When our shop was conceived it was as ‘The Sustainable Weigh’. It later gained its fabulous Welsh name of ‘Siop y Glorian’, but at the heart of the idea was sustainability.
The Collins dictionary defines it as “the ability to be maintained at a steady level without exhausting natural resources or causing severe ecological damage.” Which seems a reasonable enough, if slightly bland, starting point.
The most popularly used description of Sustainability is known as the Brundtland Definition and comes from an eponymous report from 1987. This is primarily concerned with international development and frames it as “meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”
The trouble is this is all a bit vague. How do you define ‘needs’? Is a new TV every other year a need? Is one foreign holiday a year a need? Is a new dress for a night out a need? It opens up a can of worms and a million interpretations. Our needs are almost certainly different to yours. And so on. 7 billion different needs, 7 billion definitions of sustainability.
The truth is terms such as ‘Sustainability’, ‘Sustainable Development’, ‘Sustainable Growth’ and many other variants are used pretty much interchangeably. This has a limited advantage in that the inherent vagueness of such an approach allows a wide range of people and organisations to support the broad concept of ‘Sustainability’ without ever having to define exactly what they mean, and if we’re cynical, take the hard choices to bring to life such broad brush support.
Faced with this lack of certainty, we went looking for more inspiration and something we could use to help us define what our nascent shop was going to be.
First up was Sustain. Sustain is an alliance of food and agriculture organisations working for betting food and farming practices in the UK. They came up with a list of what sustainable food would look like:
Aim to be waste free
Eat better, and less meat and dairy
Buy local, seasonal and environmentally friendly food
Choose Fairtrade-certified products
Select fish only from sustainable sources
Grow our own; buy the rest from a wide range of outlets
This felt much more like what we were looking for. This was backed up by our next port of call, The Kindling Trust. Their description was very similar:
Local & Seasonal
Organic & Sustainable farming
Reduce foods of animal origin and maximise welfare standards
Exclude fish species identified as at risk
Fairtrade certified products
Promote health & wellbeing
Reduction of waste & packaging
By this point we felt we had the outlines of what we as a business needed. A simple, bullet point style list, that could help us communicate our boundaries and beliefs to our customers. But before we finalised that, our research had one further port of call; The Sustainable Development Commission, a body set up in 2001 to advise the UK and devolved governments.
The only trouble is it was closed down in 2011.
A victim of budgetary cuts and ‘a bonfire of the quangos’, the government announced it would stop funding the organisation in 2010 and a year later it ceased to function. All that is left is a slightly dated looking website and ten years worth of work that ran into a dead end.
Its closure was described at the time as an act of ‘ideological vandalism’ and time is only reinforcing that judgement. The UK needs more non-partisan guidance and expertise, not less. Sadly, we are living in an age where ‘experts’ are derided by cabinet ministers. The Sustainable Development Commission is just another forgotten victim in a long running battle.
Before their untimely demise, the commission defined sustainable food in the following terms:
Is safe, healthy and nutritious, for consumers in shops, restaurants, schools, hospitals etc Can meet the needs of the less well off people
Provides a viable livelihood for farmers, processors and retailers, whose employees enjoy a safe and hygienic working environment whether in the UK or overseas
Respects biophysical and environmental limits in its production and processing, while reducing energy consumption and improving the wider environment; it also respects the highest standards of animal health and welfare, compatible with the production of affordable food for all sectors of society
Supports rural economies and the diversity of rural culture, in particular through an emphasis on local products that keep food miles to a minimum
The points about affordability and supporting rural economies really hit home for us. As has been often said, we need 1 million people doing sustainability imperfectly, not 1 person doing it beautifully. Only by making it as accessible as possible can we make meaningful change. Although they wouldn’t ultimately form part of our definition, these ideas influenced our opening hours and our desire to keep our prices as low as we possible can to make refilling an option for as many people as we can.
And what of our final list? By now we felt we’d got a good grasp on what others deemed important and how they fitted in with our goals and beliefs. The end result is our Sustainable Seven:
1) Locally sourced
2) Contributes to reducing packaging
3) Offers an alternative to meat or dairy products
4) Offers a Fairtrade or similarly ethically sourced option
5) Is Palm Oil free
6) Helps reduce food waste
7) Helps you Make It, Bake It, Grow It.
This is our foundation stone. Everything we bring into the shop has to meet one of the bullet points. It helps us make decisions and to explain to customers why we make certain choices. It gives us an anchor in a world full of shades of grey. Most of all we’re proud of it. We are the Sustainable Weigh, and this is what we believe in.