In January 2011, I embarked on a month without supermarkets – quite a traumatic shift for someone who used to go to Sainsbury’s a couple of times a day. Sometimes for nothing more than a pleasant stroll and a cheeky bag of chocolate raisins.
My local Sainsbury’s has more than thirty aisles; my greengrocer has just two. There is, without a doubt, a heck of a lot more choice at a supermarket than at a corner shop, but I wanted to know exactly how much more choice.
One of the biggest myths perpetuated by supermarkets is that they offer “everyday value” to the customer through their extensive promotions, multi-buy deals and discounts.
The myth isn’t that supermarkets don’t run these formidable promotions: researchers found that more than half the food sold in supermarkets during 2015 was “on special”. No, the myth is that these promotions offer great value to the customer. Continue reading #11: Supermarkets aren’t cheap
We think we’re in charge when we walk through the supermarket sliding doors, but that’s naive. Be in no doubt: when we enter the gleaming aisles, we’re entering a fully immersive, three dimensional, 360 degree, multi-sensory marketing experience. Every last element has been fine-tuned to nudge us into making just one more purchase.
Other mammals, whether dogs, great apes or unicorns, walk on four legs and so have a clear passage for faeces, once the tail is raised to attention. To keep ourselves clean, we must wipe.
Note that I don’t say ‘we must wipe with toilet paper’.
Romans used a sponge on the end of a stick. Jews used small pebbles or the smooth edges of broken pottery. French satirist François Rabelais recommends the neck of a well-downed goose.
We have seventh century China to blame for today’s proliferation of toilet papers: one-ply, two-ply, six-ply, quilted, perfumed, perforated, embossed and decorated with the colours of your football team.
83 million rolls of the stuff are produced globally every day, a daily consumption of 27,000 trees to feed our voracious appetite for smearing shit onto paper that we then flush into our rivers and oceans.
NOTE: Oh yeah, this piece might get a bit gross for some of you. Get over it.
Not Saving the Planet
A lot of people, when they hear about my experiments in positive constraints, come to the understandable, but incorrect, conclusion that I’m worried about saving the planet, environmentalism or being green. I’m not.
It’s not that I couldn’t give a crap (sorry) about these things, but I believe that we can only change the world by changing ourselves.
It’s impossible for me to comprehend my miniscule contribution to the fate of the planet: I am one of seven billion. What I can understand, measure and describe, however, is the individual impact on my life of changes to my personal behaviour.
So the main reason for adopting a positive constraint like No Toilet Paper is not the saving of paper, trees and money, but Ockham’s Razor.
Ockham’s Razor was the first philosophical principle I ever came across, aged about 14, and is the number one reason why, 19 years later, I’m still such an insufferable intellectual snob. (Hey, at least I didn’t use its Latin name, lex parsimoniae.)
The principle has made a celebrity out of fourteenth century theologian William of Ockham (a village in Surrey), but the idea is as old as the hills: the simplest explanation or the simplest solution is most likely to be the best.
If I can explain why the sun appears to rise every morning with basic astronomical physics, then I probably don’t need to invoke the Egytpian Sun God Ra and his star-pulling chariot. Equally, if I can design a perfectly good dining table with four legs, then it’s probably superfluous to add a fifth (Rube Goldberg machines are a delightful exception to this rule).
It follows, therefore, that if I can live without it, then why the hell would I ever bother using toilet paper?
No Toilet Paper: The Principle
Luckily, the rest of the world isn’t quite as insane as Europe, the US and Australia. Large areas of the globe are already on a No Toilet Paper regimen.
Unfortunately, Western behaviours are currently “on trend” and the utterly pointless behaviour of scraping around your anus with a patch of wood pulp is spreading.
Large swathes of the Muslim and Hindu world still use water to clean themselves after defecating. The methods vary, but the principle is the same. I’ll illustrate it with a little quiz.
You’re out fixing a new chain on your bicycle or digging up your new veg patch. You finish the job (Well done!) and go inside for dinner. You notice that your hands are covered in oil and grease or mud and worms. Do you:
a) Wash your hands with soap and water?
b) Smear the dirt around with a scrap of paper?
Answers on a postcard to the usual address.
No Toilet Paper: The Methods
Hopefully we’ve established that you’d be mad to continue using toilet paper. But, given our awkward self-befouling human anatomy, how exactly should we clean ourselves?
In the course of my experimentation over the last two weeks, I’ve come across several different options. Here they are, in order of increasing complexity:
Do nothing. I don’t quite mean that, of course, but often I’m remarkably clean and have no need to do anything special. After a few days using other methods, you’ll get a feeling for whether you need to clean more thoroughly or not. WARNING: This does depend on your diet. Since my experimentation with No Meat, I’ve noticed that I’m visiting the toilet more often (that’s fibre for you) and need to clean more thoroughly. Previously, when I was eating a simple meat and beans diet, I was a steady once-a-day man, regular as clockwork. Because I’d go in the morning, I could easily wash myself in the shower, no toilet paper required.
Use your hand. Assuming you’re not having any problems with sticky poo (check your diet), you might be surprised to find that there’s never really much there to clear away. Use only one hand and make sure you wash with good soap (and a nail brush if that’s necessary).
Use a wet flannel. This was suggested by one of my friends. She keeps three flannels in her room and uses them in rotation throughout the day to clean herself. At the end of the day, she boils them all in a pan of water to kill any residual germs. The only downside is you’ll have to carry a flannel with you when you go out.
Use a bowl and pitcher. This is an absolute classic all across the Arab world. To be honest, I find it a little fiddly, but the technique is just to splash yourself with water. Again, this is more annoying if you’re not at home. You could carry a dedicated bottle of arse-water.
Install a bidet shower, ‘health tap’ or a purpose-built toilet. These are all ways of using water pressure to hose yourself down. Options include a basic shower head, a trigger hose or a specially designed toilet. The toilets are particularly good fun, with a little nozzle in the centre of the bowl firing water straight up your anus. Complex, expensive and slightly unnecessary.
Benefits to No Toilet Paper
Stop worrying about public toilet paper provision. (Or at home either.)
Feel cleaner after washing compared to smearing.
Be more ape and feel at home in the great outdoors.
Stake out your independence from the unnecessary comforts of modernity.
Save money. You probably spend about £20-30 a year on toilet paper. It’s one less thing to remember in the shop too.
Stop culling your share of those 27,000 trees per day.
Be more rational and treat Ockham’s Razor with the respect it deserves instead of mindlessly following stupid inherited cultural habits.
Are there any downsides to living without toilet paper? I guess that some people might think I’m gross, but I stopped giving a shit about that a long time ago.
Thanks for reading. I hope it inspires you to look at your life and your habits and to peer round the curtain at what’s really going on. If you’d like to stay in touch, please join my mailing list.
If in doubt, open with a pun, that’s what ma always told me.
My Old Diet: Meat and Beans
For the last two years, my diet has almost exclusively consisted of two ingredients: meat and beans. That might not sound like a varied diet, but sometimes the beans were butter and sometimes they were black. When I couldn’t get either, I’d settle for kidney.
Of course, I’m slightly exaggerating. These two primary ingredients were bonded together by a tin of tomatoes and served with a selection of coleslaw, hummus and/or soft cheese. That essential melange was what I ate for breakfast, lunch and dinner. For two years.
This diet might not sound particularly healthy, but over those two years I’ve managed to remain an active human being, who runs three times a week and cycles pretty much everywhere. The meat and beans combo is high in calories and protein, which gives me good energy, and low in carbohydrates and fibre, which means I don’t get bloated.
This monolithic diet had a few practical benefits on the side too:
What more could a person desire? My taste buds aren’t up to much, so I wasn’t that bothered about endless repetition. In fact, repeating the same meal over and over meant that I got absurdly proficient at its preparation and, for someone whose priority is to spend time in the study rather than the kitchen, that’s a good thing.
Why No Meat?
So why on earth would I trade in that sweet deal for the unknown mystery of a vegetarian diet? The clue is in the question: if there’s one thing that I can’t resist, it’s an almond ice cream unknown mystery. I didn’t know what to expect to learn, but I knew I would learn something. And that’s the best reason for doing anything.
Like all good students, I started my education, not in the kitchen, but slumped in front of the computer watching a film. Cowspiracy examines the devastation the animal agriculture industry wreaks on the environment and, as the title hints, wonders why government, industry and even environmental advocacy groups like Greenpeace turn a blind eye.
Vegetarianism has never appealed to me on compassionate grounds. I am happy to kill animals for food. I’ve lived and grazed alongside pigs, turkeys, chickens and sheep. I killed one of those turkeys for food and I’d do it again. I understand the philosophical arguments for animal rights and I respect those who fight that battle, but it’s just not an ethical dilemma I can get riled up about.
Global warming and the environmental degredation of the planet, however, is something that does concern me. I don’t mind killing an animal for food, but if by killing that animal I am part of a vast unsustainable feeding industry, then that’s a personal moral decision I would like to investigate.
Cowspiracy is unambiguous:
Animal agriculture is the leading cause of deforestation, water consumption and pollution, is responsible for more greenhouse gases than the transportation industry, and is a primary driver of rainforest destruction, species extinction, habitat loss, topsoil erosion, ocean “dead zones,” and virtually every other environmental ill.
But the main reason for giving No Meat a try was to learn more about food, food preparation, my body and my health.
At the beginning of this week, then, I stopped eating meat. As I hope I’ve made clear, this was no small modification to my diet. Just in case it’s not obvious, about 50% of my calories, 85% of my protein and 50% of my fat came from meat.
This was going to be the biggest challenge: where would I find my calories, where would I find my protein, where would I find my fat if not from the flesh of an animal?
The answer, as it happens, was from different bits of animals: eggs, cheese and milk. So much for avoiding the animal agriculture industry!
Since Monday, I’ve been eating salad and scramble. In the salad, we have:
All raw and dressed with pumpkin seed oil.
In the scramble, I put:
Red onion (fried)
Black beans (boiled)
Even this wide variety of ingredients, it’s a struggle to eat enough to give me sufficient calories, fat and protein. Just to give you a sense of the scale of the protein problem alone:
I used to eat about 500g of meat a day, which gave me 170g protein.
To get the same amount from eggs, I’d need to eat 24 a day. Just about possible without throwing up.
To get the same amount from beans, I’d need to eat about 4kg, or 16 tins’ worth. Impossible without growing into a huge ball of bloat by the end of the day.
For every gramme of protein that I consume from beans or lentils, I’m getting at least a gramme of gassy fibre. This is not a good trade, so yesterday I bought some pea protein isolate, which I can throw into a blender with milk, almond butter and a banana to make a 40g protein, 22g fat smoothie.
Without this addition, I think the transition to a vegetarian diet would have been extremely difficult for me. Thank the lord for modern food technology!
Because I like to do these things properly, I have analysed, weighed and measured every single ingredient in my new vegetarian diet, so that I can compare it precisely with my good old meat and beans.
One new No Meat meal (excluding the supplemental pea protein smoothie) contains:
Much less energy (800kcal vs 1050kcal) because I simply can’t eat enough!
Much less protein (42g vs 100g) because there’s no meat, duh.
Much more fibre (28g vs 14g), mostly down to the avocados and increased bean intake.
Much more sugar (12g vs 4g). That’s those sweet cherry tomatoes and red pepper.
Much more salt (3g vs 1.2g), thanks to the feta cheese in the salad. I’ll go with something less salty next time.
Comparable carbohydrates (46g vs 44g). Mostly from beans in both diets.
Only slightly less fat and saturated fat (44g and 17g vs 53g and 21g). The eggs, cheese and avocados help here.
If I include one pea protein shake, then we can add:
24g fat (of which 7g is saturated fat).
48g carbohydrates (of which 34g is sugar).
This pretty much doubles both protein (good) and carbohydrates (less good). Energy, fat and carbohydrate intake now exceeds my meat and beans diet, while protein still lags behind.
Next time, I’ll try it without the banana, which alone adds 31g of carbs. I might even try the pea protein on its own, mixed with water (urgh!).
Practical Difficulties and Lifestyle Adjustments
Unfortunately, however, the problems with nutrition were just the tip of the (rapidly melting due to animal agricuture incited global warming) iceberg.
Yesterday I spent 1 hour 15 minutes preparing my vegetarian meals. Cooking meat and beans used to take me 20 minutes, most of which would be spent playing guitar while the pan sat on the stove.
Meat and beans is a one pan, one bowl meal. Preparing vegetables uses all manner of kitchen accoutrements: a knife, a chopping board, two pans and two bowls. That means more washing up.
It also creates more waste by-products such as onion peel, avocado stones, egg shells and that juice that comes out of feta cheese. Luckily these are mostly compostable.
The shopping list for my vegetarian diet is much longer, having risen from three ingredients to fourteen. This means more time spent in the greengrocer. Luckily, he’s a great fella, so shopping turns into more a social occasion.
I find that, not only am I almost painfully bloated from eating so much, but I am also visiting the toilet a lot more, which is slightly inconvenient. I’m told that this may well settle down as my body gets used to the diet.
Because meat covers so many nutritional bases, from protein and fats to vitamins, minerals and essential amino acids, I’ve got to be much more organised with what I eat. The plus side is that, in doing so, I’ll also learn much more about my food.
The basic salad and scramble meal plan works out slightly cheaper, roughly £3 per meal compared to £3.30 for one of meat and beans. The pea protein smoothies cost £1.30 each, however, making the vegetarian diet more expensive in total.
This week has been largely delicious, if time consuming. I’ve spent a lot more time in the kitchen and learnt a lot more about vegetables and nutrition. As I write these words, I’m a bit hungry, but then it is lunch time. So what’s next?
As far as I can tell, I’ve got three options:
I could continue with this No Meat experiment as it is, hopefully becoming a tastier, faster and more knowledgeable lacto-ovo vegetarian chef.
I could go the whole hog (sorry) and try No Animal Products or, as it’s better known, veganism. This is what the makers of Cowspiracy would love me to do, for the sake of the environment. I also happen to have a good friend who is a miraculous vegan chef (I particularly recommend her Chocolate Orange Black Bean Brownies). If I can make veganism work for me the way it so radiantly works for her, then, quite frankly, winner, winner, (no) chicken dinner.
Whatever I decide, at least I’ve started the process of self-enlightenment, which is the primary purpose of all the best experiments in positive constraints. If you’d like to stay in touch with all my experiments – and get first news of the very exciting book – then please join my mailing list.
Now I can join in the meat or no meat conversation: What do you think?
This is something I’ve been working with for a while. The premise is simple: don’t spend any money on Mondays. This is a fairly meaty post, so I’ll cut to the chase:
Why No Money Mondays?
It helps me to be more mindful of money, of how easy it is to spend, and how pointless. A day without money somehow frees my mind. I feel less stressed. I’m out of the game for a day. I can look at adverts, but I’m not part of that world.
It helps me live more healthily. I can’t just buy a nice packet of biscuits when I feel like it; I’ve got to finish up those lentils that have been sitting in my cupboard since January. I can’t pay for the bus; I have to cycle or walk.
I realise how possible a day without money is. It makes me dream of a life without money and what that would mean.
It helps me become more creative with how I spend my time and energy. A quick thought comes into my head, like: ‘I need to buy some new batteries for my dictaphone.’ I hear myself think this, but I have to reformulate a solution. I can’t just buy some new batteries. I can take the batteries out of my bike lights for the time being.
It saves me money! Every day, I record my spending. Over the course of a year, this forms a fascinating record of my spending patterns. On weeks when I have a No Money Monday, not only do I reduce spending on one day of the week, but that parsimony spills over into the rest of the week. This is another good reason why I do it on a Monday, the first day of my week. (The main reason is, obviously, alliteration.)
I am more productive: no more time-wasting shopping-excuse excursions.
Monday is when I do my accounts (usually with horror). It feels good to have a money-fast after that.
The History of No Money Mondays
I’m not the first person to think not spending money once a week is a good thing. No Money Mondays used to happen every week in Britain. Not on Mondays, but on Sundays. Shops, markets and businesses were forced to shut down for a day – by law. But now Sunday trading is part of every British high street – and even if it wasn’t, the internet would provide for every fleeting desire.
Sunday trading surged forth as a result of the free market reforms of the moribund Conservative government of John Major. The Sunday Trading Act 1994 made buying and selling legal. I’ll rephrase that: before 1994 it was illegal for shops to open on a Sunday. Illegal. Those of a younger generation will find this hard to believe, but it’s true.
But Sunday trading didn’t come into Britain without a fight. It was vigorously opposed when initially put to the House of Commons by Maggie Thatcher back in 1986. It wasn’t just vigorously opposed, but it became Thatcher’s only policy defeat in the House. The only time Maggie Thatcher was defeated in the House of Commons was when she tried to let shops open on Sundays. I’m sorry for the repetition, but this seems impossible to believe today. She wasn’t defeated on the Falklands War, she wasn’t defeated on privatisation, she wasn’t defeated on emasculating the trade unions. She was defeated over her Sunday trading bill.
The Bill of 1986 was defeated by an alliance of Christian Conservatives and Labour trade unions. The Christians wanted to ‘Keep Sundays Special’, to protect the sanctity of the Sabbath, and the trade unions opposed workers being forced to work on Sundays. When the Sunday Trading Act finally passed in 1994, it was only because of amendments that protected workers rights: Sunday working would be voluntary.
I’m interested in why Sunday trading was opposed. I can see why trade unions wanted to protect their interests: a seven-day working week isn’t everyone’s idea of fun. I can see why Christians wanted to defend the Sabbath: the Book reserves Sunday as a day of Holy rest.
But is there something more? I would say yes. I would say that behind this opposition was an instinctive desire to protect ourselves from continuous striving. A day with an open shop is a day with the possibility of buying and selling. And if you’re buying and selling, you’ll profit or lose: you’ll move up the escalator or down.
Close those shops and the escalator stops. A moment’s respite from the pressing needs of survival.
The Rights of Religion
I am a big believer in religions. Don’t get me wrong: I’m not a Believer (or even a Belieber), but I can see that religion grows out of an instinctual need. And these instincts are usually good for us, or serve some purpose. Religion dominates in three domains:
These three areas are not well served by other organisations and none cover all three, all together, all the time. Large, participatory organisations like Amnesty International offer us a combination of community and charity. Certain activities, like yoga, might give us community and contemplation. But religion alone nourishes all three. This comprehensive coverage explains both the rise of religions – and their ongoing popularity, in spite of all their absurdities and inherent threats.
To me, it is obvious that such a recurring and popular phenomenon as religion must provide the human race with some large benefits. I remain an unbeliever, but I am happy to take my lessons from religion. A money-fast Sabbath is one such.
I believe that the fight against Sunday trading in Britain, although economically indefensible, was an instinctive response to a real threat. But because it was a threat that we could not frame in a logical way, the Bill passed when all logical opposition was overcome (the trade unions’ objections to Sunday working). However, both the threat and our instinctive response to it, represented by the religious Christian Conservatives, remain.
So I would like to bring back the money-fast Sabbath. In my own irreligious fashion, I propose No Money Mondays. Instead of using laws, we will have to use our will-power, but I think it is worth it.
So it’s over: 31 days without spending money in a supermarket. Before the post-mortem, some details about this past week.
Things I learnt this week:
Eggs are cheaper in my local shop: only £1.09 for 6, compared to £1.57 in Sainsbury’s.
Tesco Express (i.e. a small supermarket) stocks 26 different varieties of bottled water. You do know that you can get it out of the tap, don’t you? For free.
Sainsbury’s is very useful: for their extensive recycling facilities and the pharmacy where I get my (free) prescriptions. This month I have shamelessly used supermarket resources in exchange for nothing.
Expenditure at No Supermarkets: £17.00.
Hypothetical expenditure at Sainsbury’s: £16.18.
The Final Score
Over the course of one month shopping at No Supermarkets I spent £89.94 on food.
The same stuff at Sainsbury’s would have cost approximately £80.28.
So what am I going to now it’s over?
Will I go running back to the fluorescent-strip-light warmth of Sainsbury’s, Tesco and Lidl? Hell no.
Was everything perfect about my month of No Supermarkets? Hell no (where the devil can I get decent, reasonably priced cheese?). Can I do it better? Hell yes. I promise myself every week that I’ll go to the local markets more often, rather than running out of food, panicking and buying soup and biscuits for dinner.
I’ve enjoyed visiting all my local and not so local shops. I’ve built up quite a rapport with a shop around the corner from where I study. Cherry flapjack: £1.05, thank-you very much.
But why do I like No Supermarkets so much?
I don’t have to queue, like I would in the Sainsbury’s just up the road.
I don’t have to walk around six aisles just to find the flapjacks, like I would at the Sainsbury’s.
I’m not paralysed by the choice of six thousand different oat-based snacks you can have from Sainsbury’s. Half the time my shop doesn’t even have any of the cherry ones left. So I have banana. Variety is the spice of life and all that.
I’m not advertised at.
I can have a little chat with the person who serves me and they say please and thank-you like they give a shit that I came into their shop. Because they own it.
It’s closer to the college where I study.
I like the fact that their prices are marginally cheaper than the other little shop just across the road. It reminds me that competition is alive and well. It hasn’t just been blown away by corporate supply chains.
I feel like the money I’m handing over for my flapjack is going to someone I know.
The lighting isn’t so bright. Not everything gleams. The floor might even be dirty. It’s human.
Yeah. I like it. In fact, I like it so much that I’d feel a bit wrong going into a supermarket now. Perhaps I will for some things. Perhaps I won’t. I no longer feel restricted in my shopping habits. I no longer feel compelled towards those glowing orange lights.
No Supermarkets again this week (apart from my little tourism on Tuesday). It’s really a lot easier now than I thought it would be. It’s hardly even inconvenient, in fact it’s fun. When I go some place new I keep my head up for little shops, pop in, have a chat, browse and buy. Already my local shopkeeper calls me ‘a regular’, which is nice.
Here’s another thing. This week I met up with a friend for dinner. Normally we go down to Sainsbury’s, do some shopping and get cooking. Not this week. We went to a restaurant. Shock. More expensive, maybe, but it’s about more than just the chow – it’s the experience. That might sound like pure guff. It is. But hey, I enjoyed it.
So how was it price-wise this week? Not including the restaurant, just going on what I bought at shops and markets, here’s the comparison:
No Supermarkets: £23.07
As usual, there are a few discrepancies: I would have had three less avocados at Sainsbury’s – but one extra banana and a smidgen more spinach.
One thing I found is that I spend a good deal more on fruit and vegetables at local shops, compared to local markets. This explains a lot of the difference in price this week. I can get fruit and veg cheaper at local markets than at Sainsbury’s, but the shops tend to be a little more expensive. The key to getting good deals at No Supermarkets is to shop around, travel, investigate and explore. The French had it right when they called their supermarket Monoprix.
I won’t bore you with a great long list of things I bought this week, but here’s a good one:
48 Ibuprofen tablets from New Cross Station Pharmacy: £2.25
48 Ibuprofen tablets from Sainsbury’s: £0.84
However, this might not be such a big win for Sainsbury’s as it first appears. The purpose of buying Ibuprofen is to kill your pain, right? It shouldn’t matter how much it costs, right? – Wrong. Dan Ariely, professor of psychology and behavioural economics at Duke University, has shown thatthe more you pay for your pain-killers, the more powerful their effect. You can watch a short video of Ariely here.
It’s hard to tell if paying more has worked for me, but all I can say is that my foot is much better today than it was on Friday morning, when I started taking the tablets.
I went to my local Sainsbury’s on Tuesday – no, don’t panic, I didn’t buy anything. I went there to do a little research. I wanted to know a couple of things:
Where in the world does Sainsbury’s food come from?
How much choice is there at supermarkets?
And here is what I found.
Where is Sainsbury’s Food From?
I only looked at the Fruit and Vegetable section because that seemed a reasonable sample size: 119 products. Astonishingly, these products came from a total of 36 countries. The top five were:
Spain (20 products)
South Africa (6)
I was surprised to see Israel at number three I have to admit. We get tomatoes, peppers, herbs and exotic fruit like kumquats and Sharon fruit from there. The West Bank did also appear on the list with two products, the herbs dill and sage.
I guess one big reason for the reliance on overseas fruit and vegetables is the time of year. Traditional English Summer produce like cucumbers, tomatoes and spinach have to be shipped in from Spain or elsewhere.
More concerning, however, was the number of products that ARE in season in the UK, and yet it was still possible to buy them from abroad. For example: apples, pears, beetroot and mushrooms, as well as packaged herbs. It seemed that if you wanted herbs in a pot, then they had to be British, presumably because of the care required for potted plants, but packaged herbs came from abroad, presumably because they are cheaper there.
The full list of countries supplying Sainsbury’s New Cross Gate (in order of products supplied): Spain, UK, Israel, Morocco, South Africa, Egypt, Italy, France, Kenya, Mexico, Peru, USA, Brazil, Chile, China, Holland, India, Portugal, Senegal, Thailand, Turkey, West Bank, Argentina, Burkina Faso, Canary Islands, Colombia, Costa Rica, Dominican Republic, Guatemala, Ireland, Ivory Coast, Madagascar, Namibia, Tunisia, Uganda, Zambia.
How Much Choice Is There?
Answer: Too much.
To focus my research, I examined just one type of product from Sainsbury’s 30+ aisles: soup. Here’s what I found.
There are, broadly speaking, four different kinds of soup product on sale at Sainsbury’s: tinned, potted, fresh and dried soup mix. Tinned represent the overwhelming majority of the market.
There are, in all, sixteen different brand labels on sale, including eight for Sainsbury’s alone: Be Good To Yourself, Sainsbury’s, Chunky, Basics, Microwave, Simmer Soups, SO Organic and Taste the Difference. Prices range from £0.17 for Sainsbury’s Basic tomato soup to £2.29 for some of the posh fresh soups.
This meant that there were, in total, on sale at Sainsbury’s… Wait for it – 138 different types of soup.
That, my friends, is ridiculous. Contrast my local shop, where I can purchase one brand in about six different flavours. Fine, considering I only ever buy cream of tomato! Prices there range from £0.89 to £0.89.
Is Choice a Good Thing?
Supermarkets rely on the idea that more choice makes us happier. But is this actually the case?
Malcolm Gladwell makes the case for supermarket-style choice in a TED video from 2006. He recounts a story of the psychophysicist Howard Moskowitz:
Vlasic Pickles came to him, and they said, “Doctor Moskowitz, we want to make the perfect pickle.” And he said, “There is no perfect pickle, there are only perfect pickles.” And he came back to them and he said, “You don’t just need to improve your regular, you need to create zesty.”
From this idea, pickles, spaghetti sauces, soups – everything – proliferated, all in the cause of making us happy.
You can see the full video here:
But Barry Schwartz, author of The Paradox of Choice, warns:
“Beware of excessive choice: choice overload can make you question the decisions you make before you even make them, it can set you up for unrealistically high expectations, and it can make you blame yourself for any and all failures.
“In the long run, this can lead to decision-making paralysis. And in a culture that tells us that there is no excuse for falling short of perfection when your options are limitless, too much choice can lead to clinical depression.”
In other words: choice, generally-speaking, is good, but too much choice is toxic.
At my local shop I have the choice of about six different flavours of soup. That’s a reasonable selection, given that I could make my own soup if I wanted something a little more customised. But faced with an aisle of 138 soups?
Week 2 and I still haven’t been to a supermarket – or even so much as a High Street chain. I have to say, it’s going rather well. The Suma order arrived on Thursday with 12.5kgs of oats for our house at only £8. I also got a load of Jasmine tea, raisins and eggs. Cue massive omelets.
Yesterday, I went to another local co-operative, Fareshares, who sell organic, mostly fair trade food and other household goods at the right price. Here’s what I bought:
1l washing detergent @ £2.96
250g sunflower seeds @ £0.50
100 rooibos teabags @ £2.83
500ml Aspall’s balsamic vinegar @ £2.83
680g sauerkraut @ £1.67
And I made an incredibly generous (!) £0.21 donation to make it £11.00 in total.
The same stuff at Sainsbury’s would have cost me £10.34, but I would have had 500ml more detergent, 50g less sunflower seeds and 20 fewer teabags. [Incidentally demonstrating there the way you use ‘less’ and ‘fewer’ in the English language. I’m educational too!] If I’d been able to buy the exact same quantities, Sainsbury’s would have cost me a theoretical extra £0.05, so it more or less evens out.
However, as I’ve said before, it’s not all about price with No Supermarkets. The stuff I would have bought at Sainsbury’s probably wouldn’t have been fairly traded and certainly wouldn’t have been organic. I also wouldn’t have met the lovely people at Fareshares or ended up with some random sauerkraut!
Fareshares is a food co-operative near Elephant and Castle in South London. They buy their stuff from wholesalers and then sell it on to us little people at near wholesale price. The people who work there are volunteers and the only major overheads are for the building.
They sell all sorts of stuff. There’s lots of dry foods: seeds, rice, millet, oats, nuts and dried fruits. They also sell tinned things like tomatoes, bottled things like oils and sauces, cartoned things like soya milk. There’s also a small stock of fresh fruit and vegetables and bread (on Thursdays only) – and I’m sure much much more.
It’s a co-operative so try and turn up with a bag or some cartons for your stuff. Then go around picking and packing your own shopping, totting up the total as you go on a piece of scrap paper. Then head to the till and pay. It’s an honesty system, so be honest!
Opening hours: Thursday 2-8pm; Friday 3-7pm; Saturday 3-5pm Address: 56 Crampton Street (near Walworth Road), London SE17 3AE
Well that was resoundingly successful. I haven’t been to a supermarket since 2010.
Here’s what I bought this week:
3 loaves of sesame bread @ £2.67
Le Figaro newspaper @ £1.70
20 bananas @ £3.18
2 cucumbers @ £1.00
15 tomatoes @ £2.25
1 loaf seeded white bread @ £0.97
2 tins of Heinz tomato soup @ £1.78
125g tube of Aquafresh toothpaste @ £0.99
1 punnet of red seedless grapes @ £1.00
200g feta cheese @ £1.69
350g jar of Ajvar sauce @ £1.29
So what would it have cost at my local Sainsbury’s? Obviously you can’t get quite the same things – what the hell is Ajvar Sauce anyway?
So, if we exclude that from the list: My No Supermarket shopping cost me: £17.23. The same stuff at Sainsbury’s would have cost: £16.88.
So I spent £0.35 more than I should have done. Tsk.
There are a few differences in the shopping basket to note:
I would have had 24 bananas, not 20 (Sainsbury’s Basics bananas come in packs of 8).
I would have had only 12 tomatoes, not 15 (Sainsbury’s Basics tomatoes come in packs of 6).
I would have had only 100g of toothpaste, not 125g (I couldn’t find 125g at Sainsbury’s).
I would not have bought Heinz Tomato Soup, I would have got Sainsbury’s own brand Be Good to Yourself Tomato Soup, saving me another £0.30.
I would not have bought feta from Sainsbury’s. I normally get mature cheddar on special; this week it would have been Cathedral City Mature Cheddar 400g for £1.99. Ouch. It hurts to see that.
I think those things more or less even themselves out (apart from the cheese).
It doesn’t just come down to cost though. It can’t. Even if you include the extra £0.30 saving from the soup, I would have saved only 3.8% on my week’s shopping by going to Sainsbury’s. That is a much smaller saving than I expected.
The Lessons of Week 1
If it’s not about cost, then what is it about? I have no idea, but here are some things I learnt this week:
1. No Supermarkets are less convenient
My ‘local’ shops are further from me than Sainsbury’s – and the markets are even more of a walk. This shouldn’t have been a problem, but turned into a complete disaster when I developed a debilitating foot injury which meant I couldn’t walk for most of the week.
2. I need to learn how to shop again
Without a supermarket crutch to support my dietary habits, my diet has been all over the place.
I’ve eaten a lot more bread than I normally do, simply because it is filling, tasty and widely available. At times in the week, I confess, I was hungry. I’ve eaten everything that was lying around in my cupboards – including muesli that was over a year old, yum!
I expect my diet to stabilise as I learn where to buy what I want to eat. And as I learn to walk again.
3. I can pay by credit card at my local shop
…if I spend more than £5. This is a nice bonus because the nearest cash machine around my way is… at Sainsbury’s.
4. There is an awful lot less choice at No Supermarket
This is a good thing, I reckon. Although it cost me on the soup and the cheese front, it did mean that I got to try Ajvar Sauce! See also #7.
5. There is a lot less packaging involved in No Supermarkets
The fruit and vegetables that I bought were either in recyclable paper bags or were loose. This is a good thing because it means I don’t have to lug all my plastic packaging back to Sainsbury’s for recycling.
6. Fruit and veg at No Supermarkets is a lot more variable
You actually have to look at what you are buying. Once I’ve got over the shock, I’m sure this could turn into quite a pleasant thing. It might make me less of a shopping machine.
7. I spent a lot less money at No Supermarkets
Not item for item, but in total. There is very little opportunity for impulse buying at No Supermarkets because there is a lot less choice and so a lot less to tempt you with. A lack of availability also means that you have to make do without. Things I didn’t buy this week include: a ball of string, a rubber and porridge oats.
Well, it’s been a promising start and I’m looking forward to increased mobility in Week 2!
I live in a housing co-operative. Which is awesome, not least because the people I live with try to do things together.
What that means is that every month someone from the co-op orders in bulk from the ethical retailer Suma. Suma is also a co-operative, which means that the business is jointly owned and managed by all the staff. Everyone is paid the same and they work collectively to do all the jobs that need doing (I discuss this mode of business here).
So today (for the first time ever, I’m ashamed to admit) I ordered some food from Suma. This is my shopping list:
80 jasmine green tea bags @ £4.95
1kg of raisins @ £2.95
6kg of porridge oats @ £6.99
12 eggs @ £2.62
Compared to Sainsbury’s, this isn’t bad. You can get 20 jasmine tea bags at Sainsbury’s for about £1, so that’s a touch cheaper at the supermarket. The eggs and the porridge come out at about the same cost. I normally buy Sainsbury’s Basics currents, which are dirt cheap at about £0.60 for 500g (I think), so Suma’s raisins are an expensive upgrade.
Anyway, that should be my breakfast covered for the rest of the month. Now I’ve just got to wait for the delivery on Thursday. At least I don’t have to walk to the shops.
Yesterday I went to Deptford High Street for my first No Supermarket grocery shopping.
And it was rather good fun. This No Supermarket business forces you to pay attention to your surroundings. You can’t just go to the shelf, you can’t just look for the own-brand stuff because you know it will be cheap, you can’t very often even know the price of what you’re buying until you’ve handed over the goods. It forces you to look, to ask, to say no, to negotiate – in short, to connect?
A couple of traders just said hello to me, for nothing. Can I help you? Aright, mate? Another looked for a smaller ball of string for me. I didn’t have to ask, he saw from my face that it was too much.
In all, I went to two fruit and veg shops, a bakery and a newsagents – instead of one big supermarket.
This was what I bought:
£1.18 6 bananas
£1.00 2 cucumbers
£1.25 6 tomatoes (on the vine)
£0.97 Loaf seeded white bread (sliced for me by the bakers)
Total cost: £4.40.
I reckon at Sainsbury’s I would have spent about the same, or perhaps slightly more. I wouldn’t have spent so much on the tomatoes, but these ones are very tasty. I normally buy Sainsbury’s Basics, to be honest, at about £0.80. But the cucumbers were much cheaper – saved me about £0.50. So it evens out.
I have to say, pleasurable though this shopping trip was, it was not convenient. It’s a longer walk to Deptford High Street than to Sainsbury’s and I didn’t buy any string, an pencil rubber, porridge oats – or the dreaded toothpaste.
New Year Resolution: I’m not going to use supermarkets during the whole month of January.
For me, that’s quite a big deal. I am accustomed to going to my local Sainsbury’s at least four or five times a week, sometimes just for the walk or the simple pleasure of picking up a value bag of sultanas.
Well, no more. From the 1st of January I pledge not to purchase a single thing from any supermarket, be it Sainsbury’s, Tesco, Asda, Lidl, Aldi, Costcutter, Iceland, Netto, M&S, Waitrose, Morrisons – or any of the other behemoths that bestride our consumer culture.
I don’t like being too dependent on anything – and supermarkets definitely fall into that bracket of dependency at the moment.
I fancy seeing a bit more of the world – or my local community at least.
It’s embarrassing coming home with a pile of plastic-wrapped food of dubious quality.
Somewhere inside me there’s a vague sense of unease surrounding the operation and supply tactics of supermarkets.
I guess it will support local economy a little bit.
It might be a good way to meet more people in my community.
It might be cheaper, you never know.
It might help me eat better, you never know.
It might reduce impulse buying of sultanas.
It’s something to write about!
The Toothpaste Test
At the moment my shelves are looking pretty bare so I’m looking forward to getting stuck into the wonderful (so I’m told) markets in my local area. But, to be honest, I’m a little concerned about where to find toothpaste. I know I can get toothpaste at pretty much any corner-shop or mini-mart, but Sainsbury’s toothpaste is about £0.30 or something ridiculous. I like that: it’s good value.
The thing is, I’d like to turn this experiment into a long-term life choice, but I’m not going to cut off my nose to spite my face. Sourcing affordable, minty toothpaste could well turn into the acid test of my No Supermarket January. Wish me luck.