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The future of food: beyond the consumer

Categories: News and previews

New Citizenship Project and Food Ethics Council report launches at Borough Market

Words: Clare Finney
Images: Anna Cura

Picture the scene: there’s a water shortage and you and the three other consumers who rely upon the local well are asked to reduce their daily consumption. Do you listen, confident that your neighbours will also? Or fill up your duck pond regardless, assuming they’ll ignore it?

This was the question posed to 2,000 participants in a survey conducted by the New Citizenship Project in 2015. Half the participants were addressed as consumers; the other half, as individuals. As semantic changes go, this was tiny—yet the effects it had on people’s feelings as to how they would act and what they’d expect of their neighbours, were startling. Those who answered as consumers were significantly less likely to be willing to reduce their own water usage, and significantly less likely to trust their fellow dependents to reduce theirs, too.

It set our minds whirring, said Jon Alexander, founding partner of the New Citizenship Project: an innovation company founded to effect a shift from labelling ourselves ‘consumers’, to ‘citizens’ and thus encourage better participation in society. This shift is psychological, not just semantic, he argued powerfully, in what was the first academic event Borough Market has hosted since the tragic events of 3rd June.

It could not be more fitting, said the Market’s managing director Darren Henaghan as he introduced the launch of the report New Citizenship Project co-authored with the Food Ethics Council, ‘The future of food: beyond the consumer’. “It reads like my business plan. Because if ever you wanted to know if ethics, practicality and consumerism can go together—look behind you. The Market is a living example—a microcosm of how we can start a sophisticated debate with the customer about food.”

Bringing people together
Bringing a cohort of representatives from across the food system—from Market darling Rubies in the Rubble to heavy hitters like Nestle—the launch was an important step in the Market’s recovery, because it showcased “what we do best: bringing people together to enjoy food, enjoy the community and enjoy the stories and ethics behind food”.

But it had an even wider significance, set out by Jon in the opening lines of his speech. “According to a food issues census conducted this year by the Food Ethics Council, by most indicators the challenges facing the food system are getting worse, not better.” No matter how hard we try—here within Borough Market, further afield in the form of government policy or charitable causes—“we are stuck in a mindset which prevents us from moving on.”

That mindset is the consumer mindset; its governing principle, “that’s what the consumer wants”. Its actions rest on the assumption that consumers are “narrow, self-maximising agents” who “when the wheels of the trolley hit the supermarket floor, don’t follow through on their intentions to spend more on ethical, environmentally-friendly products”: an assumption about human nature that has taken on the aura of a fundamental truth.

The report—this event, in fact, set as it was against the backdrop of all the kindness the London and wider food community has shown Borough Market in the wake of the terror attacks—turned that assumption on its head. “What we realised and what the events of the last few weeks, the results of this report, and academic research has shown, is that it is actually much truer to human nature for us to be citizens: to shape, create and participate in the systems we are in,” said Jon.

Crowd at New Citizenship Project and Food Ethics Council report launch at Borough Market

Disconnected and isolated
The consumer mindset doesn’t just limit individuals to passively choosing between the options the system presents them with, it proliferates up the food chain, to the suppliers, producers—even the governments and NGOs shaping policy around food. “The producer is disconnected and isolated. The government believes the only reflection of people’s priorities is consumption behaviour. Shareholders are just thinking of easy ways to maximise return, rather than hold a meaningful share in the organisation.”

Change the narrative to citizenship, however, and you make us (and here Jon stressed the shift in mentality organisations they worked with noticed when they changed the pronoun from ‘they’ to ‘we’, when referring to customers) all participants in the system: people with “multiple angles of agency, who can get involved in open policy making and crowd equity decisions, have a direct relationship with food producers and buy into the brands they relate with, not just buy from them.” Could it be this simple, the audience asked silently? Yes, said Jon. To some extent, it could.

He cited examples: BrewDog, the craft beer company that began as a crowd-owned business with “a higher purpose” than profit from selling beer to people. “This was the days before crowd funding and things like Kickstarter. They wanted to interact with the people who bought from them.” He referenced Farmwell, a boutique agricultural consulting firm that connects high net worth individuals and investors to farmers to create business models that can provide stability, diversity and sustainable growth.

Then he called to the stage the six organisations with which they explored the question of how shifting from a consumer to a citizen mindset can create more value in the food system: the RSPB, the Food Standards Agency, COOK, the Co-op, the National Trust and FAI Farms, all of which fed back positively on the tangible ways in which talking about themselves and their customers or users as ‘citizens’ had positively impacted the organisation in some shape or form.

Blue sky thinking
It wasn’t all blue sky thinking. One of the questions at the end came from the managing director of ASK, the Italian restaurant chain, and asked “how can those businesses who didn’t start out with the optic of social change, but rather to make money, go about this without ruining the balance sheet?” Jon seized the point enthusiastically.

“This way of working presents a huge amount of commercial and creative opportunities. If organisations like ASK ask themselves fundamentally ‘why are we here? What are we trying to achieve?’ and they have a purpose that is genuine and meaningful, then they can invite customers in. If they recognise that the products they sell are only one part of that, that there can be other ways to participate in that vision as a customer, the loyalty that comes from those relationships has a financial, as well as societal, value. When we started out, this whole thing was maybe a bit idealistic,” Jon muses. “But as we’ve put more into it, particularly companies like Co-op and COOK have seen the opportunities that come with deeper relationships with people.”

The managing director of ASK—a multi-million pounds business—seemed satisfied. So too did representatives from youth action groups, government departments and supermarkets. What remains is to put it into practice, finished Jon—and with both the report and various web links available online, there is plenty of advice on how to enact this vision as individuals and businesses.

“In our report, we talk about markets and the role markets play in enabling people to have a conversation about food. We talk about how people can engage differently with food and have better conversations about it; Borough is all about bringing people together around food and the role it can play in building a better society. For us, to be hosting the first event here after what has happened and for Borough to be really putting themselves back into that space, it’s an amazing opportunity to be a living part of what Borough is all about.”