Suggestion Book

Norman Weiss, Weavers Way Purchasing Manager

Greetings and thanks for writing. As usual, suggestions and responses may have been edited for brevity, clarity and/or comedy. In addition, no idea, concept, issue, remark, phrase, description of event, word or word string should be taken seriously. This also applies to the previous sentence.

This month I read an article in Quartz by Alden Wicker, who's a sustainable lifestyle blogger and magazine writer. She stated, “Conscious consumerism is a lie. Small steps taken by thoughtful consumers — to recycle, to eat locally, to buy a blouse made of organic cotton instead of polyester — will not change the world.” Wicker basically challenges the idea that a few consumers researching the ethics of their purchase before deciding what to buy, and spending more if needed to make an ethical choice, is never going to save the world. She thinks the capitalist system is too massive and is based on consumers consuming lots of products from a large number of choices. What is needed, she says, is systemic change, and conscious consumerism will not get us there quickly enough. Alden advocates things like “Instead of buying expensive organic sheets, donate that money to organizations that are fighting to keep agricultural runoff out of our rivers.” (Read it here.)

While I understand and agree with some of what Alden writes, this troubled me: “So why do we continue to buy 1.7 billion half-liter bottles [of water], or five bottles for every person, every single week? Because market capitalism makes it incredibly difficult to make truly helpful sustainable choices.” This sounds false to me and maybe flat-out dumb. “Market capitalism” does not make it difficult to buy a water bottle and fill it as you need it. People did this for centuries before bottled water became ubiquitous. Apparently, people buy bottled water for the (fake) perception of convenience and/or taste preference and/or being unwilling to consider the longer term consequences of their actions. If more people were conscious, the bottled water industry would vanish overnight. 

Coupling this with a shopper suggestion (see below) reminding us that San Pellegrino sodas are owned by Nestle, I thought it would be illustrative to show a sales report for our two Grocery departments for the first week in May. 

The chart shows the 17 top-selling products based on units sold. (Click here or on the thumbnail image to open a larger version.)

Note that seven of the top 10 are basically some form of bottled water. Two of the top 10 are chocolate. Another is a paper product. None of the top 10 is actually nutritious food. There are really only three foods in the top 17, and one of them is a snack chip. Adding up all five flavors of San Pellegrino soda, we sold 362 cans, which would make it the second-best seller in Grocery, and best of the beverages. (Some don’t appear in top 17.) 

What does this tell us about ourselves? Despite the statements in our Mission and Ends about respecting our environment and providing ethically produced foods, the most popular items our shoppers buy, as measured by quantity sold or weight or volume, are actually mostly water in plastic and aluminum containers. These products provide near-zero nutrition and, in the case of San Pellegrino, are likely not ethically produced. Apparently, while we value things like sustainability and ethics in food production, we also value the ability to grab a package of water, and if it is bubbly and sweet, for many consumers, that trumps the questionable ethics of the producing company.

suggestions and responses:

s: “Just in case there’s a sustainability or ethics committee, or set of principles, please note that those delicious San Pellegrino sodas are a Nestle product.”

r: (Norman) There is an Environment Committee, and there is language in our Mission Statement and Ends that could apply to the decision to stock Nestle products, but both our Board (via informal discussion) and our shoppers (via purchasing behavior) have chosen for the Co-op to continue to stock San Pellegrino.

s: “Uphill Co-op (Chestnut Hill) has ramps, one of the most delicious seasonal, local vegetables. They even have them sustainably harvested (leaves only). Any reason we don't have them in Mt. Airy?”

r: (Jean MA) I don't think my shoppers would pay $29.99/lb. for ramps. 

s: “Waste Management instructions for residents at Hill House in Chestnut Hill say we cannot recycle #3 and #6. All other plastics from 1 to 7 are OK. I believe many Hill House residents, like myself, shop regularly at Weavers Way, and when I buy prepared food, it usually gets put into a #3 or #6 container (I forget which). Any chance this can be changed to another type of container so we can recycle?”

r: (Norman) Maybe. It looks like there is a #1 plastic container that could take its place. We’ll try out a few to be sure they close easily, seal well enough, stack OK, aren’t too expensive, are readily available, etc.

FYI, in general, recycling plastic is mixed bag. Apparently most of it goes to China, where it may or may not be used to make something new. Things like the oil prices affect whether it’s worth it to use recycled plastic; when oil is cheaper, there is less economic incentive to use recycled plastic. Also, especially with plastic food containers, if they are not obviously completely clean, the sorters at materials-recovery facilities will reject them and they’ll end up in the landfill.

s: “Why all the fuss about local food? In the old days, most of what people ate was local and it was the food from far away that was exotic and considered valuable. Only nobles and wealthy people could afford food from far away. Now, mainly it’s the nobles and wealthy that can afford local food.

r: (Norman) Not so fast. Many people consider local food automatically better than non-local food because it’s from nearby, and when it comes to food, since around 2010, local = better. As far as affordability, we have local carrots for $1.99/lb., local hoagie rolls for 45 cents and a pound of local tofu for $1.99. You could easily make an all local tofu-carrot hoagie for about $1.50. Eaten three times a day, that’s only about $31.50 a week. Long live the proletariat!

s: “Please consider Dave’s Organic Bread. Mostly sandwich breads. The 21 Grain is very good. Made in Milwaukee, Oregon or just south of Portland. Thank you!”

r: (Matt MA) Unfortunately, this does not appear to be available through our regular suppliers. (Norman) Dave's looks like good line although it is distributed by conventional wholesalers, whom we don’t deal with much. Fun facts about sliced bread: The first nationally distributed sliced bread was Wonder Bread, in 1925. Not surprisingly, sliced bread also led to increased bread consumption, and also increased jam consumption. In 1943, sliced bread was banned by the government as a wartime conservation measure (mainly because it required more packaging to keep it from drying out). The ban was short lived due to letters in the New York Times such as this: “I should like to let you know how important sliced bread is to the morale and saneness of a household. My husband and four children are all in a rush during and after breakfast. Without ready-sliced bread, I must do the slicing for toast — two pieces for each one — that's 10. For their lunches, I must cut by hand at least 20 slices, for two sandwiches apiece. Afterward I make my own toast. Twenty-two slices of bread to be cut in a hurry!” No wonder the phrase “greatest thing since sliced bread” became popular. Of course some might argue slicing bread is honest work and builds arm and hand strength and keeps knife-makers and sharpeners in business. What’s next, boxes of pre-measured food and recipes delivered to your door, ready to cook and no slicing needed?

s: “Newman’s Hermit Cookies. Shopper says we carry them in Chestnut Hill.”

r: (Matt MA) I’ll look into these; thanks for the suggestion!