Crawl Across the Ocean

Sunday, May 28, 2006

Some Ado About Not Much

The title to this post being a warning that you may not find the subject matter very interesting.

Anyway, a while back I wrote a review of the book 'The Rebel Sell', co-authored by Joseph Heath and Andrew Potter. While generally favourable I did have a few criticisms, including this one of the author's contention that, "the desire for organic is a straightforward bit of yuppie competitive consumption,"

"The primary weakness of the consumption example (to me) is that, clearly not all 'counter-cultural' purchases are made in pursuit of distinction or status. Lots of people buy organic produce, not to feel morally superior or just to be different, but because they're willing to pay more to avoid the negative externalities caused by pesticides. If everyone started buying organic food and it started being sold by Kraft or whoever, most of the current organic food advocates would see this as a good thing - not as a sign that organic was no longer cool and that it was time to buy something else."

So when Andrew Potter, who has a blog, wrote a post the other day on this particular topic, I was curious to read it.

It doesn't start off very promisingly, with the following passage being somewhat puzzling:
"But when I've argued with journalists, interviewers and other critics, the one point they reluctantly accept is that organic produce is very expensive, and they need some way of either justifying it or mitigating it, in a way that is not so obviously offensive to the working classes. To my mind, the most obvious answer would be to propose organic food subsidies for the poor. No one has ever suggested this to me, for an obvious reason: If we start subsidizing organic food for the poor, organic produce will lose its capacity to create an invidious contrast with the masses. That is, it will no longer serve as a marker of status."

As anyone who knows me is aware, I like cheese. As anyone who has bought cheese knows, it is expensive. Even buying big blocks of mild cheddar, you can meet your caloric intake a lot cheaper with most other foods.

So imagine this passage:
"But when I've argued with journalists, interviewers and other critics, the one point they reluctantly accept is that cheese is very expensive, and they need some way of either justifying it or mitigating it, in a way that is not so obviously offensive to the working classes. To my mind, the most obvious answer would be to propose cheese subsidies for the poor. No one has ever suggested this to me, for an obvious reason: If we start subsidizing cheese for the poor, cheese will lose its capacity to create an invidious contrast with the masses. That is, it will no longer serve as a marker of status."

Now, you might say, that's totally different, if you like cheese, you have to buy cheese, but organic food is just like normal food only more expensive - but then we're begging the question aren't we.

More substantively, Potter returns to his main point, that organic purchases are purely status driven, by quoting a NY Times editorial:

"Even a couple of years ago, the thought of Wal-Mart selling organic food would have seemed unimaginable. The only question is whether it would have seemed unimaginably good or unimaginably bad. That question has now been thrust upon us by Wal-Mart's recent decision to start offering organic food at just 10 percent over the cost of conventional food.

There is no chance that Wal-Mart will be buying from small, local organic farmers. Instead, its market influence will speed up the rate at which organic farming comes to resemble conventional farming in scale, mechanization, processing and transportation. For many people, this is the very antithesis of what organic should be.

People who think seriously about food have come to realize that "local" is at least as important a word as "organic."

Potter takes this as conclusive proof that organic purchases are status driven, concluding his post with,
"Right. Which is just another way of saying that, for people who think seriously about consumerism, 'status' is as important a word as 'justice'."

But let's think about this, the NY Times piece introduces two new pieces of evidence to the question under consideration.

On the one hand, an editorialist for the NY Times doesn't want to buy organic food from Wal-Mart. On the other hand, the people who make product selection decisions for Wal-Mart, one of the world's most successful retailers, think that enough people will buy organic produce from them that it makes sense to stock organic food.

Who is right? I guess we will see, but my money's on Wal-Mart. At any rate it hardly seems like a definitive answer to the question.

But let's say, for the sake of argument, that nobody will buy organic produce at Wal-Mart and the product launch will fail miserably (somewhat putting the lie to my assertion in my review that most organic buyers would be just as happy to buy Kraft Organic food at a low price as they are to buy organic food from some obscure label at a high price.

Potter assumes that people are either lying or mistaken about their motivation for buying organic produce because when Wal-Mart starts selling organic produce made by giant agri-business operations, organic food buyers now stipulate that buying local produce is important as well. In other words, he assumes they are lying in Case A because he assumes they are lying in Case B.

Under some circumstances, this can be a reasonable inference. For example, say I claimed that the reason I eat a lot of cheese is because I think calcium is an important part of the diet. And then when it was found (hypothetically) that you can't absorb calcium from cheese I stated that I eat a lot of cheese because it has a lot of Vitamin D - that would be pretty fishy.

On the other hand suppose that I stated that I watch hockey on CBC with the sound off because I find Jim Hughson annoying. Then, when they replaced Jim Hughson with Bob Cole, I changed my reason for watching hockey with the sound down to the fact that I found Bob Cole incoherent and incompetent. Nobody who watches hockey on CBC could doubt that this is a pretty plausible change in rationale.

So the question is, really, is how plausible is it that those who eat organic food because (to take just one reason) they are against pesticide use, also prefer to get their food from small scale local farms rather than giant agri-business companies? It seems pretty plausible to me, so the fact some people might not want to buy organic produce from giant agri-business firms provides very little evidence on the question of whether people eat organic food simply for the status it provides or for other reasons.

Getting back to reality, it seems quite obvious to me, just by doing a mental inventory of all the people I've known, that there is a mix of motivations for buying organic produce. In my experience there is certainly some element of status seeking in some cases, but this is small in comparison to those who prefer to buy from smaller local companies, and those concerned about agri-business farming methods in general, and those concerned about pesticide use. The majority I've known makes the decision based on taste, buying organic produce when the improved taste is enough to offset the increased price, and not buying when it doesn't.

Take this article for example, someone writes in complaining about the high cost of organic food. The columnist writes back explaining the lamentable fact that organic food is highly priced relative to non-organic food for a number of reasons. Do you suspect that the columnist is in reality only eating organic food because it's high price prevents people like the reader who wrote the question from being able to afford it?

I am puzzled why Potter remains so convinced that organic produce is pure status seeking, maybe he just happens to know a bunch of really shallow people? I mean, I certainly agree that many purchases involve status considerations, to varying degrees with different products (wine, is a particularly statusy example) and that there is a (small) element of this in organic food purchases. I just don't see the need to oversell this element, to the point of denying the existence of other motivations.

Potter starts his post by saying, "Of all the responses to the various arguments in The Rebel Sell, the most hysterical was the reaction to the short - and frankly, quite mild - comments we made regarding organic produce."

He then assumes that the motivation for the hysterical response is that, "There are a lot of people who have a vested interest in redescribing their status goods as virtuous." As far as I can tell, it has yet to occur to him that the reason for the 'hysterical' response is simply that he is wrong on this particular point and the intensity of people's reaction is proportional to their certainty on that point.

But hey, I'm just saying that because [insert assumption about my motivation here].


  • Regarding wal-mart and organic foods - I think its interesting that the argument runs that status-seeking organic food consumers would avoid wal-mart organics. Who's to say that wal-mart knows this and is aiming their organics at an entirely different market: people who don't eat organic foods - most of the population.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 8:28 PM  

  • This post was not at all boring for me. I've been buying organic groceries for a few years now for health reasons. A few months ago I mentioned to a coworker that I had been to Whole Foods on the weekend and I got a derisive "you are such a yuppy" in return. I was very surprised by that reaction as I hadn't been aware that buying organic food was considered a status symbol in some quarters.

    As for the local vs. mass market thing, while I like the romantic ideal of organic being synonymous with local/small scale/etc. my concerns really are primarily health-driven. While I'll continue to root for the underdog I'll keep buying organic regardless of how it's brought to market.

    By Blogger Simon, at 11:35 PM  

  • Anon - Indeed, but then if people who we assume are not status conscious (since they're shopping at Wal-Mart!), are going to be buying organic produce that kind of proves that there are reasons beyond purely status seeking to buy organic, which is the point I was trying to make.

    But I think you are right that Wal-Mart is aiming at those who don't currently buy organic because it is too expensive.

    Simon - Glad it wasn't boring. For myself, I'll buy organic given the option, but I'm only willing to pay a limited price premium, since I see the benefit of organic vs. non-organic, while real, as fairly small (in percentage terms).

    By Blogger Declan, at 11:48 PM  

  • While I think that you may be somewhat underestimating the status driven motivation of buying organic, I agree with you that Potter doesn't seem to consider ANY other possible motivations, which there certainly are.

    Incidentally, I think that Potter's motivation for his stance is driven by a desire to sell more copies of his book. There's nothing wrong with that, of course, but the rest of us can keep in mind what his interests are when we read his blog published under the banner of his current book.

    By Blogger Matthew, at 7:55 AM  

  • I think there's one other point to be made here, which is that the overlap between "local" and "organic" is shrinking fast.

    The powers in charge of organic food certification have made it increasingly difficult and expensive for small farmers to achieve certification. (The control you need over the entire chain of supply is mind-boggling.) Therefore fewer and fewer small farms are even bothering.

    For a few years I got my vegetables delivered by Spud, and they used to show you how far the goods had travelled on average. The number started to go up, and the explanation was that Spud was having a hard time finding local suppliers who were maintaing their organic status. My understanding is that there was much discussion about whether they could expand the definitiion of "organic" to include these farms. (That idea was rejected.)

    So basically, the organic notation now mostly covers operations big enough to make being certified cost-effective (eg. Cascade Farms). The other change is that now that consumers are buying more organic produce, they want it all year round. Cascade Farms needs to be big enough to supply carrots and lettuce in sufficient quantities all year. (That is, their supply chain needs to be big enough.) Not very local.

    My observation is that there's been a shift in food status consumption. The true status seekers are now more concerned about eating locally. (See the National Post's series on the "100 mile diet"). Knowing the history of your lettuce or cow is all of a sudden big business.

    Seriously, at all the dinner parties I've been to recently, the hosts could tell you the genetic history of your food. ("The beets are from a farm we know of who only sell to friends. They're the only growers of this heritage beet variety in Canada. They were picked this morning...") It's quite the competition.

    Plan old organic food can safely be left to the masses.

    By Anonymous Ginna, at 12:41 PM  

  • I'm not worried about these types of status-seekers. Buying organic food, hybrid cars, fair-trade coffee, etc. I think this is positive form of status seeking. Surely it is inevitably an expensive lifestyle not available to many, but if the mechanism of status makes people gravitate towards these types of choices, who are we to judge? Without these sorts of folks, these products may never reach mass acceptance.

    I think there are other, more detrimentally consuming status seekers worth investigating.

    By Blogger DK, at 8:00 PM  

  • Matthew - I disagree, but I take your point that once the pandora's box of speculating about people's motives is opened, it can be hard to get the genie back in the bottle...

    Ginna - thanks for the info. I heard about the 100 mile diet somewhere recently (couldn't have been the National Post, Georgia Straight maybe?). I guess that's one way to keep those money grubbing Africans from ruining our balance of trade.

    dk - I hear what you're saying, but, once we accpet that there is a positive benefit to (for example) buting organic, then it becomes difficult (in my opinion) to separate out the status seeking from the pursuit of that positive benefit. And as you say, it is worthwhile to distinguish between those types of status seeking which lead to positive benefits and those wich have little impact one way or the other (e.g. wine snobbery) and those with a negative impact (e.g. SUV's).

    Applying a broad definition of the term 'status', some (OK, I) might say that organized religion is just a big game of status seeking, but I guess whether you consider that positive status seeking or negative depends on your view of religion.

    By Blogger Declan, at 10:39 PM  

  • Declan - About what do you disagree? My point about Potter trying to sell books? Also, I wasn't really trying to make a point about the difficulty of assessing people's motivations, sometimes they are quite clear.

    By Blogger Matthew, at 6:44 AM  

  • Matthew - I disagree that his primary motivation in making that point was to sell books. If I was to speculate as to his motivation, I would say that he knows somebody like the people Ginna mentions in her comment and they get on his nerves and he has generalized to assume that every organic food eater in the world is just status seeking.

    As an aside, there is a good episode of 'House' where he is treating a doctor who works in Africa helping the poor, and there is some good discussion about what the doctor's motives are and whether they matter or not.

    By Blogger Declan, at 11:03 AM  

  • Declan, the Hundred Mile Diet series was published by The Tyee.

    By Anonymous Deanna, at 4:56 PM  

  • Right, I remember now that I follow your link, thanks Deanna.

    By Blogger Declan, at 5:58 PM  

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