Why Consumer Choice is Not Good

Saturday, 9 February 2008

[Picture of cigarette packs]I AM going to argue here that things have gone wrong, and that responsibility has become misplaced. It seems to me to be the case that things are no longer what they once were, that things are no longer simple.

Allow me to illustrate: Bread is no longer just bread, there is an amazing range of types of bread — it takes up a lot of shelves in the supermarket. Which one should I buy?

Well, I suppose you can try one after the other until you find a type of bread that you prefer, that seems a reasonable basis for choice — except that it is not, according to all the many lobby groups around.

I am supposed to try to be healthy, so I ought to buy “healthy” bread. If I am worried about the obesity figures, I should select bread that is low in fat and calories, perhaps low in salt to lower cholesterol…

[Picture of Organic logo][picture of soil association logo]But what about “Organic” — it may be more expensive, but it’s better for you — isn’t it? Maybe so, but the lobbyists for saving the planet would argue that you should select bread that is made locally — with less air miles and a lower carbon footprint.

Well, that might tie-in with those who say you ought to support local farmers or the UK agricultural business.

[Picture of Red Tractor Logo] [Picture of Fair Trade logo]

But then you would fall foul of those who say that you would kill off Fair Trade — those poor farmers in Africa and South America who depend on you buying their stuff (and to hell with saving the planet)!

I could go on, but I wont; you no doubt get the idea and catch my drift.

The fact is that it is impossible to act in accordance with all the factors involved. So no matter what you do as a consumer, you are going to get it horribly wrong, and your action will cause suffering and death, and potentially kill off the human race as well as planet Earth.

Oh, why did I pick that loaf?

Here’s a typical list of nutritional ingredients on a box of cereal (Click on the pic )

[Pictur eof Ingredients of Golden Munchies]

Honestly, all this education, all this information, is this what we have come to?

I heard on the radio recently that more information on packaging is a good idea because it informs the consumer, and allows them to make informed choice!

To me this is another way of saying that the responsibility has been transferred (or shirked). The manufacturer is no longer accountable, and that goes for the government too. Everything is MY fault now.

I cannot accept that by telling me the figures that I can be responsible for any consequences, incidental or otherwise. OK, I can look at a product in a supermarket, the packaging could tell me that it has so much salt, so much fat and so forth. Am I now to calculate my daily nutritional requirement with this information? Am I to get out my copy of McCance and Widdowson’s? No, the information is useless in that sense — it can only be useful in the context of the time and place, allowing the consumer to choose which products to buy. That’s a pretty narrow context, isn’t it?

Ethical considerations are much the same — the consumer may be able to choose between one brand of coffee over another, perhaps taking the Fair Trade one.

The decision to choose personal health (survival) over ethical considerations is more tricky. I personally do not feel comfortable having to make that choice.

The way I see it, no food (or anything else of that matter) should be unhealthy or produced in an environment of suffering and exploitation. That should be a matter for elected representatives (goodness we have are enough of them), not us and certainly not at the point of sale.

This would free the consumer to base their choice upon value — mainly cost and taste — and that is correct and as it should be (and as it once was). If local is not cheaper, or organic not tastier, then one has to ask why!

[Picture of kosher symbol][Picture of halal symbol]Value is what the packaging information should be about. Biscuits, for example, have extra value when they come with a useful tin box. People do buy things because of nice packaging, but the information on the package adds value — for example, it might inform you that the contents are long-lasting, easy to cook, or best before. Aside from these, value is to be had from information such as being halal or kosher, vegetarian or health-based (gluten-free, contains nuts, etc).

  • A worst case might be a Jewish vegetarian with a lactose intolerance and coeliac disease looking for an easy cook ready meal that is cheap but tasty — surely that is enough, without also having to burden this poor person with ethical choices as well!

Why should I have a guilt trip about the conditions of chickens, of third world farmers, calories, added sugar, E-numbers, and carbon footprints?

I just don’t get it. Smoking Kills. It actually says so on the packet! If that is true, then why are they legally for sale? Heroin is illegal, Speed is illegal, Dope is illegal, — so what is going on with cigarettes? Are they saying we can make the choice for ourselves, so it is our responsibility when we die – it is all our own fault. I say that we created a government to do this sort of stuff for us — to save us from having to deal with this by ourselves. Immediate removal of cigarettes from the shelves should be combined with government funded support for nicotine addicts. Tobacco has been a shameful enterprise from the slave-driven outset — we’ve had hundreds of years of this blight, will it never end?

As I stated above, if a product is suddenly found to be bad, like hydrogenated vegetable oil or cigarettes, then it should be removed from the shelves. It is not about personal choice – that is stupid. The personal choice argument is logically invalid.

Of course, there will be those who disagree with me. They might say that we have a “nanny state” and that government is poking its nose into areas they shouldn’t.

The thing is that I wholeheartedly agree with that — I hate a nanny state myself, I just don’t think it applies here; this is exactly the place where government ought to be involved. For me, the nanny state argument stands, but it relates to other matters.

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