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A nudge and a nag won’t end our throwaway culture

Britain's Richest MP, Richard Benyon

Powered by article titled “A nudge and a nag won’t end our throwaway culture” was written by Peter Wilby, for The Guardian on Sunday 28th April 2013 20.30 UTC

Scarcely a week goes by without a Conservative minister popping up to offer advice on how other people should conduct their lives, whether it’s raising our children, getting more exercise, using less energy, eating healthily, or struggling along on £53 a week. The Tories’ mission is to change us, not to change a distribution of social and economic power that allows bankers to receive six-figure bonuses while the purchasing power of average wages declines annually. In the spirit of Bertolt Brecht, they wish to dissolve the people and elect another. That is why the nearest thing to a guiding philosophy in this Tory-led government is embodied in Downing Street’s “behavioural insights unit” (“nudge unit”, as it’s nicknamed), which aims to persuade us to behave as ministers would wish us to.

A brief House of Commons debate last week provided a very good example. It was perhaps unfair of the Daily Telegraph to report, as its main front-page story, that Richard Benyon, an environment department minister, had advised “families on the breadline” they could save £50 a month by throwing away less food and wrapping it up” so that it keeps fresher for longer”. Benyon – whose wealth is estimated by the Sunday Times Rich List at £110m, making him the richest MP in the Commons – wasn’t talking about austerity, but about food waste as an environmental problem.

But the tone of the debate, introduced by Mark Pawsey, another Tory, to “highlight the importance of packaging materials in food waste”, was revealing. Its entire focus was on the ignorance of consumers. “The average shopper,” Pawsey lamented, “does not know how to treat different foods … Should cucumbers be taken out of the polythene wrap? No. What should people do with cheese once they have opened it? They should put it back in a resealable pack. The lack of such knowledge is damaging the environment and, crucially, people’s pockets.” Benyon joined this denunciation of our sloppy domestic habits. When storing cheese and sliced meats, he said gravely, “13% of us,” put them “unwrapped in the fridge”.

So the government, although apparently unable to track down the billions of unpaid tax salted away overseas, is apparently fully informed about what happens inside our fridges. Let us deconstruct this a little. It is quite right for ministers to discourage waste in a world where resources are under growing strain. Food waste is not just bad for people’s pockets, but also produces as many CO2 emissions as one-fifth of the cars in the UK. Like all waste, however, it begins not in consumers’ homes but in economic practices nurtured by unchecked capitalism. It is estimated that 60% of all food is wasted before it reaches the consumer. For a start, farmers routinely over-produce in order to ensure they can meet supermarket supply contracts. The surplus is left in the ground to rot, usually because supermarket contracts do not permit producers to trade with other retailers. Much of what is harvested will then be thrown away because it does not meet the supermarkets’ rigorous aesthetic standards.

Further waste occurs during retailing. The supermarkets’ aim (obviously) is to sell as much food as they can, regardless of whether anybody eats it or not. Their pricing policies are designed to that end. If the notorious “bogof” (buy one, get one free) deals have declined, other deals that make it seemingly cheaper to buy a second or third bag or packet of food have not. Often, it is not possible to buy food in anything other than large bags, including most varieties of potatoes (which can’t be stored in the fridge because their starches turn to sugar).

Even if consumers get the message that most fresh produce can be refrigerated, not everybody has a sufficiently large fridge or freezer to store quantities of food over long periods. If ministers were serious about waste, they would compel supermarkets to sell produce at a single and transparent daily price per kilo, regardless of the quantity in which it is bought. They would also be compelled to make everything available in a package suitable for one person. After all, people living alone now account for 29% of all UK households.

One could add the contribution of ridiculously conservative “use by” dates which are only now being modified. But food is just one source of waste. Throwing things away is integral to globalisation as it has developed over the past half-century. Goods, from electronic gadgets to clothes, are made overseas, partly because of low costs in countries such as Bangladesh, where factories can collapse, killing hundreds. For the individual, it makes perfect economic sense to replace electronic goods with new ones as soon as they go wrong, because repairs have to be carried out here, where costs are high. If you’re not willing, and sufficiently skilful, to darn socks and patch elbows yourself, you’d do better to buy new clothes than to pay to have them mended. Capitalism’s brilliant answer to increasing durability is to elaborate and refine so that goods feel obsolete almost as soon as you buy them. Even environmentalism itself plays a role in keeping profits up: buy a new machine, you are told, because it will be more energy-efficient than the old one.

It is unsurprising that this throwaway mindset has affected our attitude to food, which has also become a globalised industry, providing products that, to many people (if not to the poor), seem cheap enough to chuck out if you don’t fancy them. No government is likely to develop a programme for reducing globalisation, or gain much electoral support if it did so. But on this and other subjects, ministers should recognise that nagging the public doesn’t reach the heart of the problem. They are guided by two overriding principles: consumers must have choice and producers must have freedom from regulation. This, as they see it, is the route to a small state, in which low taxes and lack of regulation will allow honest, God-fearing entrepreneurs to flourish.

If we have learnt anything from the past six years of economic pain, it is that this formula does not work. Banks and other financial institutions will rob us. Energy companies will ramp up prices. Supermarkets will sell food that gets wasted, not to mention food that causes obesity and diabetes, and cheap booze that leads to alcoholism and binge drinking. Unwilling to impose adequate regulation on powerful businesses – either in consumers’ interests or the planet’s – ministers monitor public behaviour ever more closely and try, usually without success, to regulate it by exhortation.

They should recognise the truth: in a world where economic activity was more limited and more local, it was possible to maintain a small state, in which “red tape” and the “burden” of “pettifogging” regulation was minimal. As international capitalism spreads into more areas of life and becomes more sophisticated and determined in its selling techniques, that ceases to be an option. The small state is obsolete. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010

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