There is a conventional wisdom when it comes to the food system. It runs something like this:

  • Consumers do care about health, the environment, animal welfare, fair pay in the supply chain, and so forth… but much less than they care about the hard realities of price and convenience.
  • In surveys, they may claim they’re willing to pay more to get “better” food, but when the trolley wheel rubber hits the supermarket floor, for most those claims recede and what they really want – primarily price and convenience – is revealed in their behaviour.
  • Only if you can bring in these nice-to-haves for free (both in money and time), or close to free, will your product be consumed on any meaningful scale.
  • And only if we can get to a world where these products become the most popular will we change the food system for the better.

These perceived truths perpetuate a cycle that sees producers and retailers trapped in a price war over consumer loyalty. When the only value that matters is price, we all become stuck in a race to the bottom.

But this conventional wisdom obscures a huge opportunity for much-needed innovation, which might steer us towards a genuinely fair, healthy and sustainable food system. The barrier blocking this possibility off is the very first word: Consumers.


Image courtesy of Karen Bryan / Flickr

At the core of our work as the New Citizenship Project sits the understanding that when we use the word “Consumers” instead of “people”, we’re shutting off hugely important parts of ourselves. We capitalise “Consumers” to draw attention to it, because it’s become so pervasive as to be almost invisible, and to highlight that using it as much as our society does (particularly when it comes to food) has two major consequences.

First, it limits us. Consumers, by definition, consume. That’s it. But people have far more to offer than just the act of consumption. To give just a few examples, as parents and friends, we can advise and even teach one another; as shareholders, we can invest and shape the policies of the companies in which our money is invested; as citizens, we can vote for policies and representatives that shape the operating environment. And as the world changes, new angles and degrees of agency are being added all the time: crowdfunding has dramatically democratised our ability to support, scale and indeed propose new ways of doing things; e-democracy tools put organising and lobbying (not just voting) in much closer reach; and there is much more besides.

The second consequence of talking of Consumers is that even within the act of consumption, we are telling ourselves to behave in a certain way – to get the best deal for ourselves right now, with no regard for the systemic consequences.

But a growing body of evidence suggests that the conventional wisdom is actually upside down: that in fact we are by nature collaborative, open and participatory – and that is only when we cue ourselves to think as Consumers that narrow self-interest takes over.

With these two consequences in mind, then, we can revisit the conventional wisdom and find the logic flow take us somewhere very different…

  • People do care about health, the environment, animal welfare, fair pay in the supply chain, and so forth
  • When we get to the supermarket, cafe or restaurant, or shop online, we enter an environment where we’re telling ourselves to be Consumers – and we act accordingly
  • But we are not fundamentally Consumers – we are parents, producers, cooks, shareholders, complex beings who are willing to explore and express agency, if given the chance
  • If we could harness this truth more widely, we could make major progress towards a better food system

The opportunity here is huge – and when you start to think about food in this way, you start to see that just below the surface it’s already starting to happen.

First up, community food is starting to get serious, and more and more of us are becoming producers, not just Consumers. There’s the allotment renaissance catalysed by LandShare and the National Trust among others, and the rapid spread of farmers’ markets and public-space growing initiatives triggered by Transition Towns and Incredible Edible. One of my favourite examples is the French company La Ruche Qui Dit Oui (“The Hive That Says Yes”) that last year took in 8 million euros of investment led by big-name New York venture capital firm Union Square Ventures. Operating in the UK as Food Assembly, the concept is a cross between a farmer’s market and a buying group: a Leader organises a venue for each assembly and signs up local producers, growers, and shoppers – at any scale – with payments managed online through the Assembly platform. Then everyone comes together at a weekly event to hand over their goods, and meet one another face-to-face. It’s gradually taking hold in the UK, but there are hundreds of thriving assemblies or “ruches” across France, Belgium and the rest of continental Europe – and the involvement of USV suggests some serious international growth to come.

Closer to the mainstream, the fastest growing food and drink brand in the country is Scottish brewer and soon distiller BrewDog – and their rapid growth is in large part a result of a model which throws the idea of the Consumer out of the window. Founded by two friends back in 2007, BrewDog effectively invented the concept of equity crowdfunding in 2009 (before any of the now-established platforms like CrowdCube even existed), and in April this year closed their fourth round of equity crowdfunding after raising a world record £19m. The company operates on a hugely participatory basis: their 2015 AGM had an attendance of 6,000; and “Equity Punks” as they are known are actively involved in creating and testing beers for their growing business. Those who drink BrewDog own BrewDog, and that plays its part in company policy too: BrewDog were the among the first businesses to become a living wage employer back in October 2014, and have also won awards for their state-of-the-art eco brewery north of Aberdeen.


BrewDog’s 2015 AGM: not your usual shareholder gathering. Image courtesy of BrewDog.

Even when we turn to the supposedly staid forum of central government, the Food Standards Agency seems to be on the verge of leading a charge away from destructive consumer logic. Their conference earlier this year may have taken place in the relatively traditional surroundings of Westminster’s Queen Elizabeth Hall, but was light years ahead of most of its peers in encouraging participation and interaction. Attendance was open and free, the event streamed live with over 5000 people following, and the debate in the hall enhanced with real-time voting and feedback technology. Most important of all, the framing of #OurFoodFuture clearly recognised and sought to support the agency we all have in shifting the system. This openness to engaging with people as active participants in the process is an exciting and encouraging move, though there remains far more to do.

These examples show that it is indeed possible for major players in the food system to invite and inspire people to explore their role in the food system beyond consumption; and also, in doing so, to create more value in the act of consumption. The stories of BrewDog and La Ruche, in particular, show that the genius of this more open way of thinking is that the act of consumption is reframed as (literally or metaphorically) buying into an organisation and an idea, not just transacting in a zero-sum game with the aim of maximising self-interest.

There are many more examples out there of organisations starting to tiptoe, mostly unknowingly we suspect, into this space. The supermarkets, clearly the centre of gravity in the UK food system, are no exception: Morrisons are perhaps furthest into this territory, with their Let’s Grow scheme among others; but Tesco’s Eat Happy Project and its online field trips, and Sainsbury’s increasing interest in community engagement around food waste, are heading this way too.

If we’re reading the signs correctly, there is great opportunity here. If as a society we can head in this direction not just by accident but by design, significant value could be created throughout the food system, which in turn could create the space and the mandate to reverse many decades of decline in everything from animal welfare to environmental sustainability. That has to be worth exploring.

Our belief as the New Citizenship Project is that the time has come to head in this direction much more consciously, and we think we can help. We’ve gathered much of the research referred to in the above in a report we published last year called This Is The #CitizenShift: a guide to understanding and embracing the emerging idea of the Citizen, and are now working with the Food Ethics Council to convene a collaborative innovation project to take the step from theory to practice in the food sector. We are looking for 6 organisations to work with us on the question “How can challenging the consumer status quo create more value in our food system?” – so if you work for such an organisation, we’d love to hear from you.

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