Saturday, 11 September 2010

Two tales of shopping and sustainability

On Friday last week I needed some more washing-up liquid, so I took my empty Ecover bottle to the local shop - The Old Emporium - where I have, for a long time, purchased refills of washing-up and laundry liquid. I was told:
"We're not doing that any more. We hardly have any people coming in for refills - they say they can get it cheaper in the supermarkets."
In all the time I've been going to this shop, it was not primarily about saving money, and the supermarket is often more convenient - but I've persisted, for a number of reasons. It's a small local shop, run by someone who lives in the town. It sells vitamins, minerals and other food supplements; herbal remedies; organic and gluten-free or dairy-free foods; herb teas; environmentally friendly soap, shampoo, etc; fair-trade items; and - until recently - Ecover refills. It also used to sell good fresh coffee (they would grind the beans while you waited) - more about that below. It seems to me to be a good shop to support - I'm glad it's in the town and I don't have to travel elsewhere for the things it sells. The money made by that shop circulates in the local economy, rather than disappearing into remote shareholders' pockets.

And, in terms of Ecover products, getting refills there saved a plastic bottle every time.

But in spite of all this, too few people bothered to get their refills, so the shop no longer stocks those products.

Ecover is just acting like any commercial producer, and maximising its profits - but much of its attraction as a brand is its claim to being environmentally friendly, and it isn't being pro-active about this. The large supermarkets deal directly with companies like Ecover. They buy in huge bulk, so two things follow from that: the first is that they purchase in sufficient volume that it's worth Ecover's while to sell directly to them; and the second is that the buying power they have means that the supermarkets can beat down the price they pay to the manufacturer. So, when the product gets to the supermarket shelves, it can be priced competitively, even though it involves buying a new plastic bottle each time.

Small shops don't deal directly with a manufacturer like Ecover - they buy from a bulk-purchasing supplier, which deals with many small shops. But these suppliers don't have the bargaining power of the supermarkets, so they don't get such a good price; and then, of course, they have to take their cut to make a profit for themselves. So, by the time the bulk-supply of liquid, to re-fill customers' own bottles, reaches the local small shop, the price they have to charge for the refill exceeds the price the supermarket charges for a new bottle.

It makes perfectly good commercial sense, but environmentally it's dreadful - a plastic bottle gets thrown away every time a new supermarket purchase is made. At best, we can hope that the customers concerned will at least put out the discarded plastic bottles for recyling . . . but you know the mantra: reduce, re-use, recycle - recycling is the last on the list, the least eco-friendly of the three, not the first action.

Back to the coffee question! Not so long ago, we had a Waitrose store open in the town. It's interesting to see that they promote themselves by saying:
"At Waitrose, we combine the convenience of a supermarket with the expertise and service of a specialist shop"
They call this 'the Waitrose difference' - and what it means is that Waitrose poses far more of a threat to small independent stores than is the case with any of the other supermarkets. The range of goods they offer, and the way they pitch to customers, is in direct competition with the local specialist store. In the case I've been describing, it was after Waitrose opened that The Old Emporium stopped selling coffee - people were buying it from Waitrose, and demand fell. And it's Waitrose that is selling all of its Ecover range at a large discount, thus undercutting the refill service to such a degree that it's no longer viable.

The day after this disappointing shopping trip, I opened my Saturday Guardian and found a whole page article about food miles, again about the question of local producers and retailers, and the way the supermarkets work. The article was titled 'From here to eternity: 340-mile journey for clotted cream made two miles away'. The story is about the supermarkets' distribution networks - this particular story was about Tesco, but it's no different to any of the others.

Supermarkets are trying to include locally produced foods in their stores - this is admirable - but they only work on a large scale. So, in this case, locally made clotted cream was bought from the Cornish producer, trucked along side roads, main roads, and motorways to the distribution centre near Bristol; it was then incorporated into the delivery schedule the next day and the lorry turned up at Redruth Tesco with the cream on board - 340 miles round trip, 2 days, to end up 2 miles from where the cream was produced.

A second story in the article refers to Ginsters pies - another Cornish producer. The pies also go via the Bristol distribution centre, this time a round trip of about 250 miles, to end up quite literally next door to where they were made - Tesco in Callington is right next door to the Ginsters factory. Ginsters pasties sold in the Callington Co-op food store also travel about 250 miles, via Bristol and back - the Co-op has a distribution centre there too. Ginsters prides itself on its Cornish connections. All of its beef is British and 65% comes from Jaspers, whose abattoir is five miles from Callington. Ginsters sources around 70% of its vegetables from Cornwall, much of it from Hay farm in Antony, 18 miles away. A fifth of its flour is made using wheat from Cornwall.

Cornish-made Brie cheese travels 280 miles - from where it is made in Newquay, via Taunton, and back.

Cornish sardines, landed on  on the south Cornish coast, travel outside the county to be processed, and then trucked back. By the time they reach the shop - 45 minutes from the quayside - they are three days old.

The article then assesses these stories - what are we to make of them?

Tim Lang, the professor of food policy at City University London, who coined the phrase "food miles", said:
"At one level it's completely absurd but it is alas the reality of modern logistics, which is based on cheap oil, the motorway system and mass production. If people don't like it they are going to have to be prepared to pay more for a more sustainable system of logistics."
Andrew Simms, policy director of the New Economics Foundation thinktank, said:
"We do not pay the real environmental price for producing and transporting goods. It is economically inefficient and a market failure. To learn that Cornish goods are being taken on tours of Britain to end up being sold in branches of Tesco right next door to where they were made tells us that, for all the claims of being green, UK plc has a very long way to go to become environmentally efficient and responsible. It would be funny were it not for the sad waste of resources."
Tesco and the Co-operative insist their distribution systems are the most efficient and environmentally friendly ways of moving goods around. A spokesman for the Co-operative Group defended regional depots:
"If each individual supplier delivered directly to our stores, that would result in tens of thousands of extra vehicles on the road and not only significantly increase our carbon footprint but also add to traffic congestion."
Distribution centres were, said Tesco, the most efficient delivery network:
"If it were more efficient to make seperate deliveries to local stores from national suppliers, we would do so. But with more than 2,000 stores in the UK and an average Tesco superstore carrying 40,000 different lines, a centralised distribution system is more practical and efficient,"
The spokesman added that the company had cut the number of lorry journeys by investing in technology and other measures. Ginsters, which is praised for using local ingredients, is upset at the criticism. Spokesman Larry File said there would be "mayhem" if every producer tried to deliver to every store in the country. Consumers would have to come to terms with very limited choice if producers delivered only locally, File said. "There would be no fresh fruit, no fresh vegetables out of season."

So what are we to do? Very simply, support our local shops - use them or lose them. If more people had bothered to take their Ecover bottles to The Old Emporium, it would still be offering that service. If Cornish people bought their locally made produce from local retailers, the food miles would be slashed to virtually nothing. If more of us consistently make the effort to buy - whenever possible - local produce from local stores, it can make a difference. It may cost a little more and it may take a bit more time, but it will be worth it in the long run. Start a trend, and try to get your friends and neighbours to join in!
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1 comment:

  1. Nick Howell, Chairman of the Cornish Sardine Management Association, emailed me after I posted this piece.

    The Cornish Sardine Management Association consists of all of the catchers, processors and regulators (Defra and Cornwall Sea Fisheries) of Cornish Sardines.

    Nick writes: "I saw your comment on the Woodbrooke Good Lives Project web and thought you might like some info about Cornish Sardines. You wrote:
    'Cornish sardines, landed on the south Cornish coast, travel outside the county to be processed, and then trucked back. By the time they reach the shop - 45 minutes from the quayside - they are three days old.'

    About five years ago in our small sardine Association we were also thinking about food miles and big processors and we have managed to get some regulations in place that actually stop or limit what happens to sardines caught off Cornwall. I hope what you are saying doesn't actually happen because it would be illegal to call them Cornish Sardines! The reason that they would be illegal is because the name--"Cornish Sardines" -- is now registered for use within the EU under the Protected Names Scheme (PGI). What this means is that for a product to be called a "Cornish Sardine" is has to full fill three conditions. These are:
    - Caught within six miles of the coast
    - Landed within Cornwall
    - Primary processed within Cornwall.

    This is defined in the EU doc. as filleting, freezing, salting, marinating, smoking, and if whole it has to be in quantities of less than 10 kg.

    So all processing is done in Cornwall and Trading Standards police it for us.

    The other thing we have managed to do is to be awarded Marine Stewardship Council certification on the way we research, harvest and manage the fishery."

    The paragraph Nick is commenting on was quoting from the Guardian article.