Archive for the ‘Food and Drink’ Category

Is sustainability possible without slowing down?

Do we Americans work too much or otherwise stay too busy to live sustainably? The question has been running through my mind since Saturday, when I joined about 50 other Portlanders in sampling a new discussion course on food by the Northwest Earth Institute. (I am a member of the NWEI board.)

I led a group of 10 people in discussing two articles from the course. One question from the readings, “Does slowing down in terms of food — shopping, preparation or eating — appeal to you?”, drew unsurprising consensus. Although some “hated” going to the grocery store and some “hated” cooking, the idea of slowing down around food appealed to everyone.

That is, until the follow-on question came: “What would be the trade-offs for you personally?” This was a group of well-educated adults whose intense work lives and family responsibilities seemingly allowed no room to slow down. Who has the time or the energy to shop, cook and eat in a manner that always makes a priority of sustaining the environment, our families and us?

We were talking about food, but the same could easily be said of any number of consumption, work and lifestyle choices we face everyday. Sustainable living requires conscious choices. When we’re overly busy or stressed we go on autopilot or revert to what’s convenient instead of what’s healthiest for all concerned.

One of the group members told me that slowing down would mean leaving her corporate job where she was held captive by the “golden handcuffs” — even though she had to work 60 hours a week to keep those handcuffs on. Millions of Americans find themselves in the same predicament. And when push comes to shove, most of us decide to keep our demanding jobs and the financial security they provide rather than choose a mode of living that leaves more time for the basic joys of life, such as preparing and sharing a meal with family or friends.

So what will it take for more Americans to choose to slow down? Or is the story we tell ourselves — that we can’t afford to slow down — true for most of us? And if the latter is the case, what does that say about the prospects for a sustainable future?


Bottled water: When it’s time to say no to branding

Several years ago I attended a conference on branding. One of the keynote presenters began his talk by holding up a bottle of water. If marketers can successfully brand water, they can brand most anything, he quipped. His comments were meant to get the creative juices flowing among his audience. Hell yes, we can brand anything! And indeed, we do.

I thought of that marketer’s attempt at inspiration yesterday when I was listening to a talk by Maude Barlow, author of “Blue Covenant: The Global Water Crisis and the Coming Battle for the Right to Water.” Barlow, a Canadian, is known internationally for her tireless advocacy for every human’s right to water. When asked what people could do to help solve a water crisis that is worsening by the day, her first response was, stop buying bottled water. (She also encouraged her audience to check out Food & Water Watch, where you can find many of the issues and facts Barlow cites to make her arguments.)

Like I suspect most everyone else who hears Barlow speak, I left yesterday with a vastly heightened concern for the world’s clean water sources. The water crisis is no less urgent than climate change. “The issue of water is an issue of life and death,” Barlow said. “Without water, you die.” And without clean water, you die. The number one killer of children worldwide is dirty water. “In every single case, it was preventable,” Barlow said.

If the marketing superstar I heard a few years back were back on the podium today I would hope he’d hold up the bottle of water and deliver a cautionary tale. We have the know-how to take nothing more than packaged tap water and persuade others it really is different and better than — your tap water and the tap water of every other bottler. In fact, the average American consumed 29 gallons of bottled water in 2007.

With the ability of marketers to brand anything also comes great responsibility. It may give marketers a great sense of accomplishment when their creativity helps produce a multi-million dollar brand from something as basic as tap water. But they must also own up to their role in exacerbating the global water crisis (and adding to pollution from non-recycled plastic bottles).

Marketers committed to sustainability need to constantly ask: For whom and for what are we going to use our skills today? Just because we can brand anything doesn’t mean we should.


Lattes, scones and what really matters

I know him only as Mohammad. Today I learned his last name when much to my surprise I read a brief editorial that featured him and his cafe. Most weekday mornings for nearly six years I stopped in at Mohammad’s corner juice bar for a latte and one of his irresistible scones or muffins. It would usually be a brief stop, because like Mohammad I had my own business and needed to get to my office just a few blocks away and get started on my day. But many times over the years I would linger to chat between the orders of his many other loyal customers. We talked business at first. Eventually we got to know about each other’s families. He met my mom before she became too physically unstable to visit. He still asks about her today. My wife drops by regularly, too. And now Mohammad has met my in-laws from out of town. Several years ago, I started seeing Mohammad’s young son at the cash register on Saturday mornings or weekdays when he didn’t have school. I can’t help but think of myself, years ago, when my dad would bring me to his store. I liked operating the cash machine, too.

Like my dad once did, Mohammad runs a family business. I don’t know that family businesses are endangered species, but for the last 30 years or more they have inexorably given way to corporate chains and franchises. And as they have, we citizens of communities keep losing faces and places that bind us together. Like me with the editorial writer at the Oregonian. I’ve never met him, but I know now we share something important in our lives. Taking direct aim at the mermaid joint directly across the Park Block, he writes:

Mohammad would never ask you if you stupidly forgot to order something from his pastry case. He figures if you want a scone, you’ll order one. But he has been known to slip one into a sack and just hand it to a good customer once in a while. That’s class. It shows why his tip jar is usually brimming, and why he’ll probably be able to take his kids back to Disneyland or somewhere else fun next summer, too.

Mohammad has also shared his story with me of taking his kids to Disneyland this summer. I was happy for him because I know he almost never takes a break from his business. I suspect you know people just like him near your workplace or home. If not, look a little harder. Your life will be richer for it.

Tuesday, October 2nd, 2007
Posted in Business & Economics, Food and Drink, Oregon | No Comments »

Tesco in the US: Good neighbor or Trojan Horse?

Wal-Mart may one day have some competition for the most despised retailer in America. Tesco, the Wal-Mart of Britain, will be making its entry into the US market in November, starting with 500 outlets in Southern California, Phoenix and Las Vegas. The Hometown Advantage monthly bulletin today cites a study of what to expect from Tesco in the US.

The company appears to have learned from Wal-Mart’s image problems in the US and is taking a different approach. Tesco’s US strategy makes it look like a paragon of social responsibility. It is locating many stores in “food deserts” that other grocers have abandoned because the areas may be poor or unsafe while also branding itself as local, sustainable and good community citizens. Its stores will be known as Fresh & Easy Neighborhood Markets, instead of Tesco. Time will tell whether there is real substance to its image making, or whether its strategy is simply a Trojan Horse to get into the US with little opposition and then revert to business as usual. Already, groups are calling its bluff. And one LA academic told Reuters:

“If it’s really all that it has been advertised as … then they will be successful. If it turns out that it is just really impressive marketing that covers up a business that is not much different from its competitors … then the American public will figure it out in a while.”

Mainstream business media are watching to see how much market share Tesco will grab from other large chains like Safeway and Wal-Mart. Aside from watchdogs like The Hometown Advantage, I don’t see anyone asking what Tesco’s US arrival portends for independent locally owned grocers. We can assume the first 500 stores are in the southwest are just the start, and they will be coming to a strip mall near us all soon. Oh joy.

Friday, September 28th, 2007
Posted in Business & Economics, Food and Drink | No Comments »

Deserved accolades for Portland restaurant scene

There are a lot of reasons I love living in Portland. And the New York Times has done justice to one of them: our amazing restaurant scene. I’m sure the tourism crews in the city and state are diggin’ yesterday’s lengthy piece, “In Portland, a Golden Age of Dining and Drinking.” For those of us living here, it’s not news. But it’s a good feeling to know we live in a city where the ingredients that make for a high quality of life – local, sustainably grown food and people who revel in producing and preparing it – are in such abundant supply. The article also touts our local wines, micro brews and distilled spirits. I would add my favorite, terrific local coffee roasters, to the list as well. (Another New York Times reporter recently featured Portland’s burgeoning and distinctive tea culture.)

If you have read this blog, you know my bias for things local. Local businesses and the people who own and work at them give communities their unique character. In Portland, we are blessed with many fantastic locally owned restaurants. I look forward to the day the New York Times returns to feature Portland for the thriving locally owned businesses of all sizes and types and their thousands of loyal customers that have stood up to America the Franchise and declared victory for what makes our community special.

Thursday, September 27th, 2007
Posted in Food and Drink, Oregon, Sustainability | No Comments »

And you call yourself an environmentalist

I am a meat-eating environmentalist. And that would make me a hypocrite.

It says so right here in the NY Times: “You just cannot be a meat-eating environmentalist,” says a PETA spokesman.

Through stepped-up advertising campaigns, PETA and other animal rights groups are trying to educate us that eating meat does more to cause global warming than driving. And those they are going after most aggressively are environmentalists, reserving special wrath for Al Gore. The animal rights activists don’t believe the earth activists are doing enough to promote a non-meat diet. Especially after a UN report issued late last year concluded “that the livestock business generates more greenhouse gas emissions than all forms of transportation combined.”

I’m sympathetic to the causes of animal rights groups. But why hammer environmental types for eating meat or not promoting vegetarian or vegan diets? After all, it ain’t exactly easy getting yourself, much less others, to get rid of SUVs, drive less, walk or bicycle more, move into or build smaller homes, switch to CFLs and turn off the lights, stop flying, buy local, unplug appliances, reduce, recycle, reuse, buy carbon offsets, and on and on.

“So what,” seems to be the rabid herbivores’ response. As one vegan tells the Times:

“I guess the environmentalists recognize that it’s a lot easier to ask people to put in a fluorescent light bulb than to learn to cook with tofu.”

Environmentalists, and I’m sure many are also vegetarians, have all they can do to get people to change transportation and household behaviors that contribute to global warming. Let the animal rights activists carry the flag for vegetarianism. The only way we can expect to re-wire every citizen in this country so they contribute the least possible amount of carbon emissions is by sharing the duties.

Call me crazy, but I don’t think a strategy of telling those already doing more than most others to stop global warming, “You’re not doing enough,” will swell the vegan ranks anytime soon.

Wednesday, August 29th, 2007
Posted in Climate Change, Food and Drink, Marketing | No Comments »