16 January 2007, 16:39 PM
  • Ed Haigh, at BigBarn, comments on why a 'local' food revolution is brewing across the UK and how retailers can benefit

‘There you are sir, that’s 20p change and your bag of sausages. Thanks for your vote.’

If this sounds like a slightly odd way to sign off with your customers, then you might want to read on, because, according to a recent article in The Economist (9th December 2006), customers walking into your shop are no longer just there for the food.

Don’t panic, there’s nothing sinister going on. You’re not inadvertently playing host to some clandestine political movement on the fringes of society. Oh, no. What you’re involved with is much bigger than that, and, if the article is to be believed, when you’re not busy stacking the shelves, you could be playing a major role in reshaping the mechanics of modern democracy.

The argument goes like this - More and more voters are failing to turn out to cast their vote when they get the chance. Perhaps they’re fed up with the politicians. Perhaps they think their vote won’t make a difference. Perhaps they just don’t trust the whole system. Whatever it is, it’s unlikely to be a lack of concern about issues confronting society. And chief amongst those at the moment is a concern for the environment. But, with politicians failing to address the challenges in a way that reflects the public’s concerns, people are turning away from the ballot box and delivering their verdict in the most effective way they know - they’re voting with their shopping baskets.

Making choices
By buying organic, fair trade and local, they’re making a statement about what they perceive to be wrong, and how they want it put right. And it is clear they believe that their hard-earned cash can make more of a statement than a cross in the ballot box. What’s more, making this sort of statement is something they can do every day, whilst voting only comes around once every few years.

Of course, for every political statement, there’s a counter-argument, which is what The Economist article goes on to offer. For our purposes it’s simply useful to understand a bit more about what is motivating consumers when they walk through the doors of a small, independent food retailer.

At the moment, nothing seems to be as high on the food-shopper’s agenda as buying local. When even the major supermarkets are clamouring to tell you what wonderful pals they are with Farmer Giles down the road, you know there’s something significant happening. Of course, while supermarkets will change their practices to follow the smell of money, independent retailers and the producers themselves are the only real solution for people wanting to buy local food.

It is clear that ‘local’ appears to be ticking so many boxes on the public’s agenda. It’s fresh and in-season and it hasn’t choked up the skies getting here from the other side of the world. But what seems to be most important is that it not only supports the local economy – it reconnects consumers with producers and with the community around them.

According to a recent IGD survey, 80% of people expressed a desire to buy local, but only 20% actually do so on a regular basis. If that isn’t a call to action during the year ahead, then perhaps the opportunity to play a role in reshaping democracy will do it.

Ed Haigh runs BigBarn, the UK’s no.1 virtual farmer’s market. It has a database of more than 6,500 local producers. To find out about becoming a member, visit BigBarn at www.bigbarn.co.uk, call 01234 8761005 or email info@bigbarn.co.uk.

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