Can we improve the world by changing our buying habits?

Can we improve the world by changing our buying habits?


2015/08: Billig billig

Maarten van Leeuwen

We were for a few days in the region around Nordhausen. Most supermarkets were hard discounters, where I have not set foot for many a year. As an alternative, we went into a “soft” discounter. We were in the shock. Wine as low as at 1.59, or 1.89, with averages well below 3 euro. How can a quality product be made for such a price? We bought the most expensive one at 8.59 – it had an anti-theft protection.

When I worked for Dole Food Company we still had a pineapple canning plant in Hawaii. Canning fruits is labour intensive, and the cost per tin was 3 times higher than a similar product from the Philippines. Despite many efforts to preserve the Hawaii plant, Dole ultimately was forced to close it. It was around this time that I met a senior official from a labour union. It was at a marriage party (not mine) and we got into a conversation. “You work for a very bad American Company. They close factories in the West, and open new ones in the Far East where people are exploited.” So I asked her “If you find two identical cans of pineapple, one at 0.99 and one at 4.99, which one would you buy?” “Well, the one of 0.99 of course” was the unsurprising answer. “Therefore, WHO closed the factory, you or me?” I asked. Surprisingly, this point was totally lost. There was no relation, in her eyes, between her shopping habits and the actions of big bad multinationals.

The problem, of course, is that there is.

I have long thought that the power of the retail industry was a largely unrecognised and undisclosed issue the world was facing. If you participate in one sales call with a large retailer you quickly discover why I thought this. 

However, I now see that this is not so. Despite their perceived power – even global brands such as Coca cola typically form small fractions of their turnover – I now believe that retailers also are more victims of consumer behaviour than anything else. If we all run to hard discounters to obtain the absolute lowest price, what can they do?

This, therefore is the issue. It is also the question. Why do we want the absolute lowest price for everything we buy? Of course, some of us are unfortunate enough that we cannot afford anything else, as income is limited. This, however, does not seem to be the most common reason, if only by judging from the cars on the car parks around low cost supermarkets.

It is a complex issue. Of course we do not want to be cheated, and we do not want to pay for inefficiency. However, how far do we stretch this? Let us say I want a bike, and I want the best one. What is my behaviour if I go to a shop to look at one, possibly even test-drive it, and then go onto the Internet to buy the same model online for 200 euro cheaper? The shop owner is not cheating me, nor is he inefficient. He charges me 200 euro for the service of being able to touch and feel, and to test. Obviously, my behaviour is driving the guy out of business.

Personally, I have never been very interested in buying the cheapest, even when I was a student with modest means. Why should I? 

When I buy something – anything – of course I pay attention to the price. But I believe there is much more. There is love, and there is respect. Respect for the other, respect for the farmer, and for animals. I do not eat meat, but I frequently buy it for my partner and for guests. I always make sure I buy meat from an animal that had a happy life, rather than one which had a miserable one. How can the meat of an animal that had a horrible life in unspeakable conditions make anyone healthy and happy? Is it then not better to pay a few euros more, or buy a smaller piece? We’re all overweight anyhow and most of us – including me – eat too much.

I believe we need to find a better balance in the world, in life. We need to perceive that what we buy and eat is a gift of nature. We give ourselves, and those around us, sustenance. The act of buying something wholesome and healthy is an act of love. Love of the self, and love of others. This love necessarily must include all those involved in delivering this product to you.

Small initiatives such as Max Havelaar and Oxfam have started. Paying a fair price for bananas and coffee, usually for fair or good quality. With the Internet, we no longer have the excuse that we “do not know where stuff comes from”. We know. If we all act more on this knowledge, things like animal suffering, nitrate pollution and aid programs to developing countries may greatly diminish.

It is not the multinationals, nor the retail industry, nor some hidden complot that is causing many of the troubles in this world. It is our behaviour. 

Maarten van Leeuwen
Group Managing Director

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Can we improve the world by changing our buying habits?

Can we improve the world by changing our buying habits?