The throwaway economics of takeaway food
24 June 2010
The British appetite for quick, cheap, convenient food that we can eat wherever we happen to be has hidden costs to society, public health and the environment.
This report investigates the economic pressures facing independent cafés and sandwich bars which often forces social justice, sustainability and health off the menu.
In recent decades we have developed a huge and culturally entrenched appetite for quick, cheap, convenient food that we can eat wherever we happen to be. In this report, we call this ‘casual eating’. Both the habit and the food that feeds it are unsustainable.
Being casual about what, when, and where we eat is both a cause and a symptom of the hectic, mobile lives we lead. It helps to shape our aspirations and our sense of identity.
Such is the scale of the transformation that the kind of food that supports this way of eating is no longer peripheral. It represents a significant element in the food supply, with implications both for how it is produced and for our health. But although casual food is everywhere, the ‘casual eating’ subdivision of the catering sector is overlooked. So diverse that it can seem to defy classification, it has no shared voice or body of knowledge. Nevertheless, it requires closer scrutiny.
Casual food tends to be cheap, is often highly processed, and generates a lot of food and packaging waste. Although it is hugely popular, it is criticised for being unhealthy, and information about where it comes from or what it contains is rarely available when you buy it. Work in the sector is poorly paid, precarious, and sometimes illegal.
The whole food system is under widespread pressure to become more sustainable. Broadly speaking, the challenge is to produce more and better quality food, more ethically, from less land, using fewer resources, and with fewer negative impacts, and to share it more equitably. Efforts to make the food system more sustainable will have to take the social, environmental, and economic impacts of our casual eating habit into account.
We investigated how our habit of casual eating squares with our ideal of a more sustainable food system. We reviewed the sector as a whole, but focused on the small, independent cafés and takeaways that still comprise the majority of outlets selling this type of food. On the face of it they represent a more sustainable way of providing casual food than the chains, in that they are local and small-scale; they can be focal points in neighbourhoods; they may employ local people and use local suppliers (thereby keeping money in the local economy), and can provide a more personal service. We asked a number of café and takeaway operators about their businesses, their concerns, and how they felt about various measures that have been suggested to make the catering sector more sustainable.
The interviewees did not feel that the food they supplied was unhealthy – the word they most often used to describe it was ‘fresh’. However, this often meant freshly prepared from frozen ingredients. They made some use of local suppliers, but also used national wholesalers for a range of menu items, from sandwich fillings and sauces to frozen items including chips, meat dishes, and desserts. Although the provenance of the food was global, interviewees knew little about where the food came from, and did not think their customers cared. Provenance information was rarely provided in wholesalers’ catalogues. Apart from supplies for a specifically organic café, none of the food came from certified systems recognised to provide food more sustainably (such as fair trade, organic, or high animal welfare). The interviewees said their customers never asked for these, and that they were inappropriate to the type of business and too expensive.
The interviewees felt caught between, on one side, customers’ expectations that certain items would always be on the menu and their expectation that prices would be low, and, on the other side, the restriction of having to choose from what was in the wholesalers’ catalogues. Consequently, they felt they had little control over the food they sold.
Their main concerns were immediate, commercial ones. Given the scale of their operations, they felt powerless to do anything about the wider issues facing the food system, including efforts to promote sustainability. They were unwilling to pay extra to have recyclable waste collected, and did not make use of government schemes to advise businesses on sustainability. They worked long and often unsocial hours for what they recognised were relatively low wages, but many felt a strong sense of commitment to their staff.
They were not unreceptive to the idea that their practices could be made more sustainable. They felt, however, that they would need advice and support, and probably the force of regulation, in order to do so.
Overwhelmingly, cost and customers’ willingness to pay were the main factors determining how willing or able they would be to implement the kind of changes that would enable casual eating to become more sustainable.
The casual food sector crystallises some of the contradictions at the heart of our ideas about sustainability. On one hand, the majority of outlets are small, independent businesses, providing what appears to be a highly localised service. The fish and chips, sandwiches, kormas, and fry-ups they sell are a popular and distinctive part of our food culture. The low cost of the food makes it accessible to all sorts of people. And its easy availability enables us to live busy, peripatetic lives. On the other hand, the same foods are criticised for being fattening and unhealthy. We only need them because we lead such busy, peripatetic lives. And because many of the outlets operate on narrow margins, in a relatively unscrutinised section of the food system, serving many people who cannot afford (and do not expect) to spend much on lunch, they represent some pretty unsustainable practices in terms of food provenance and working conditions.
There is some evidence that when we buy food to ‘eat out’ we feel absolved of responsibility for its social, ethical, and environmental impacts, and don’t want to know too much about where it comes from. This is especially true of the food we eat most casually. This lack of concern on consumers’ part helps explain, but does not justify, the sector’s lack of transparency about the provenance of the food it supplies.
One of the main reasons why casual eating is possible is because we have such an abundant supply of cheap café and takeaway food. But cheap food comes with steep, hidden costs to the people who produce it, sell it and eat it, to the environment and to future generations.
The hidden costs of cheap food represent one aspect of the unsustainability of our casual eating habit. But the corollary – sustainable food is unaffordable except by an affluent minority – is also unsustainable. The ‘affordability’ of food in the UK has been achieved by keeping costs low and by ‘externalising’ (or omitting to count) some indirect costs altogether (such as negative impacts on workers or on the environment). If food were to reflect the real costs and externalities of its production, it would only be properly sustainable if everybody, not just the well-to-do, could afford it.
Despite inroads by fast food chains, the cafés, sandwich shops, and takeaways that sell casual food remain relatively diverse and independent. But the independence of these ‘unchained’ outlets is under pressure. Competition from the chains, with their economies of scale and heavily advertised brands, is intense and contributes to the pressure for cheapness discussed earlier. Ironically, pressure for sustainability may make life even more difficult for the unchained cafés, because adopting new, more sustainable practices involves time, staff and money – resources which the chains can supply more easily.
The apparent diversity and local character of the independent cafés is also under pressure from consolidation in the supply chain. Almost all cafés and takeaways obtain at least some supplies from a relatively small number of large wholesalers. These wholesalers use centralised distribution systems to provide standardised, globally sourced, pre-prepared menu items to outlets all over the country. This practice undermines the individuality of local outlets, siphons profits away from localities, and limits the owners’ ability to control their menus and ingredients.
The casual food sector provides a stark illustration of how the three pillars of sustainability – social, environmental, and economic – can seem to be at odds with each other. At the basic level in cafés and takeaways, the economic element of sustainability boils down to how the businesses balance the amount they need to charge to remain solvent against how much customers are prepared to pay. This reality tends to eclipse considerations about how the food was produced, by whom, and what its nutritional value is – which represent the environmental and social aspects of sustainability. To build environmental and social sustainability into the food is likely to add to its cost – and is thus seen to undermine financial sustainability.
The paradox is that the drive for sustainability can sometimes be divisive or even counterproductive. For many small, independent cafés and takeaways, pressure to provide food that met more of the goals of sustainability could price them out of business, unless their customers were prepared and able to pay more. Alternatively, it could lead to their being taken over by the chains, which have the resources to respond more readily to demands to improve sustainability, for example by reducing environmental impacts (even though, in aggregate, the chains’ impacts might still be much greater). Thus, paradoxically, pressure for sustainability could unwittingly help an inherently unsustainable business model (the global fast-food chain) to displace an apparently more sustainable one (the local, independent café).
We must therefore be careful how we define sustainability. At present, market economics routinely thwarts efforts to promote environmental or social sustainability. This is partly about cost, but also about value. Keeping social justice at the heart of our definition, it is clear that even if food is healthy, chemical-free, low-carbon, and kind to animals, it is not sustainable if only a few people can afford it, or if the people who handle and sell it cannot make a decent living.
For all of us, this is a bad place to be. As customers, we seem to be reduced to a dismal choice. If we want cheap, fast, takeaway food, we either can go to the big chains, which have the scale, muscle and financial cushioning to be able to deliver on some of the sustainability standards we aspire to – healthier food, more information, more sustainable sourcing; or we can go to a diversity of small, local, family-run businesses that do not, at present, have the wherewithal or encouragement to make these changes. For the entrepreneurs who run the outlets, there is a risk of being further marginalised as the pressure for sustainability gains pace. There are no easy ways of solving the dilemma. But it is certainly time to cast the policy spotlight on this sector of the food system.
The purpose of this report is to draw attention to a neglected area of the food system and raise awareness of the issues involved. It lays the foundation for a policy debate that should now follow, because the challenges and contradictions the report highlights require careful and balanced consideration, and need to involve many interests and points of view. The suggestions below are offered to help point the way.
A mainstream issue. The scale of the casual food sector and the strength of our casual eating habit are such that this can no longer be treated as a marginal activity. It should be a major concern of policy makers and all those interested in the quality and provenance of the food we eat.
A challenge for economic policy. If sustainability is the overarching goal of food policy, there needs to be more honest scrutiny of the potential contradictions within that ambition. In particular, of the three ‘pillars’ of sustainable development (society, environment, economy), the demands of the market economy cannot be met at the expense of social justice or environmental stewardship.
Change market mechanisms. We need a better understanding of what prevents most local outlets from providing affordable and sustainable takeaway food – and what could be done by government and business to support viable alternatives.
Support small local businesses. Small, independent cafes and takeaways should be recognised as vital elements in local economies. To stay genuinely local, diverse and independent, they may need targeted, supportive policies to ensure the survival of local supply networks and the availability of appropriately skilled local workers, and to raise the awareness of local customers.
Slow down and rethink the value of ‘convenience’. Our growing reliance on cheap fast food is a symptom of hurried lives and an economy that demands long working hours and relentless consumerism – all driving us to put ‘convenience’ before quality and sustainability. A move towards shorter working hours and less materialist lifestyles could begin to shift the pattern of demand.
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