REFLECTIONS OF A SHOPKEEPER - I've got 99 problems

Posted by Louise Humpington on

Anyone else feel like this? ✋
I debated whether to post this article because I didn't want anyone to feel overwhelmed. But equally I think it's also really important to recognise the reality of our current situation, and what is possible as we progress on our respective journeys to Zero Waste.
A conversation this week with a customer about a well known postal laundry pod service reminded me about the amount of greenwashing that big businesses still undertake (and have enormous marketing budgets with which to do so). In real terms there is nothing ethical, sustainable or eco-friendly about the ingredients that they use. But what they do extremely well is provide a convenient service and plastic free packaging with light and easy to use pod capsules. So whilst the actual product might not be on an eco par with our packaging free Miniml refills, it is an improvement on the packaged products available in the supermarket. We also recognise that heavy liquids in particular can be exclusionary for some customers, and therefore that refills might not be an accessible zero waste option for them.
This roller coaster of competing interests is a battle and a challenge we face frequently in the shop when we are choosing what to stock. You may have noticed in the fridge that there are some products which have less than ideal packaging. We acknowledge this and recognise that on an ideological basis, they fly in the face of our ethics and ethos. Do we not stock these Scottish made dairy free products (which have a low carbon footprint and support a fellow small business) and exclude those with dietary requirements or who choose a plant based diet for environmental reasons? Or do we applaud the problems that they do address and then work with our suppliers to leverage influence and lobby to improve the packaging? In this particular case we have chosen the latter (at least for the time being).
The point is that there often isn't a perfect solution to the environmental challenges we face. And that is what this article emphasises so well. We could get oat milk on refill. But the cost of it at the moment (because the larger containers have to be filled by hand as opposed to the tetra packs which can be machine filled) is still about the same as providing it in packaged form. But at least it wins on the less packaging front you might argue? Yes that's absolutely right. However, once one of those giant containers is open it has a much shorter shelf life for us as a shop than the tetra packs. At the moment we don't sell enough oat milk each week to mitigate the risk of food waste and being left with milk that is past its best before it is sold. We could get a nut milking machine but the cost of the actual equipment massively outstrips our current demand for this product, and increases our wage bill as we would need to pay staff for longer to ensure that it was properly and hygienically cleaned (our current regime doesn't have any wiggle room for extra jobs at the moment so this would be additional work). 
This isn't a woe is us post. It's just an example of the kind of things that we have to factor into procurement decisions, when we are looking at stock options. It's also indicative of the current state of play and reflective of the compromises that you will necessarily also face. We are far from perfect and neither will you be. Please don't feel bad or anxious or guilty about that. There are thousands upon thousands of options for any given situation. The point is that sometimes we do have to compromise on our ideals, and that is also OK provided that those decisions are considered and thought through. Educating yourself and understanding why the choice you are making isn't the most sustainable is actually part of the journey. It's about recognising what you can do now and setting yourself future goals for when they are within your means and capacity. Be kind to yourself and if you aren't in a position for whatever reason to access that option, then use it as a spur to action. 
Not happy about the packaging or ingredients of your favourite product. Write to the company and ask them what they are doing about it? 
Not happy about the fact that we don't have an industrial composting facility in Fife to break down vegware packaging and turn it into useable organic matter in a county famed for its agriculture and incredible local produce? Write to your local Councillor, MSP or MP (they are all ears at the moment with the elections coming up - hint, hint).
George Monbiot frequently writes persuasive and eloquent articles about the problems with 'the system' and the inadequacy of the responses from Government and big business ( He's not wrong. He's also frequently sceptical about the role of individuals and the overall impact that we can have. He's also not wrong on that. But that isn't a reason to become jaded or despondent about what you can do. Nor is it a reason to say, well I can't make a difference so I won't do anything. 
Sustainability in a macro sense isn't about whether you make every single micro choice that is available. It is a change of perspective and a holistic recognition of the impact that our collective small changes have. But it is also about how we work together to use our collective power and influence to effect change. Very few individuals will be able to influence a system which has been established by a very particular demographic, and therefore necessarily benefits members of that 'club' disproportionately to the rest of us. 
Since the dawn of time those in power have called the shots and created the systems that the rest of us have been lumped with. That is why diversity is so critical. It isn't about being trendy and 'woke' - although how we have got to a point where being 'alert to injustice in society, especially racism' (literally the definition of the term 'woke)') can be used as a slur is beyond me, but that is another blog post in itself. It is about recognising that the very systems and structures that we operate within, are frequently designed in a way which is exclusionary and therefore limit the ability of many to be engaged and enfranchised in a real sense. 
Without ensuring that all voices are part of the narrative we can't possibly understand what the barriers to access are. We then also can't work towards creating changes which are sustainable for all and not just those with the means and privilege to access them. If we are rebuilding a broken system, one which has already caused irreversible damage to our planet, we must do so in a way which not only allows for participation from everyone in society, but invites and welcomes it.

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