 2010, less than 10 per cent are ethical purchases. Though growing, this figure may be lower if we consider only those purchases that are intentionally ethical – it is quite hard to avoid a chocolate bar or box of tea without a Rainforest Alliance frog on it these days.

Research by the FairTracing project has shown that consumers like to know they can trace their products, but only a few actually do so. So why do we so rarely manage to put our good intentions into practice? Does this make the consumer channel but a detour for development? I'd love to hear your thoughts and comments here...

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