Friday, 6 July 2012

A helping hand in every store?


I had the pleasure yesterday of participating in a ‘roundtable’, hosted by Unilever. (Funny phrase, ‘roundtable’: up there with ‘seminar’ and ‘symposium’ and ‘colloquium’; like we’re embarrassed to say ‘gathering for a bit of a chat’.) Subject of discussion: food waste. In the mix: Natan Doron and the Fabian Society, responsible recently for “Waste Not, Want Not”; my good friend Mike Tuffrey, of Corporate Citizenship, cheerfully facilitating; and a tableful of stakeholders, each holding their very own stake, and representing various NGOs, retailers, industry and government bodies and think tanks.




Oh, and, of course, a smattering of Unileverenes.



Whole thing conducted under the Chatham House rule, which means that participants are allowed to say that they were there, and to say that such and such was said, but not to identify the person responsible for any particular utterance. I worried about this once before and established that, under the Chatham House rule, there is one person whose utterances I am allowed to report – and that is me. I can say what I said, but no one else can. Ha.



Anyway, I said a couple of things that represented something of a condensation of some previous and longer-winded remarks, and thought they bore repetition:



Thing 1 – What is the nature of the mess we’re in?



I was restricting myself to food waste on this occasion, of course, so endeavoured to base my remarks as fully as possible on the research evidence that I’ve inadvertently accumulated through the past seven or eight years of work at Brook Lyndhurst, everything from the London Food Strategy through various studies for WRAP and Defra to recent projects for WWF, Fairtrade and Oxfam (a few of them are here).



At a crowded table (it was actually rectangular) you don’t have time to say too much, so I limited myself to two remarks:




  • UK citizens are in a big mess with food because we live in an age of superabundance, shaped in and by the interests of mega-corporations. It is important, for the purposes of organised capital, that we buy more than we really need, and that is how it is, so many of us are no markedly fatter than we need to be and most of us throw away quite frightening amounts of perfectly edible food

  • Second, we have been progressively de-skilled for a period of more than forty years, so that great numbers of us no longer know how to shop with guile, nor to cook with wit. Or cook at all, in fact. Most people, I asserted (and, if I had to, I could find evidence in support of at least ‘lots of people’), would be simply perplexed at the idea of combining half a jar of unfinished sauce with some leftover chicken and vegetables in order to make this evening’s support. Just throw it away and open a new packet: much easier.


Add those two things together – millions of people without the skills, operating in a retail environment designed to engineer our consent (see my Abergavenny performance) and – hey presto! – shameful, truly shameful amounts of food waste. Wasted food, wasted effort, wasted energy, wasted goodness.



Thing 2 – so what do you propose we do about that then?



Well, out of respect for my hosts I thought it would be impolite too directly to propose the overthrow of capitalism (here’s the great Paul Foot on the matter, circa 2002: “Is capitalism sick? Yes, disgustingly so, and it urgently needs replacing”) so I stuck to the skills thing.



What I’d like to see – it seemed like a good idea at the time, and since I’d not thought of it before I guess I’ll find out how bonkers it was over the coming few weeks – what I’d like to see is a levy (a bit like the Tobin Tax) raised on every major retailer and every major food brand (I didn’t bother with thresholds at this point: the symposi-table was coming to an end and we’d each been given only a few moments in which to put forward a ‘practical action’) to fund the presence in every large supermarket (I reckon anything above 20,000 square feet) of an “advisor”, someone a bit like a butcher or a fishmonger or a baker but whose job it is to offer help and advice, to anyone who wants it, about what to buy and how to cook it. They could/should be positioned (I managed to squeeze this bit in) near the section in the supermarket where, at around five o’clock, they position all the mark downs. Nothing predatory, nothing pushy, just a source of friendly white-coated advice to help the hard-pressed British consumer not merely to buy “two packs for only £3” but to think a little about what they might do with the leftover bits of ham once they’re half way through the second (I didn’t really want it anyway) pack.



That sort of thing.



Why not?





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