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Harringay, Haringey - So Good they Spelt it Twice!

Another HoL member posted recently about crowdfarmed avocados and a point of discussion in the replies was what one member referred to as the convenience economy. The original poster suggested someone start a thread on this and I am nominating myself as I am in the process of writing a book on the topic and am very curious as to people's thoughts.

The member who used the term convenience economy indicated their feeling that ordering avocados in bulk direct from the producer in Spain was another coup for the logic of convenience, whereas I would categorise this as distinctly inconvenient (and therefore worth doing, at least sometimes). The poster seemed to indicate that there might be generational differences in what is considered convenient vs inconvenient, which is likely right but something I haven't explored.

My thesis is that convenience drives a dysfunctional food system, but what is sold as convenient for us, the users of the system, actually masks the reality that the system is deeply inconvenient for us -- producing food that is bad for humans and planet and exploitative of those who grow it. 

The book will be a follow-up to my first book, Competition is Killing Us: How Big Business is Harming Our Society and Planet - and What to do About it (Penguin, 2020), in which I use my experience as a competition lawyer to critique corporate power. In this next book I'll be applying my perspective on corporate power structures to the food and agriculture sector.

I am very interested in what people think about the role of convenience, especially in food. What counts as convenience? What are the downsides? What conveniences would you not live without? Is convenience a problem or would should we be trying to make food even more convenient? 

Thanks to the original poster and respondent!


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Thanks for the post.

Have you intentionally left the term convenience economy undefined, or would having a tighter definition help us to answer your question?

Hi Hugh, in this case the term is not mine although in time I may develop a definition. I have been using the term "tyranny of convenience", which others have also used (e.g. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/02/16/opinion/sunday/tyranny-convenien...). I prefer convenience economy though and if I use it I will give full credit!

An example of non-food convenience is the story some bookshelves I recently ordered.

I did a bit of googling and hit on a photograph of ones that were exactly what I was after, clicked a few times through to the seller’s website, placed my order, paid with PayPal and sat back.

I got a receipt that allowed me to track the package.  I had no idea when placing the order that the goods were coming from Nice, so I watched the parcel leave there, go by road to Marseilles then on to Lyon followed by a detour into Germany before finally arriving at Rotterdam.  It then went by ship to Tilbury, was loaded on to a lorry which drove to a distribution centre in the West Midlands.  From there it went on to another lorry and to my home.

Would I have bought them if I had understood what it would entail to get them from the seller to my home?  I honestly don’t know.  I wanted them and that’s what was uppermost in my mind.

What I find to be interesting about this is that you know the journey the shelves went on - if you'd have bought shelves from a local shop, they might well have gone on a similar journey (or an even longer one), but would you have asked about it before buying them? I know that I wouldn't have, at least until considering it now in the context of this post. A big sign saying "locally made shelves" might have swayed me into buying those shelves instead of the ones that didn't have the sign, but I doubt I would be proactive in trying to find out the provenance without any prompting. Food (perhaps avocados) for thought.

That’s true Bethany. One thing that occurs to me is that when I bought the shelves they did this epic journey to get to me and me alone.  If they were supplying a shop I would imagine that there would have been multiple items in the shipment consuming roughly the same amount of energy as my single purchase.  But you’re right - the only way to be sure is to know where the start of the journey is and make it as short as possible trip to the end.

What it boils down to is the difference between needing and wanting.  I may want fresh strawberries on the table in December but do I need them?

Thanks for starting this thread. I shall follow it and may contribute later.

Before I even get to what is convenient for me, I'd consider the extent to which convenience is a priority for me. 

For some purchases, like buying a tub of filler for instance, convenience might be the key facror in deciding where I buy. For others, like buying food, clothing or furniture, selecting the right item or the right quality by seeing and feeling is key.

Sometimes, I might choose a lower level of convenience to avail myself of retailer expertise. For example I've chosen to buy things from Medlock, because even though there's sometimes a long wait whilst tradespeople transact out big orders, the guys at the trade counter will usually be able to offer advice on what to buy or how to fit something.

There are occasions when specialist items are simply easier to find online or the quality might be better, like some specialist plants, for example (and, in light of my recent order, I hope avocados and oranges!). So I'll go with online, but not because of convenience. 

As far as what convenience means to me, it’s actually quite complicated. Sometimes convenience means being able to buy something online and have it delivered to your door. But, even then, I consider what the delivery is going to be like - will I need to be in to receive the delivery: that can lead to inconvenience. So I might think about who is delivering the parcel; Royal Mail for example can be inconvenient because if I miss a delivery, I have to schlep over to Kentish Town to pick it up. 

Sometimes being able to pick something up from a store is more convenient than waiting for it to arrive. This goes to the question of immediacy. Sometimes if I want to know I have something in my hand and the place I can pick it up from is relatively nearby and easy to get to I will choose to pick it up. That tub of filler for instance if I need it urgently, I’m more likely to get it from Screwfix than I am from Amazon. But I still appreciate being able to order it online first so that I know the item is in stick and collection is quick.  

Another issue with convenience is the convenience of having something delivered with the inconvenience of returning it if it’s wrong or damaged. Being able to do that easily and at low cost or no cost is critical to my consideration. Amazon are usually pretty good in this respect (but not always Amazon Marketplace).

A bit of a hurried jumbled response, I'm afraid. But, I hope it's of some help. 

I will follow this, I have an MSc in Food Policy so I'm interested to see what people say!

For myself, I place higher importance on flavour and provenance of food than how easy it is to buy.

I get a weekly veg bag from Crop Drop. The quality is always excellent and it is all grown organically. I used to collect from Craving Coffee which meant every Thursday I had to take a long detour on my way home. Now I collect from a cupboard outside Downhills Park which is closer than my nearest supermarket. I guess the inconvenience now comes from having no choice as to the bag contents, and having to figure out how I'm going to use veg up.

I also get fish from Sole Share, with collection from Harringay Local Store. I get this fortnightly. It's highly inconvenient! I have to make it to the shop before they close, but really I try to make it there before dark as I usually cycle there. I try not to clash with school traffic and after work traffic and once I get to Green Lanes I get off and walk because I quite like being alive and I want to maintain that state of being.

I only find out on collection day what I'm receiving, which leaves little time for meal planning and any extra bits I might need to pick up for a recipe. I get what I can from HLS. If it's something like mussels it's best eaten the same day but Dover sole can go in the fridge until the weekend. The other inconvenience is it's enough for two people and of course I can't invite anyone to dinner at the moment. But I like to get fish from sustainable stocks and it's good to get varieties they don't have at the supermarket. Their packaging is much better than supermarket packaging too - most of it can go in the food waste bin for composting. The only other fish I get is smoked mackerel or herring from Sainsbury's or Ocado, and occasionally wild caught salmon from Ocado. 

The whole process of getting and planning and cooking takes me a lot of time, but I guess I've turned it into a hobby.

Part of the reason for the way I eat the way I do is because I have MS and follow an ultra-healthy diet to help manage this - it's very low in saturated fat with no meat, dairy, coconut or palm oils or trans fats. Fish for omega 3s but otherwise vegan. Though it's not wildly different from how I ate before my MS diagnosis - I had more dairy and junk food before and ate coconut yoghurt for breakfast every morning. Ah that's another inconvenience - I swapped coconut yoghurt for Nush almond yoghurt which is much harder to get hold of. I used to make a special trip to Wholefoods Piccadilly but often I'd get there and they'd be out of stock. Sometimes I'd then try Planet Organic. This would all mean getting home from work very late. Now I get it from Ocado but it hasn't always been easy to get the delivery slot I want (or any slot at all) during the pandemic.

I keep thinking of things to add here... I bought an Instant Pot last year to try to cut down on food packaging. It's meant being a bit more organised in my meal planning as if I need a tin of beans for something I now need to factor in time for cooking the beans. The Instant Pot makes it so much easier and quicker than soaking the beans and cooking them on the stovetop though. 

Another example of "inconvenience" is one of my favourite recipes (a carrot pancake) calls for it to be served with sprouts (as in, sprouted seeds not Brussels sprouts!). So then I factor in several days for growing the sprouts! But maybe it's convenient? Because it's a really good way of using up carrots from my Crop Drop bag...

Thought of one more thing! I try to minimise packaging waste so another thing I do is to get food and cleaning supplies from a refill shop. Harmless was easier to get to when they were in Wood Green. Now they are in Hornsey which was fine on the 41 bus but since the pandemic started I've been avoiding public transport. So I bought a bike, but the quick way there would entail cycling along West Green Road and Turnpike Lane, where I really don't fancy my chances. The safe way is up and down hills in Crouch End. I've never made it all the way up the hill with full panniers. 

But now I've discovered the Top Up Truck, which comes to St Anns ward on Sundays. I have a delivery coming to my street this Sunday! Super convenient. 

I find this interesting - thanks for posting. 

There was an article in the February 2021 edition of Which? On this topic "the cost of convenience" although it's more about using smaller local shops over the big supermarkets.   If you DM me I can let you have the article.



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