Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Slow Food Movement: An Example to Designers and Retailers

Re-engineering our product development and production cycles toward sustainability is a long-term goal and will require patience, compromise, and time getting there. A quick look at what has happened to the slow food movement—both in food production and retailing—provides some interesting lessons for designers and retailers that this blog will look at over the next two days. As this movement has built momentum over the past 40 years, it has extended from the rise of an increased number of organic farms to the flourishing of a number of artisan bakeries and dairies. It has included the national growth health food stores and restaurants, the rise of gourmet restaurants featuring locally or regionally produced menus, and an awareness among certain segments of the public about the nutritional and gourmet value of fresh produce and small harvests.

Small local or what we used to call “truck” farms are now selling produce at Farmers’ Markets in many major cities. Philadelphia, for example, has several farmers’ markets spread throughout the city, some are open seasonally twice a week; others, like the one in Rittenhouse Square, are open all year round. Two other markets—Reading Terminal Market and the Italian Market—sell a mixture of large commercially produced fruits and vegetables as well as local produce year round (with a strong slant toward the larger commercial providers at the Italian Market).

What interests me most about these markets—and their parallels to retail—is not the product being sold, whether or not it is produced by a large or small commercial growers or whether or not the products are organic, although to be sure these are important issues. What is most important is how much transportation is involved in getting the product to me, how much I have to travel to get it, and how much transportation affects pricing. I am also interested in the housing and warehousing issues around the selling of the product because that is another area where our carbon footprint becomes quite large.

The local farmers—many of them in Philadelphia being Amish or Mennonite—have relatively low transportation costs. Besides the transportation costs in harvesting, which in the case of the Amish is often horse feed or, for Mennonites, gas for small tractors, transportation involves bringing the goods to market in the cities. The produce is generally priced competitively with local supermarkets, sometimes higher. Only during peak season, can you find any real deals at the Farmers’ Markets. People shop there because they want to support local farmers, buy fresher, often organic food, and enjoy the give-and-take of buying at an open air market. The Philadelphia Farmers’ Markets also sell meat, eggs, milk, cheese, jams and jellies, bread, and other home-processed foods.

Some local farmers sell at Reading Terminal Market, where there is, for example, a large stand of Amish-produced foods, clothing, and souvenirs. Other produce vendors at Reading and the Italian Market buy from the Philadelphia Regional Produce Market or other produce market wholesalers. Their produce is offered without extensive packaging or cleaning for that matter—packaging and repetitive cleaning being other larger consumers of carbon energy.

Reading and the Italian Markets have no or low warehousing costs. The Reading Terminal merchants share space under the roof of the old Reading Railway Terminal building so that they do not require separate buildings, with separate heating and electricity. Many of the Italian market vendors started out selling their products from outside stands. Although most of them still sell from stands, many have built simple concrete block storefronts where they sell more delicate merchandise and maintain back inventory. Packaging is reduced. Many customers bring their own bags or buy from local deliverers like John (pictured above), who sells paper shopping bags at fifty cents apiece or will deliver your products on foot for an agreed upon price.

All of the markets above cater primarily to inner city residents who walk, bike ride or bus to the markets, further reducing the transportation impact of the food consumption process. Any way you assess buying from these vendors, the reduced amount of transportation, either getting the product to you or you to the product, less packaging, and reduced warehousing and selling costs make these products attractive from a social and environmental point of view. Customers understand that and are seeking them out in greater numbers.

I have looked at the Farmers’ Markets in some length because it helps break down the real costs involved in the organic and slow movements. Because much of the real cost of buying goods in the United States is externalized—that is, we do not necessarily pay for the true social and environmental impact of production—we do not have a full understanding of the true price of products, be they grown or manufactured. As consumers become more conscious of consuming, they will begin to start making inquiries both about the costs of production, manufacturing, selling, and disposal. And we’d better be prepared for them. More importantly, we should start opening up about our practices now so that we do not lose our valued customers we worked so hard to get in the first place. More to follow.

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