I am not keen on those books by apparently very affluent globetrotting authors with a nice life, that tell us to spend less, slow down and focus on the spiritual. In fact I speed-read Carl Honore’s “In Praise of Slow” over an extra shot large mocha in a book shop Starbucks just out of spite.
Something is spiritually amiss in my consumption. I am carrying out an experiment on a Cadbury’s Twirl. Observation: Placed flat on the table the purple and yellow foil packaging with the sealed ends, it looks right. There are two sticks inside. Method: I pick it up and hold it in the palm of my hand. It feels wrong. Oddly unsettling. I put it down. It looks fine. I pick it up and there’s that odd feeling again.
Now you could say, of course, Samira, you KNOW it weighs less, because it’s been in the news over the last 2 years that big brands are cutting pack sizes because of rising costs. But what’s interesting is the psychological effect. We’re not used to feelingcheated. In most Western nations we’ve become surprisingly complacent about trusting the contents of food tins and packets.
In a way it’s remarkable how deep our faith has been in consumer brands, given that charlatans were lacing them with arsenic, chalk, carcinogenic colourings and even the odd human body until the last century. Upton Sinclair’s expose of the Midwestern meatpacking business in his 1906 novel The Jungle, featured a man falling into the meat grinder. However rather than leading to a reform of capitalism (his goal), it primarily led to the first modern food scandal, with a temporary huge fall in sales. But the USA’s love of meat didn’t suffer longterm damage.
And despite a salmonella scandal 7 years ago, that saw the firm fined £1 million pounds for several food safety violations, Cadbury’s has bounced back too.
But now here I am spiritually ill at ease, not over horse in family ready meals, but over the messing with the size of a snack. That’s because confectionery manufacturers now keep telling us they’re making a sincere decision for better customer satisfaction. There’s a whole Facebook campaign about how many segments have disappeared from a Yorkie. It’s happening to jars of peanut butter too – some brands have a cinched in bottom to save several spoonfuls a jar. Sweet firms, such as Cadbury Kraft and Nestle could, I suppose, claim to be contributing to healthy eating by reducing serving sizes, though they don’t quite dare do that. The consumer organisation Which? says companies should just be honest about putting prices up and allow customers to make the choice for themselves.
It was only down to the Office of National Statistics that we had it confirmed in November last year that these effective price rises, from cutting pack weight by up to 10 percent, had contributed to pushing up October inflation from 2.2 to 2.7%.
The comfort from comfort foods is gone, when big corporations play profit-maximising games with the brands we little people buy and the taxes we little people pay; but try to fob it off as their generosity.
Google executive Eric Schmidt recently told the BBC that it was reasonable, through legal tax avoidance schemes, to pay only £6 million of UK tax on UK generated revenues of £2.6 billion in 2011, because the government failed to acknowledge the “totality” of the company’s contribution: “We empower literally billions of pounds of start-ups through our advertising network and so forth. And we’re a key part of the electronic commerce expansion of Britain which is driving a lot of economic growth for the country.” In other words they’re so big that we should be grateful to have them at all.
So what can we do? Many were incensed after Starbuck’s tax-avoiding schemes were revealed, enough to buy their lattes at a different chain. Or even better, a local independent. Then Tesco started up that “local” independent chain Harris and Hoole that confused everybody. And what to do about organic Green and Black’s now they’re owned by Kraft?
When corporations claim to be a force for good, the battle about what’s in the packet really is about ethical weight. It’s not a matter of giving up consuming. It’s about consuming elsewhere. And while finding an alternative to Google and Amazon requires more effort, family-made Tunnock’s caramel wafers (which as celebrated in the above photo, has never reduced bar size) and Montezuma’s British chilli truffles can be a guilt free first step in the fight back against the behemoths.
This column first appeared in April 2013 in The Big Issue magazine