ER Editor: See also this Guardian piece from this week, which the article below may be partly drawn from — German supermarket trials charging true climate cost of foods
Notice the contradictory ideas in the opening sentence:
A leading discount supermarket in Germany has raised the prices of a selection of its products to reflect their real cost on people’s health and the environment.
German Discount Supermarket Chain Joins Forces With Nanny State to Teach Customers Environmental Lesson About “True Cost” of Cheap Food
I try to avoid pop culture themes here at the Plague Chronicle, but I’m making an exception for this story because it illustrates like few others the needling, nagging, shrieking nature of the regime that oppresses us. The arc of liberal democracy is long, but it bends towards a legion of overweight box wine-drinking state media Gutmenschen with overmany house cats and intractable toenail fungus kicking at our shins with their smelly battered Birkenstocks and shouting in our ears about the same three tiresome things over and over again, forever.
This week, the German discount supermarket chain Penny (a member of the Rewe Group) has arrogated to itself the project of teaching its predominantly lower-income working-class clientele about the grave environmental impact of the cheap processed food in which it specialises. They’ve decided to do this in the midst of massive food price inflation, which has left 11% of Germans unable to afford daily meals, by… selectively marking up food prices to reflect their ‘True Environmental Cost’.
Their “Wahre Kosten” (“True Prices”) publicity campaign is one massively tedious extended lecture to their customers about why they need to “Make an environmental choice when [they] shop”:
Food has social and environmental impacts from its production to your purchase, but they are not reflected in the retail price. If you want to remedy them, it costs money – the so-called true costs. The University of Greifswald and the Technical University of Nuremberg have scientifically calculated these for our selected products. The following factors were taken into account in the calculation:
This factor includes all climate-damaging emissions from the agriculture required for the products, e.g. methane produced by cattle or CO2 produced by diesel-powered tractors.
This factor includes all pollutants that have a negative impact on groundwater or other water sources and reservoirs – e.g. nitrogen from fertilisers or the toxicity of pesticides entering the water.
The use of land for the production of agricultural goods and the resulting degradation of its quality, e.g. through the alteration of natural land for arable use, is important.
This is not about how healthy a product is when consumed. Rather, it is about the damage to health caused by pesticides or the ammonia produced by animal husbandry.
The True Price Soothsayers from Greifswald and Nürnberg have decided that people need to pay €1.55 instead of €0.89 for mozzarella, €6.01 instead of €3.19 for Wiener sausages, and €1.44 instead of €0.99 for a tub of yoghurt. Foul fake meat vegan schnitzel, meanwhile, concocted from a long and baffling list of ingredients, has been marked up only a few cents (to €2.83 from €2.69), and the bio Wiener sausages, which used to be slightly more expensive than the environmentally irresponsible ordinary ones (€3.29 as opposed to €3.19), are in the new True Price Regime suddenly a relative bargain (€5.36 as opposed to €6.01). In fact the whole pricing scheme turns out to be an extended argument that overpriced over-processed eco products are actually a bargain, if only on the higher plane of reality accessible only to academics and Penny marketing consultants:
Let it taste more sustainable! As you may have noticed, the true cost share is lower for organic and vegan food. The reason for this is that organic and plant-based foods are produced in a way that is kinder to the environment. So choose organic products from Naturgut or Food For Future more often.
Anyone who visits a Penny and strays into the proximity of these ‘punishment products’ encounters obnoxious placards with wall-of-text messages about how environmentally bad ordinary foods are. Customers are just supposed to stand there and spend five minutes achieving ecological epiphany by studying these things, I guess.
For anybody who bothers to read to the bottom of the Penny Wahre Kosten website – probably me and three other people – there’s a quiz to test how well
schoolchildren customers have internalised these important lessons from their shitty corner supermarket chain:
1. Why is organic mozzarella from Naturgut better for the climate than that from San Fabio?
a. Organic food is produced in a more environmentally friendly way.
b. Organic mozzarella pulls CO2 out of the air.
2. Which yoghurt has less impact on soils?
a. Naturgut organic fruit yoghurt.
b. Penny Future Farmer Fruit Yoghurt.
3. How much water is needed to produce a 300g pack of Lindenhof Maasdamer cheese?
a. Less than 300 millilitres.
b. About 25 litres.
4. Which Wiener sausages cause less damage to human health during their production? (meaning damage that occurs before consumption, e.g. pollution from pesticide-treated soil)
a. Mühlenhof Wiener sausages.
b. Naturgut Bio-Wiener sausages.
If you answer at least three correctly, the website congratulates you for being “obviously aware of the impact our food has on the environment”. If you don’t, they tut tut that “it’s not that easy, but try again!”
There’s a lot lurking beneath the surface here. The notion that there can even be “true prices” divorced from all market forces and determined by the wizardry of random academic environmental gurus, for example, is curious indeed and speaks volumes about current-year German politics. It’s also clear that Penny’s campaign is directed not at the people who actually buy food there, but at biens pensants green-obsessed urbanites who never come within 100 metres of a Penny. “We share your disdain for the rabble who comprise our customer base and hope to join you in teaching them a lesson,” seems to be their message more than anything.
State media accordingly loves this – so much that a Westdeutscher Rundfunk Köln (WDR) reporter doing a segment on customer reactions inside a Penny supermarket interviewed another WDR employee posing as a random customer so that she could tell him how great she thought it was. After Twitter sleuths caught them out, WDR apologised and said it was simply a mistake, honestly it was, just a “chain of unfortunate circumstances”.
Welt reporters, meanwhile, have noticed that while the ‘True Prices’ campaign is all over the Penny website and fancier outlets in upscale neighbourhoods, it finds almost no mention in the ordinary Penny supermarkets where most people shop:
What goes down well in the media coverage obviously works badly in the shops. “We only get complaints from the customers,” says a cashier …
The reason for this is exemplified by a [Penny] branch in Hamburg. It’s not one of the discounter chain’s showcase branches… but one of the typical old, rather crowded shops in a residential area.
The billboard at the entrance carries the current slogan, “If you want cheap, you have to go to Penny,” and large signs in the shop advertise the “weekly special”. Currently on offer are “Natural pork belly slices XXL”. In other words, the same as always.
In contrast to the website, the promotion is hardly visible in the real world at all. There is only a flexible cardboard sign on the marked-up products themselves… The presentation with the large red price on a yellow background, however, suggests a bargain special at a cursory glance, not a mark-up – as does the large slogan, “At this price, it’s all about the sausage.” …
“Personally, I think the campaign is very good. But customers look at their mobile phones or whatever, they don’t read the information sheets,” says the cashier. “So they only get angry, there’s no praise.”
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