Alternative shopping habits for the average family
I’ve put together a case study to illustrate how we build organic living into our everyday norm.
It’s the story of why we made the decision to quit shopping at supermarkets, what our alternative has been, and how easy it all was.
Of course, we’ve had to make some compromises, but ultimately, I don’t think we miss the few regularly purchased products we haven’t been able to source organic alternatives for. We’ve made some adjustments and taken a positive outlook on the whole experience – in fact, it has served to raise the bar on other aspects of how we live and how we can reduce our impact in more ways, whilst gaining optimum benefit for ourselves.
The next step for us is to grow our own. That’s a whole different project and one I hope to be able to report on soon.
When it comes to choosing to live an Organikal life, it has been the single most important decision of our lives. It has radically changed our behaviours and moved our thinking to another level. It has spurred us into action on many different areas of thoughts and strongly held beliefs.
The decision? On the spur of the moment on New Years Day 2006, we chose to stop shopping at supermarkets, and went cold turkey. A radical behaviour change? Why, yes; we have been buying the household groceries at one or two local supermarkets almost without fail every week for the past eighteen years!
Yes, we have been purchasing eco-friendly washing up liquid since we were teenagers. Fair Trade coffee, chocolate and sugar, and organic fruit and vegetables have been a staple for as long as we can remember. More recently, there has even been a dedicated organic produce stand or two, where we can find other store cupboard basics like organic honey, porridge, sultanas and a vast array of biscuits, amongst other goodies.
However, we have been increasingly uncomfortable with supermarket shopping. Ethically-speaking, the behaviour of the big four supermarkets challenges our belief system on a daily basis; the sheer over-consumerism and evident wastage encouraged by them offend us terribly; the almost complete disregard of human and animal welfare in their bid to produce cheap, mass-produced food far-removed from source and laden with drugs and pesticides is morally wrong; the reliance on unseasonal produce shipped from afar with thousands of air miles is simply not good news economically, or indeed environmentally; their control over suppliers from Brazilian coffee bean growers to British dairy farmers is increasing – with 60-70% of UK food now passing through the Big Four , growers/suppliers have little say in the prices they can obtain for goods – not exactly fair market conditions.
And despite the efforts made by the supermarkets to make the shopping experience a good one, where we can spend more time (and part with more money), we can’t name one person who enjoys the gruelling regime of the weekly shop. Most families we have seen in supermarkets have frowns on their faces, and exhibit signs of increased stress and distress.
Yes, there’s a cheap café serving convenient food. Yes, I can purchase a huge variety of consumable items from clothes and accessories, books, music, films and computer supplies in addition to more general household items and groceries. A one-stop shop. But at what price? What does supermarket shopping mean for the average family with no immediate recognition of wider environmental, economical or political concerns? Limited choice and increased expenditure, usually.
Limited choice: how can that be? : a common response to this statement. The fact is that although we can buy an increased range of products in supermarkets, we have very little choice when it comes to growers and suppliers. BBC Masterchef judge, and veg guru Mark Wallace recently pointed out in a weekend supplement that there over 500 varieties of strawberry in the UK and our supermarkets stock only one variety. Think about it, when was the last time any of us ever tasted a really juicy, flavoursome strawberry purchased in our local supermarket?
Increased expenditure – surely all those loyalty vouchers and buy one get one free deals amounts to a reduction in overall spend? Well, not exactly. Who can resist all those special offers and limited edition purchases? I don’t know the last time I stuck to my shopping list when I entered a supermarket. The odd extra item here or there surely doesn’t add up to exploitation? Tell that to the couple we witnessed recently who delayed their checkout queue by going back into the store to buy an additional thirteen pounds worth of goods in order to qualify for the minimum spend that would entitle them to use their loyalty voucher worth nine pounds off their total shopping spend that visit .
So what’s the alternative?
We thought that the decision to stop shopping at a supermarket would prove difficult in practice. With limited knowledge of the alternatives available, we expected a huge amount of effort and inconvenience to be the price we would pay, however willing we were to make the sacrifice.
In all honesty, we weren’t sure how far we would be able to extend the goal and whether our noble intentions would last as long as most New Year resolutions and be out the window by the end of January.
What happened, in fact was that the transition was extraordinarily pain free and makes for a delightful shopping experience that provides ninety-nine percent of our groceries and other household purchases. And every one of those items purchased is organic, ethically-sourced, fairly-traded and without harm to the environment or to animals (we don’t purchase any of the meat available) and humans.
How did we do it? Of course, the first step in this age of Google was to search for local organic stores. We had quite a tough list of wants;
1. local grower and provider of organic produce
2. distributor for other local growers and suppliers
3. fairly-traded and ethically sourced products
4. wide range of vegetarian goods
5. full complement of fresh fruit & veg ; store-cupboard ingredients ; household goods
6. delivery service preferred
7. online ordering and payment system
Within an hour of searching, we had found just the place – Damhead (www.damhead.co.uk – considered one of the ‘star performers’ in Lynda Brown’s book “Shoppers Guide to Organic Food”). And the only thing item unavailable on our shopping list is a secure online payment system. Instead, Damhead hold our payment details on file and manually process our payment after each shopping experience.
In their own words “Damhead Organic Foods was established in 1989 by Sue and James Gerard because of their interest in good food and a growing concern at the obvious problems caused by intensive farming. From the outset [their] aim has been to grow, source and supply the very best organic foods for [their] customers, and although Damhead is now one of Scotland’s leading independent organic distributors it remains very much a family business where [they] offer a personal level of service which may be lacking in more anonymous companies.”
On 4th January (the first working day of the New Year in Scotland) we set off to visit the Damhead shop, and what a delightful experience that was. We conducted our shopping in what we can only imagine were similar circumstances to that observed by our grandparents. A small-sized shop with one central room and a separate cold space hosted most of what our family needs to get by on a week by week basis. No noisy refrigerators or polythene carrier bags were in sight: just traditional, old-fashioned shelves from which we plucked our usual fare of wholefoods and fresh fruit and veg.
We have continued to shop online from the Damhead website, which allows us the freedom to place our order at anytime throughout the week, as long as it arrives two days prior to our allocated delivery time. We can save previous orders and quickly populate our basket with favourite items and keep track of our spend each step of the way. The only stressful situation experienced is trying to resist the pull of our favourite Green & Black’s chocolate bars, which is usually unsuccessful!
Our goods are reliably delivered each week, and arrive with minimum packaging and in a healthy state. Very occasional substitutions have been made (plain tofu instead of smoked tofu as an example) but on the whole we get we ask for, and an odd extra item added in to introduce a new range of advertise an as yet unpurchased product line.
For our family, we have been delightfully surprised at how easy it has been to implement our New Year goal. The benefits, of course have been ten-fold. We no longer spend money on incongruous, surplus and expensive items when we shop. We are increasingly aware of where our food and other household items come from, how they were made and how they got to us. This in itself has acted as a catalyst to change other aspects of our life, which we believe will ultimately lead us to a healthier, sustainable lifestyle and reduce our negative impact on the planet.
We’re an ordinary family who believe we can live a better life without too many sacrifices or needless pain. We would encourage every other like-minded family to set the same goal and see how easy it is to change the habit of a lifetime.
 See http://www.geography-site.co.uk/pages/citizenship/supermarkets.html for an argument for and against supermarkets.
 See http://organikal.typepad.com/organikal/2006/04/every_little_he.html for a full account of that particular supermarket experience.
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