Be Careful What You Wish For.

I actually enjoy grocery shopping.  I realise for many people, it can be tedious and time consuming and sometimes stressful, but I quite like it.  I look forward to challenging myself to come in on budget, and to buy as many products as possible which are locally produced — and if not West Australian, then at least Australian.

Here’s the thing you should know about grocery shopping in Australia: there are two major supermarket chains, Coles and Woolworths.  They basically have a duopoly in the supermarket business; there are a few others, but none of them has the overwhelming distribution that these two have.  And as with most supermarkets, each has its own ‘home’ brand, which is sold at a very competitive price.  That’s not news.  What is interesting, is that in recent years, both Coles and Woolworths have been expanding their home brands, and — perhaps more importantly — improving their quality.

It used to be the case that you’d buy the home brand butter or toilet paper or baked beans because you really wanted to save money, but given the choice, you’d buy another more expensive brand, because frankly, the home brand stuff was kaka.

That’s no longer the case.  Not only have they improved their basic lines, they’ve also added other ‘brands’, so that they’re now offering a cheap brand, a mid-range, and a more expensive, higher quality label.  In addition, they’re branching out into organic produce, plus they’re also offering insurance and credit cards.

Now, despite the pleasure I get from grocery shopping, I’ll admit that it is sometimes difficult to fit it in around all the other household- and child-related jobs I need to accomplish.  So it’s certainly very convenient that I can get almost all the things I need at one place, not to mention at low prices.  That’s part of the appeal, isn’t it?  It’s a one-stop-shop, and it’s marketed as that.

And there would be nothing wrong with that, only I’ve noticed something a little disturbing about the way the supermarkets’ own brands are merchandised.  I guess it’s been creeping up on me without my noticing, because it only became apparent when I recently went to get milk.  I was specifically there just for milk, which is unusual, so perhaps that’s why I was so observant that day.  I spent some time comparing prices and checking use-by dates, as I often do.  And then I realised that the supermarket brand milk took up around forty percent of the refrigerated cabinet.  That’s forty percent of the cabinet which houses the fresh, fermented and flavoured milk.  So that means the other fresh milk brands are sharing just over half the cabinet with other milk products.

Two thoughts sprang to mind in response to this.  The first was about bulk merchandising.  Back in the day when I was in retail, one of the ways in which we drew attention to products was through bulk merchandising.  A classic example of this is Coca Cola.  Think of the last time you were in a supermarket in the soft drinks aisle.  Coke takes up a huge amount of shelf space. The red and white labels on against the dark liquid in the bottles makes for a striking contrast which catches your eye.  It is something you notice even when you’re not looking for soft drink.

Bulk merchandising the store-brand milk has perhaps an even greater impact than the Coke.  This is because it’s something most of us buy everyday, and while some customers have undying brand loyalty, many will buy what’s on special or what’s cheapest.  If you notice one brand over the rest, and it’s cheap, chances are, you’re going to buy it.

The other issue is purely of space, which is why I noticed it.  If there is less space for the other brands of milk, then fewer bottles are ordered.  This means that if you normally buy a branded milk, and that one is sold out, then you must choose another brand.

Guess which brand never sells out?

After this, I began to look a little closer at some of the other departments in the supermarkets.  The bakery section is overwhelmingly store-brand products.  The cheapest fresh bread is the store brand one.  The tinned pie apple, of all things, is no longer available in large tins, except for the store-brand.  And it makes no financial sense to buy the smaller tin from the competitor, because the store brand tin is almost the same price for double the amount of apple.

This isn’t so sinister, in itself.  Every business wants to make profits; every business wants to have as much of the market share as possible.  Coles and Woolworths are just doing what any other business wants to do.

The trouble is, their methods are, quite possibly, a little underhand.  Recently an investigation into how they negotiate contracts with suppliers has raised questions of blackmail and bullying.  A 10-year milk contract between Coles and a milk-processing co-operative has been promoted as a way of giving suppliers certainty, but a cynic might view this as piecemeal, given the way in which these supermarkets can essentially dictate the success or failure of individual suppliers.  There are also some concerns about how the volatility of the market will affect such a long-running contract.

It makes me ache a little to realise just how much we have allowed large companies to take control of what we buy.  We no longer need to go to several different shops to get what we need, and that’s very convenient, but at what price is this happening?  When there is a supermarket brand product in every category, is that really choice?  Or does it mean that they can start pushing out other brands until we don’t have a choice but to buy theirs?  And what happens, if we are then unhappy with that brand?  Where is the choice, then?

This kind of business model is certainly not unique to us here in Australia, and that fact both saddens and delights me.  It’s upsetting to think that we have allowed big business to get this far, and that we accept a kind of  ‘market will prevail’ philosophy.  The market in this case is not fair, in the same way that a match between a bantamweight and a heavyweight would not be fair.  I’m sad to think that we allow this to happen without thinking of the long term consequences.

But I’m also confident that consumers can turn this around.  Farmers’ markets, boutique stores, a focus on customer service and niche goods — all of these are ways in which small businesses can push back against a powerful supermarket chain.  And they are pushing back.  It’s up to us as consumers to decide where we stand.  Will we stick with the store-brand goods, or will we choose to pay a little extra to support a different business?  Granted, economic situations sometimes limit our choices, but while we’re still spending money, we’re still making choices.

It’s up to us, to choose wisely, because if we don’t, we may find ourselves with very little choice at all.

I Can’t Believe It.

I seem to say this a lot these days. You’d think by my age, I’d be jaded and cynical enough to dispense with such exclamations of incredulity, but no. I still find myself regularly shaking my head, and mumbling, ‘I can’t believe it.’

Of course, sometimes I use it out of habit, for example:

‘I can’t believe we’re late for school, again!’

‘I can’t believe I still haven’t mopped the kitchen floor.’

‘I can’t believe it’s taking me so long to write this blog post/short story/poem/email/comment.’

Obviously, I actually can believe these things. I’m just saying that I can’t, to emphasise my frustration at not getting something I want.

But more often, lately, I find myself reading something or hearing something, which I really can’t believe. What I’m really saying, then, is ‘I don’t understand.’ Because it is so far beyond my understanding as to be beyond belief. Because it is so unjust, or callous, or unfair, or dishonest, or illogical, or any or all of those things.

 
I can’t believe that despite our prime minister being an unmarried atheist, who lives with her long-term partner, she has yet to come out in favour of gay marriage. I can’t believe that so many politicians really think it is going to affect our society, that it is going to somehow impact the marriages of straight couple. Really? Do they really think that? I can’t believe how many politicians are getting away with being able to suggest that gay couples who want to marry are somehow sexual deviants who also engage in illegal activities. I can’t believe the obsession with what people do in the bedroom. Aren’t we over that yet?

I can’t believe we still rely so greatly on fossil fuels. We have known for decades that they’re running out and that they pollute the place. I can’t believe that we’ve not managed to develop better photovoltaic and battery technology, or more efficient windmills. I know we’re getting there, but it is taking So. Damned. Long. I can’t believe companies which make millions upon millions every year are not able to try harder, are not able to take a financial hit for a short time so that we can look forward to a cleaner future. I can’t believe this just doesn’t seem to be a priority.

Still.

Even after years and years of knowing that we need to change.

I can’t believe…

that someone can walk into a primary school and shoot 20 very small children dead, plus the teachers who were trying to protect them. I can’t believe that this tragedy can be downplayed or that discussion thereof can be quashed for the sake of ‘respect to the victims’ because someone might talk about the guns. I can’t believe that sweeping gun reforms are not being signed into law THIS VERY MINUTE. I can’t believe that there is mass-shooting upon mass-shooting in the US and the general response seems to be the shrugging of one’s shoulders and a resigned sigh of, ‘Well. Watcha gonna do?’ I can’t believe that children can lie on the floors of their classroom, bleeding to death, and that someone’s right to own a powerful, semi-automatic weapon is more important than the right of those children to go to school one Friday and live to see the weekend.

The thing is, I’m fairly open to changing my beliefs. I’m not saying I change my mind on a whim, rather, if your beliefs are different to mine, and then you explain to me why you believe what you do, why it’s rational and logical and why It makes sense, and I’m convinced, I will change what I believe. I might wriggle uncomfortably and complain bitterly, but I’ll do it.

And every day, I’m hearing arguments against so, so many things: against gay marriage, against investment in renewable energy, against tighter gun control. And I’m not convinced. These arguments are riddled with every fallacy in the book – straw man, slippery slope, bad analogy – and they do not go even close to making a good case as to why I should change my mind.  I can’t believe they’re not trying harder.

I suppose it is lazy politics; it is irresponsible leadership; it is rhetoric and spin. It is people saying not what they really think, not what others want them to say, but what those who give them money or influence want them to say. It must be that people are doing and saying things, not for the good of others, not to prevent deaths or promote happiness or to even foster an environment where life could thrive, but to ensure their own positions of power.

Wow.

I guess I’m cynical and jaded enough after all, because that, I can believe.

A Cabin in the Woods.

After I finished high school here in Australia, I went to Germany as an exchange student for twelve months. I stayed with three host families, and was with the middle family over the summer break. This was particularly fortunate for two reasons: first, they were such a warm and welcoming family that I felt completely at home, and second, they owned a house in northern Sweden, where they were planning to spend two weeks summer holidays. And they wanted me to join them.

Sweden was gorgeous. It’s almost twenty years since I was there, but I still remember just how beautiful it was, especially in the area where we stayed. The summer was also unusually warm, which suited my West-Australian constitution right down to the ground, especially since there were several lakes in which to go swimming. We hiked through the forest, where I saw blueberries in the wild for the first time, and delighted in the lush green which was so different to the woodlands of my homeland. Occasionally we saw other hikers, since it was a popular area, and shortly after we’d greeted a couple on the path, we came to a clearing, and I saw a small hut.

‘It’s for hikers and campers,’ my host father told me when I asked him about it. ‘For sheltering in, or sleeping overnight.’

‘What a cool idea!’ I said, with the naivete of a rather indoorsy young person who avoided camping whenever she could.

‘So you use it for as long as you need,’ said my host father, ‘and then you leave it…’

‘In the same condition you found it,’ I finished.

‘No, no,’ he smiled. ‘You leave it how you would wish to find it.’

This is such a wonderful sentiment, isn’t it? If everyone does this, then the place stays habitable, and the work for each person is less. Occasionally, there will be someone who comes by and leaves a mess, which the next person has to tidy up. Annoying for that person, sure, but that’s where the secret lies. You do the work at that point: so that you can enjoy the cabin while you’re there, and so that those who come after you won’t have to do it. And if you don’t do it, who will?

To my 18-year-old self, this was a bit of an epiphany, which, as with most epiphanies, made enough of an impact to stay with me for the next two decades. Granted, it could be argued that it means that some people will never clean up after themselves, but you know, that’s kind of how the world is. You could go hungry, waiting for that to change. Instead, you’re best off making yourself some lunch, and just getting on with the clean-up.

Lately, as I’ve been cleaning up the mess other people leave, I’ve been thinking about how this kind of philosophy can be applied to so many other facets of life. How, if we just stopped all the finger-pointing, and got on with the clean-up, there might be less mess. If we stopped lamenting how people are just not as friendly as they were, and instead started going out of our way to show a little more kindness, we might surprise ourselves with the results. If we composted and recycled more, and drove our cars less, the world would be just a little less polluted.

There is always a place to encourage individuals to take personal responsibility; there’s even a place for laws to attempt to limit some behaviours and promote others. But surely, the best way to start the ball rolling is to walk up and give it shove. Because by doing so, you can guarantee that it will get done. And it also means that when you leave this world, you can be content with the fact that at least, you’ve done your best to leave it how you would wish to find it.

When is a Mummy Blog not a Mummy Blog?

A friend recently gave me a link to a radio conversation she’d heard and thought I might find interesting..  Among other topics for discussion was ‘mummy’ (or ‘mommy’ depending on how your English is accented) blogs.  The point was made that the title ‘mummy blog’ was used often quite disparagingly, to dismiss as trivial and unimportant the issues raised in such forums.

On some level, I was aware of this, since I’ve been blogging at livejournal for some years now, and it was in order to avoid the ‘mummy blog’ stigma that I started here at WordPress.  It’s not that my livejournal is only about my children, but they feature strongly in it, since I use it to record their — and my — milestones, and what I’m thinking at the time.  And after all, I’m a mummy, so of course my blog is a mummy blog.

Wait, really?

Why does my identity as a person have to rest on whether or not I’ve reproduced? In order to be taken seriously, should I avoid any mention of children?  Or is a passing mention acceptable, but a post all about them would have me lose my credibility?  Do we dismiss the issues in such blogs because we dismiss mothering as worthwhile?  Is it assumed that you’ll be unable to make intelligent observations once you have a child?

I think it’s hit home because I’m having my own existential crisis of sorts.  I’ve now got four young children, and most of my day is spent parenting, and I sometimes wonder about where my own personality disappeared to.  Where did that well-read, interested, eloquent woman go, and who is this rather exhausted-looking and frazzled person staring back at me in the mirror?  It’s always been important to me to read and write about international issues, world politics, social change.  I want to identify and be identified as more than just a parent.

And yet… and yet!

I love being a parent.  I love sitting down to afternoon tea with my children, or exploring in the garden with them.  I love reading to them on an evening, when they tuck themselves under my arms and lie across my legs and hang on every rhyme.  And I’m also interested in other people’s family lives.  I’m interested in how other people deal with parenting issues; I share their enthusiasm about their children’s achievements and I empathise when they’re going through difficult times.  This kind of blog serves a purpose, too: it is a sharing of information, it provides a sense of camaraderie, it helps one feel less alone in the parenting journey.  That’s what  I think of, when I hear the term ‘mummy blog’.

I realise though, that while I enjoy reading such blogs, I’m enjoying them because I’m going through similar experiences, not because they’re challenging my beliefs or asking controversial questions which give pause for thought.  Of course, some of them do just that — they place their parenting squarely in terms of the wider world.  Are they still mummy blogs?

I do wonder about the impression I’m giving, when I write about my children’s lives.  I want to portray myself as a person first.   But while it irks me that others may see me as parent first — rather than teacher or gardener or Volvo driver — I still don’t want them to dismiss the parent part. Is it too much to ask that I can lament how frustrating it is to be toilet training my toddler, and in the next breath, want to discuss the situation in North Korea?  Why does it have to be one or the other?  It’s true that there are times when I’m so sleep deprived that I can’t even string together a coherent sentence about anything, let alone a topic of international importance. But for me, on  most days, I’d at least like to try to have a conversation which revolves around something other than parenting.

There are blogs in which the author simply wants to record what is happening, to remind herself for later.  And there are others where the author wants the writing to shine as much as the content.  If we want to be taken seriously as writers, and if we want to blog about our children and their daily routines, then we need to illustrate through our writing that we are still intelligent, contemplative individuals.   That doesn’t mean we have to be discussing deep and meaningful topics everyday, because hey, sometimes you do want to just revel in the simple joy that is your baby’s first steps.   But it is a challenge to us as writers to foster our curiosity about the world, to craft our stories with care — even the ones which seem dull and ordinary.  We should strive to find profundity in mundanity.

But we should also be asking others to check their stereotypes of bloggers and parents and writers.  It should be clear that whether or not someone is a mother, whether or not she writes about what she’s cooking for tea, or whether or not she thinks about shrinking global linguistic diversity, she is sitting down at a keyboard to chronicle something important in this life, at this time.  Sometimes a mummy blog is not a mummy blog, and sometimes it simply is.

Either way, as a reader, you don’t have to agree with what she has to say.  You don’t even have to read it.  But you should at least give her the respect for taking the time to write it.