Photograph courtsey of Anna Cura.
Spend time exploring the ways we produce, package, retail, regulate, and eat food in the 21st century, and you’ll often come across the statement: “That’s what the consumer wants.” We allow sugar content to remain high, compromise on wage levels and environmental impact for price, and focus our best innovation brains narrowly on convenience—all because that’s what the consumer wants. In that phrase is the logic that an apparently fundamental truth about human motivation and behavior governs the decisions we make. Efforts to create a more sustainable system find themselves trapped in these ever-decreasing circles, struggling to achieve positive change through the status quo.
But what if we challenge this idea? What if we challenge the notion of the consumer? It starts by realizing how much language matters, recognizing the unspoken values and norms which shape our behavior as individuals, and which add up in turn to shape entire systems.
Social psychology experiments show us the language of the consumer is far from neutral. In fact, when we are primed to respond as consumers, our motivation to participate in our communities, our concern for each other and for the environment is all significantly reduced. Thinking as consumers, our only role is to choose between the options presented to us. We are limited in our capacity to shape the world around us and primed to respond with self-interest and short-termism. And that’s no way to build a sustainable and equitable food system.
The good news is that we are not just consumers. When given meaningful opportunities, we can and want to shape what our options are (not just choose between them), and seek the best outcome for all (not just ourselves). At a fundamental level, when the right conditions are present, humans are active participants. We are citizens—in the biggest possible sense of the word, a sense that needs to be reclaimed and defended from those who would reduce the concept of citizenship to a legal status.
What happens if we apply this new lens to the old entrenched problems of the food system, moving from researching and informing consumers to engaging and empowering citizens?
We are starting to see the answers emerge. We see innovative food brands starting to reimagine the role they play and the relationships they create, like Brewdog, the fastest growing food and drinks company in the United Kingdom. They broke new ground by launching their Equity Punks crowd equity approach; the beauty of this was in seeing people as more than consumers and in seeing shares less as a financial transaction and more as a means of inviting people into their purpose: “to make everyone as passionate about craft beer as we are.” Their resulting community has done much to hold them to account in everything from the wages they pay to the eco-brewery they built to their relations with other brewers and bars. As they gain a foothold in the United States, it will be fascinating to see how their story develops.
We see producers beginning to open up to people in new ways, too. Initiatives like Open Farm Sunday, which sees 250,000 members of the British public engaging directly with farms every year, are about citizens seeing and understanding food and farming in person rather than as products on shelves.
Perhaps most importantly, we see food policy moving from a discussion behind closed doors to a national conversation. Canada’s emerging National Food Policy owes much to the growing role of citizens in the food system who created the Eat, Think, Vote campaign that secured the mandate for a new look at Canada’s food future.
These examples are just the tip of the iceberg, the first signals of an emerging new mindset for organizations of all shapes and sizes in the food system. There are many more examples in our report, and there is more happening all the time. In this world, we consume, but we don’t just consume. We build relationships, communities, and movements, we produce in our own right, we own shares, influence governments, and much more besides.
If these feel like big ideas, they start small. The change we need to create a landslide starts in the blink of an eye. It starts with believing that we as individuals can and want to do more than choose from the options before us—and if we work in food organizations, that our customers and stakeholders can too.
People are more than consumers. And so, next time you’re talking about consumers in a meeting, reading the latest consumer research, or even just hearing about consumers on the cable news channels, you might hear an alarm bell ringing. Listen to it. Take a moment to question the logic behind the language and the implications being made. Call others’ attention to it. Start a new conversation. Ask what could be different if the implicit assumption was that people want to get involved, not just look out for themselves.
A new start point leads to new ideas, and from there to new ways of working and being. And that might just be essential if we are to create a brighter food future.