My bread dilemma
I try to consume consciously. When it comes to grocery shopping, I rarely buy anything that isn’t fair trade, locally-produced, or organic. Being a conscious consumer has its pitfalls, though. Often I find myself in a hopeless spiral of uncertainty when choosing between two similar products. A whole array of factors come into play, complicating matters so much that I am reduced to eenie-meenie-miny-moe or abandoning the eneavour altogether, leaving empty-handed. I’d like to walk you through one such experience: buying a loaf of bread.
For simplicity’s sake, I’ve already narrowed down my choices to two loaves of bread. I can get a 500g loaf of whole wheat for about CHF 3.00 at an independent bakery in Renens. On the other hand, the neighbouring supermarket sells one-kilogram loaves of pain bis for CHF 1.90.
Taste isn’t a deciding factor. The two loaves do taste different, but I like a little variety and one isn’t necessarily better than the other. They’re both baked on the premises, the day of.
It would seem that my thought process should pretty simple. On the one hand, I can get a large, cheap loaf of bread at a big chain store. On the other, I can pay a premium price for a smaller loaf at a local bakery. It’s a matter of price versus, well, everything else. Obviously, the bread at the local bakery is quite a bit more expensive, but it’s worth it to support small business.
But is it really that clear-cut? Let’s see.
While the loaves of bread are comparable, they don’t have the exact same ingredients. Sometimes when I can’t decide between two similar products, I take a look at the ingredient list and see which one passes the ingredients-I-can-pronounce test. Too much carnauba wax and soy lecithin is never a good thing.
The whole wheat loaf is probably healthier for me than the supermarket’s pain bis, which is a blend of white and whole wheat flour.
Unfortunately, in this scenario, I only have the ingredient list for one of the loaves of bread - the pain bis from the supermarket. It contains wheat, flour, water, yeast… the typical ingredients you’d expect in a loaf of bread. But it also lists E200, an artificial preservative.
Because the bread from the small bakery doesn’t come with an ingredient list, I’m led to believe that it has more “real” ingredients - or, at least, doesn’t contain preservatives. This can be a dangerous assumption to make, because there’s no reason the local baker couldn’t use a preserving agent as well. Nevertheless, my experience has generally been that the products with the fewest artificial ingredients are those that come in simple packaging with little or no labelling.
Another thing I get preoccupied with in my vortex of doom decision process is the type of vendor I’m buying from. (I would just buy a bag of Wonderbread from Wal-Mart if price was my only incentive, but I can’t justify supporting a corporation that forces unfair labour practices on its suppliers in the name of profits and low prices.)
In this case, the local bakery is a sole proprietorship, a profit-driven business. Sure, it’s not in the same league as Wal-Mart, but there’s still a profit motive.
What about the supermarket? Here’s the interesting thing. In Switzerland, the two largest grocery chains are cooperatives. So while they have a store in just about every city, town, and village in the country, it’s not the same picture of corporate pillaging as, say, McDonald’s. With the supermarkets, any Swiss resident can sign up to be a member and be involved in the organization’s decisionmaking.
This is an atypical scenario, and one that challenges my assumptions. I’m used to associating large stores with greedy captialism. But in this situation, it could be reversed. Perhaps the independent bakery is leveraging its “traditional” image to inflate prices and make an obscene profit for the owner!
The amount and type of packaging is a big factor in weighing the environmental impact of my purchases. Over half of the household waste generated in Switzerland comes from packaging. I try my best to minimize that figure.
When I go to the independent bakery, the cheerful lady behind the counter grabs the whole wheat loaf off the shelf and puts it in a white paper bag with the name of the bakery printed on it. It’s simple, sturdy, and 100% recyclable.
The pain bis at the supermarket sits on the shelf in its paper-and-plastic bag. The plastic, which has holes pricked into it to allow for airflow, makes up 50% of the packaging.
It may seem insignificant, but there is a real difference in the type of waste generated by the two loaves of bread. If I really wanted to, I could eliminate the waste entirely by asking the local bakery to just hand me the loaf as-is and put it directly in my shopping bag.
The supermarket bread, being twice as big as the one from the bakery, lasts me a good two weeks - and it doesn’t go stale before then (must be those E200 preservatives.) The 500g loaf from the bakery will last a week, and then I’ll have to go out and buy more.
It seems like this wouldn’t really matter one way or the other, as long as I’m not wasting food. But whenever I get the supermarket bread, I can’t shake the feeling that I’m buying into the Costco culture of “more, more, more” and “bigger is better”. When I walk home carrying a massive loaf of bread, I feel like I’m making a subconscious statement, and it’s not one I’m very comfortable with.
By the same token, going for the local bakery’s bread means that I spend twice as much time traveling to and from the bakery to do my groceries (thereby putting twice the load on Lausanne’s transportation network).
Also, economies of scale leads me to believe that the supermarket can make bread more efficiently than the local bakery.
Part of the problem with these questions that bounce around in my head is that they involve a lot of guesswork and comparing apples to oranges. Buying the supermarket bread means I’ll put less strain on the transportation network, but will the preservatives kill me? At the local bakery I can make a zero-waste purchase, but what if it means I’m funnelling money into a wealthy business owner’s casino fund? There are no real ways to quantitatively compare these different factors.
In the end, it mostly comes down to what is on my mind at the moment. If I’m particularly concerned about the environmental impact one day, I could just as easily get hung up on the injustices of the capitalist system the next time I go shopping.
One thing is certain: no matter which loaf of bread I buy, I will find a reason to feel guilty for it.Sam Nabi