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Food for thought: how values affect our food choices

We in the West are living in an age of food plenty: faced with dizzying choice in our supermarket aisles, with foods from across the globe available – whatever the season – at prices that would have been unthinkable 50 years ago. How do we navigate this? What guides our decision to pick one product over another, or to forgo some foods altogether? And how much can our own personal choices really affect the way the food system works?

When it comes to the big issues we are concerned about, be it animal welfare, climate change, or health and nutrition, there is only so much that our individual shopping choices can do. The responsibility lies also, and sometimes more so, with the powers that structure the food industry. In the UK, for example, we generate about 16 million tonnes of food waste a year, but 60% of this occurs in the supply chain, before it even reaches our shelves. So the power we wield with our shopping baskets, in cases like this, is somewhat limited. However, if we understand what motivates our food choices, on our own and as a society, we can get a better understanding of what’s accentuating those bigger problems we care about. And this will hopefully give us a better idea of how we can be more effective at making the changes we’d like to see.

What’s the golden rule of motivation? Well, first and foremost: we are not ‘rational’ – at least in the traditional sense of the word. We don’t work by information and algorithms, and when it comes to food, we rarely use a hard and fast set of rules to guide our choice. Sometimes we make particular commitments – we may decide to be a strict vegetarian and forgo any meat-based product; we may budget our weekly shop and limit our spending on luxuries, or we may buy only fair-trade coffee – but not all our decisions are set in stone. If we have a hard day at work, we may be tempted to look for convenience meals, simply because we can’t be bothered to spend an hour in the kitchen. Or if we feel emotional, suddenly our commitment to avoid chocolate may mysteriously dissolve. A similar phenomenon might draw us to the kebab shop after a few pints.

There are many factors that influence our food choice. For some people, the taste of the food is one of the only considerations – for others, bank balance is particularly important. But underneath many of our choices are our values. Our values are the abstract guiding principles in our lives that influence what we believe or do across a variety of situations. We all hold the same values, but each of us will tend to find some particularly important. This is, perhaps, the second rule of human motivation: our values influence our attitudes and actions. Because values are abstract goals (like justice, or health, or independence), we tend to apply them to many different areas of our lives. If I think ‘equality’ is highly important, for example, this will probably guide the way I vote, the way I talk to my kids, how I make decisions at work, and how I respond to commentary in the media.

Psychological research suggests a number of strong links between values and food. People who have greater ‘universalism’ values (meaning they are particularly concerned with the welfare of people and the environment) tend to:

  1. Make more sustainable food choices – e.g. be vegetarian, or eat less meat; choose organic, fair-trade and free range products (De Boer, 2007).
  2. Show greater appreciation for health and quality, over convenience/microwave meals (Paasovaara, 2011).
  3. Consider the country of origin; boycott untrusted retailers; avoid excess packaging, and consider whether packaging can be recycled (Shaw, 2005).

Values related to concern for people and environment are also linked to a whole host of other attitudes and behaviours, which indirectly affect the choices we make around food. These values, for example, make us more likely to support human rights issues, cooperate rather than compete with others, and show less racial and gender prejudice. They also make us more concerned about the impact our actions have on the environment, for us now, and for future generations, and they motivate us to do more to donate and volunteer for charities and campaigns. (See our recent report, Common Cause for Nature, for more on how these values motivate us to appreciate and protect nature.)

Because we exercise our values in many different ways, we can think of them almost like muscles: the more we use them, the stronger they get. So, when it comes to food, our strongest values will tend to influence our choices – not just at the checkout, but also for the initiatives and groups working towards the bigger issues we personally care about. As a result, it is worth reflecting a little on our values: what do we think is really important? Do we express them in our food choices? And, again, are there structural features of the food industry that get in the way of us expressing these values?

In the UK, we have some great examples of initiatives that enable us to express more universalist values in our food choices. There is a group called Incredible Edible, originally started in a small town called Todmorden in West Yorkshire, now spread to over 30 communities around the UK and New Zealand. They grow food and campaign for more local food production, with the aim of allowing more communities to be self-sustaining, at least with fruit and veg. All local schools, and many of their public spaces (housing developments; the fire and police stations) now have growing sites, which are looked after by over 200 volunteers. Not only does this make local food more easily available, it also encourages more people to experience what it’s like to grow food, and it changes people’s perception of how public space can be shared and used. From a values point of view, this probably has quite a positive impact, because we care more about our environment if we experience being outside in nature, and we care more about people it we’ve got a chance to do something strong and positive as a community.

Another example of a good food initiative is This is Rubbish, a UK group campaigning to oblige all areas of the food sector to audit and report their food waste. They have recently published a report, Counting What Matters, which examines the cost and practical viability of auditing waste in the supply chain, before it reaches our shops. This report launched in parliament in May, and with the right attention, has the potential to garner political backing. It is a good example of the kind of project that tackles the causes of a problem. And it is the kind of project that we might support if it’s in line with our values, but we can’t directly affect with the contents of our own supermarket trolley. (For a short introduction to the environmental impact of food waste, see this animation. Comes complete with farting cows.)

Values, then, guide many of our attitudes and actions when it comes to food. We can show real commitment to our values in our shopping choices, but we can go even further in supporting those bigger issues if we strengthen the same values by supporting other groups and projects that we believe in, whether they directly pertain to food or not. Of course, there will always be barriers. And there will be plenty of occasions where our decisions will be more affected by our habits, emotions or bank balance. But by reflecting on how values motivate us, and everyone else, we’ve got a greater chance of understanding what the solutions are. We can make personal food choices, as well as backing bigger policies or projects, that will have a positive impact both on people and the environment.

Bec SandersonFood for thought: how values affect our food choices