Julia Hailes MBE

Sustainability Pioneer


Supermarkets vs french markets…. (Sept08)

Even with the wind and rain lashing around our beach hut on the Dorset coast, we had a great couple of days. There were sunny spells and we had lots of visitors. Somehow the weather didn’t matter that much. We stocked up for supplies from the large supermarket in Bridport – but this was more of a chore than part of the holiday experience.

Not so in the sunny south of France, where we were lucky enough to spend a couple of weeks. Shopping was one of the things I most enjoyed about our stay (We shared a villa with friends, having taken the train with my three sons from Yeovil Junction to Avignon). This is in stark contrast to my normal existence, where I avoid shopping trips like the plague. I buy almost everything online, including food and household supplies (Somerset Local Food Direct).

Every morning my friend Harriet and I cycled 2km to the local village and bought bread and croissants from the Boulangerie. Sometimes we stopped and had coffee and orange juice in the square before heading back. We didn’t have to hurry because our children have just got to the stage of lying in late!

Other provisions were also bought from the village – there was a particularly friendly Boucherie and a local shop with other essentials. We also filled up our water bottles from the village fountain and recycled our waste into skips in the square.

But the market days were the highlight. Wonderful stalls with olive oil, cheeses, breads, meat and vegetables. It smelt good. But most of all it looked fabulous. I love being able to feel the food and often to taste it too…. Our close neighbours were selling honey. We were able to sample the different types from lavender to Miel de Garrigue before deciding which one to buy.

I took a shopping basket and left over carrier bags – was rigorous in refusing extra packaging and took pleasure in supporting local producers. So I wondered whether shopping like this at home would be a better environmental option. You may be surprised to hear that I think not!

While on holiday I was able to enjoy the whole experience and not worry about the time it took. At home my online shopping takes a few minutes and unpacking my boxes a few more. My delivery is one of several in the area – so the transport impact is minimised. But probably the biggest impact of the french market would be the food waste.

With loose products displayed and minimal packaging I suspect the amount of food chucked away at the end of the day would be far greater than either in my delivery system or even in a large-scale supermarket. I’m currently writing a packaging briefing paper for M&S consumers. One of the things I found out in researching this was that one supermarket trialling loose produce found that food waste doubled and more packaging was used in transit.

You might want to dismiss this and say that French markets will produce less food waste than supemarkets – or perhaps even challenge whether this is such a problem compared to packaging. Actually, it appears that markets can be incredibly wasteful. In developing countries about half of food produced is thrown away before it even gets to people’s homes – and much of it is sold in markets. And the environmental impact of this is very significant – on average waste food has 15 times greater environmental impact than waste packaging….

I thought the French shoudl be re-thinking their approach to packaging too. People tell me that they’ve stopped giving out plastic bags – I didn’t see much evidence of this. And the Boulangerie put every single bagette into its own paper sleeve. What useful purpose does that serve – with the bread sticking out of the top? This could be one simple step to start reducing waste. And while they’re about it I wonder if they could make their bread last longer – it’s only really edible for a day….

So, would I choose supermarket shopping on a rainy holiday on the Dorset coast or the sunny markets in Provence? I have to admit that even my passion and commitment to being green might not keep me away from the open air gastronomic pleasures of les marches….

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