Back to the Basics

7 Nov

Over the weekend I visited a store that sells food and bath products from small producers. It’s a fascinating place, full of products with interesting backgrounds and pretty packages. Employees encourage sampling, and they pretty much won’t leave you alone until you try a few things. In addition to its own retail outlets, the company also helps its small producer partners sell wholesale to corporations and set up retail accounts with stores like Whole Foods  So all in all it’s a rather special business, and you can almost feel the dreams of the people behind the products.

Small and local is certainly in these days. But as I tasted small-batch chocolate after small-batch chocolate, I had to chuckle thinking about how unexciting this store would have been to one of my relatives a few generations back. For people hundreds of years ago, small and local was often the only way to buy. Today we’re so used to big business that the notion of buying from a husband and wife team who milk their own goats and make their own caramel makes consumer hearts go pitter patter. A writer for The New Yorker captured this scenario perfectly in a piece of serialized fiction earlier this year. In the piece, a man from the early 1900s is brought into the present day and has to adjust to the modern world. He used to work in a pickle factory, so he turns to making pickles to earn a living. Since he does everything by hand and in small batches, his pickles become an instant hit. I don’t want to ruin the plot, but I’ll just say that the piece points to a really interesting tension: just how big do we want our favorite brands to grow?

There’s a chart floating around that shows ten of the biggest corporations and the brands they own. The chart isn’t new, but for some reason it popped back up on my social network this week. All 10 corporations on the chart make what’s called “consumer packaged goods,” or CPG. The graphic is getting buzz because it shows that these 10 corporations “control” a good number of the top CPG brands. For example, Unilever makes everything from soap to ice cream. Pepsi may be known for its eponymous beverage, but it also owns Quaker- yes, the oatmeal brand. 

via Reddit

The chart comes from Reddit, where a Redditor titled it “the illusion of choice.” I take issue with this title, as it suggests that our daily lives are affected by the consolidation of the CPG industry. Let’s be real: they aren’t. As responses to the chart show, most people previously had no idea which brands Unilever owns. Very few people are thinking about who owns Dove as they shop for their soap- they just want the best possible soap for the best possible price.

I may not agree with the way the chart has been editorialized on Reddit, but I do think it points to that same tension about company growth. In fact, it reminds me of the Walmart dilemmathey were once a local retailer, then grew, and now they get a lot of flack for being too big. Let’s think back to my store of local producers, many of whom are trying to “make it big.” So what if they do? If that tiny chocolate company managed to land an account at Whole Foods, and then Safeway, and then Target – would I abandon them? 

I can’t say I have all the answers to this tension, but I encourage you to think a bit about the companies you buy from and why you make those choices. If your favorite local bakery suddenly opened locations nationwide- would you stop visiting?

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