The illusion of choice
The recent Efra Committee report on Food security: demand, consumption and waste made some entirely sensible proposals for enabling UK consumers to have access to healthy and affordable food. Among them were calls for more coordinated and focused actions by Government departments, food producers and suppliers; research into why more people are using foodbanks; and secure funding for WRAP so it can continue its fine work in tackling food and packaging waste.
Where the report fell down was on its central premise that “there should [not] be any further degree of compulsion on individuals. Rather information and advice, not only from central government but also from local government, the third sector and, importantly, retailers should be better deployed to influence and support consumer behaviours that help deliver policy objectives.” In other words, ‘we’d like you to eat better but how you do it is up to you.’
Ultimately what we’re left with is another political report in thrall to the cult of consumer choice; a report that wants people to purchase sustainably sourced and nutritious products, but desists from creating an environment that would enable them to do so.
The uncomfortable fact for politicians is they won't meet sustainability goals without addressing the drivers of poor dietary choice. This means addressing everything from how food is subsidised, to how it is produced, distributed, priced, marketed and accessed. Addressing these issues would likely mean that the products we see on shelves in the future are not dramatically different to the products we see now, but the way they are produced, priced and marketed and how they are made available, particularly to low-income consumers, would change markedly from the status quo.
Clearly, however, this upstream ‘meddling’ messes with the neoliberal mindset that any attempt to directly impact upon the choices people make is undesirable. Choice equals good, choice editing equals bad.
This would be a perfectly reasonable position to adopt were consumers able to make entirely free and rational choices. Alas, our choices are already largely determined by the time we’ve arrived at the supermarket shelf. When confronted by an aisle of soft drinks our choice process is not ‘which of these products will sate my thirst most efficiently’ but ‘what do I fancy to drink today?’ The answer to this second question is reached not by comparing the nutritional information of each product in turn but by abandoning oneself to a myriad of different forces, including strong cultural pulls shaped by habits and social norms and lubricated by pervasive branding and marketing. If consumers made rational choices there would be no such things as brands, and shelves would be full of identical products with identical plain labels. The only difference would be in the numerical values on those labels. Branded food manufacturers spend millions on marketing every year to steer our ‘choices’ towards their products. Yet the onus is not on businesses to stop bombarding people with capricious messages but on consumers to resist them.
The idea that consumers are free to make rational choices is nonsense, and the idea that corporations want them to do so is equally absurd. If people drank Coca-Cola responsibly, as the company promotes, Coca Cola’s sales would plummet. Where food is concerned, free choice is an illusion. Therefore the assertion that putting more information on a product will result in better choices is a huge leap of faith. In fact, evidence suggests that front-of-pack nutritional labeling has a limited impact on the way consumers choose products.
By shifting the onus onto consumers politicians can effectively deflect the blame for the impact of our choices onto individuals whilst maintaining a mutually beneficial relationship with commercial enterprises. All the while the food system can carry on its business of supplying plentiful cheap food, but with little regard for its nutritional and environmental impact.