Monday, November 26, 2007

Monday Morning Java: Consumer Trends

news, information, ideas and opinions to start the week off with a jolt

Ethicurean consumers: A serious and growing movement

Move over epicureans, vegetarians, vegans, locavors and other food lifestylers, there's a new consumer in town--and a new term to add to the growing lexicon of words and phrases that define today's eaters. Ethicureans are eaters who's food concerns and principles take precedence over taste. They love good food, but for these consumers that food must at least fall into four key categories: sustainable, organic, local and ethical. Ethicureans call it SOLE food for short.

Although food choices for ethicureans must fall into these four categories, life isn't so easy. Contradictions abound. For example, is it ethical to eat organically-grown foods that are imported from thousands of miles away? The answer would likely be no. However, what if those organically grown foods are produced by farmers in an undeveloped country who are paid a fair trade wage to grow the organic delights? And what if by exporting these organic foods, these farmers, for the first time ever, are able to live a fairly decent lifestyle? That answer is a bit more difficult for ethicureans to answer, although since the food isn't locally-produced it does violate one of their four SOLE food precepts for ethical eating.

Similarly, what about locally-produced conventional fruits and vegetables. Imagine this produce being produced by a farmer who pays his workers double the minimum wage, provides health insurance for them at no charge and operates a sustainable farm with the exception of using commercial fertilizer, which means the fruits and veggies aren't organic. However, the produce is local, the farmer is super-ethical, and uses otherwise very sustainable agricultural methods with the exception of the commercial fertilizer? You get our point--ethical eating is fraught with contradictions.

Despite this fact, ethicureans are committed to their cause and working through the contradictions. As a guide to eating ethically they suggest eating as close to "raw" foods as one can. In other words, the more processed and refined a food is, the more energy and water is used to produce it--hence making it unethical by various degrees. As such, whole grains, fresh fruits and vegetables, and unprocessed or lightly processed foods are the choice of ethicureans. This doesn't mean they eschew quality or gourmet foods. Rather, it's quit the opposite is many cases. In fact, many are foodies who love quality foods as long as they meet the SOLE food criteria: sustainable, organic, local and ethical.

Writer Michael Pollin--author of the Omnivore's Dilemma--is serving as sort of a non-elected guide to ethicureans in terms of what they "should" eat. Pollin, a popularizer of the term locavore (one who eats local foods), suggests a good rule of thumb for ethicureans is not to eat anything our great-great-great grandmothers wouldn't recognize. This rules out popular convenience foods and many other staples found in the modern supermarket. He praises what he argues is the ethical superiority of small, local organic farms. (A locavore isn't supposed to eat foods produced more than 100 miles from where they live.)

Pollin also believes the industrialization of food production has caused the organic foods movement to lose its soul. Multinational corporations buying smaller independent organic producers, the mass marketing of organic groceries by mega-chains like Wal-Mart, Target and others, and what he says are contradictory organic products like microwavable organic TV dinners, are all contributing factors to this loss of soul by the organics movement, which once was the domain of food cooperatives, farmers' markets and orthodox health foods stores.

Other aspects of the ethicurean lifestyle include eating seasonal foods. Seasonal foods generally travel much shorter distances than non-seasonal ones, thus falling into the local category, as producing these foods requires them to travel fewer food miles. Food miles is a measure of the distance foods travel from where they are produced to where they are consumed. Along the way these foods require numerous energy inputs--fuel, refrigeration and the like--which releases carbon into the atmosphere at each step along the way.

Bottled water is another negative for ethicureans. They argue it violates numerous green principles. First, it's packaged in plastic, which requires the use of fossil fuels to produce. The plastic water bottles also must be recycled--and often end-up being tossed into landfills. Next, most bottled water travels great distances from where it's produced and warehoused to the stores where it's sold. This supply and distribution chain requires excess food miles, they argue, and causes pollution and carbon emissions throughout the journey.

Lastly, much of the bottled water sold is merely filtered tap water. Ethicureans argue this is a waste of municipal water supplies which have been paid for by taxpayers. It's unethical they say for corporations to make money off these public utility systems. Instead they advocate drinking tap water, using reusable water bottles instead of disposable ones, and if needed using a filteration system on home water taps rather than buying bottled water.

Waste reduction also is key for ethicureans. Fresh produce packaged in foam trays or plastic bags is avoided. Rather, these consumers only buy bulk produce, which is generally organic. Along with recycling, they advocate home composting, not only as a way to keep food scraps out of landfills, but also as a way to provide an organic soil amendment for home gardening, which is the ultimate in local food sourcing.

Eating less meat and dairy is a part of the ethicurean lifestyle. A couple facts: About 60 billion animals are slaughtered each year in the world for food. According to the United Nations' Food and Agricultural Organization, global meat and milk consumption will nearly double between now and the year 2050. Ethicureans argue that by simply eating four fewer (than average) servings of dairy a week, consumers can save 26,000 liters of water and cut greenhouse pollution by about 500 kilograms annually. Cutting back on the amount of meat one eats also conserves water and energy, and results in fewer greenhouse gas emissions. Doing so is part of an ethical consumer lifestyle they say.

Buying and supporting fair trade, free-range, cruelty-free, organic and GMO-free foods are all aspects of the ethicurean lifestyle. Ethicureans look for labels and logos describing these attributes on the food products they buy. These economic and moral concerns are built into the ethical consumer stance ethicureans take--and vote on with their pocketbooks at the grocery store.

Ethical consumers are a small but fast-growing group globally. The movement is strongest obviously in the developed, western world where people have the luxury to make such choices. It's current epicenter is the United Kingdom but it's making strong inroads throughout western Europe, the U.S. and Australia.

Ethicureans are a diverse lot in terms of their backgrounds and eating habits to a certain degree. Not all adhere to the same, identical practices in terms of how they shop and what they eat. However, there is a broad consensus among them on what the key aspects of an ethicurean lifestyle are. These include the four categories described in the beginning of this piece--sustainable, organic, local and ethical (SOLE food)--along with various sub-categories like animal welfare, reduction of meat and dairy use, water conservation, fair trade and others.

Food producers, marketers and retailers should learn more about the ethicurean movement. Although it shares many similarities to established consumer lifestyles such as vegetarianism, veganism, naturalism and others, it's much different in that it comprises a comprehensive core of ethical, moral, humane, economic, social and political variables into a whole. That whole is the ethicurean consumer lifestyle--a growing global social, behavioral and economic consumer movement you will be hearing much more about.

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