Who made your lunch today?
Was it you in your kitchen? A familiar face you see smiling at you over the counter everyday in a food court? Or perhaps a never seen corporation who provided the ease of you being able to buy ten identical lunches from the frozen foods aisle that enables you to stock up and nuke your lunch daily?
Last week, I had the opportunity to hear Michael Pollan speak and one of my favourite quotables from his talk was this:
And here I mean really cooked- not a sandwich assembled by your local “sandwich artist”. No matter what you make, if you are making it in a home kitchen, it will be better than the industrialized version. This idea reminded me of something I read recently on Seth Godin’s blog. Seth, if you are not familiar, writes books and speaks on smart marketing. I love him because he takes the same approach to marketing and building community as I strive to do with nutrition: breaking the rules and truly believing in the intelligence of your customers/guests/clients/readers- and then daring to do it differently.
Seth has given me permission to share his post with you and I want you to read it, replacing the example of leaded-gasoline with Kraft Lunchables, Maple Leaf Hot Dogs, Subway Meatball Subs, a Filet-O-Fish, that bulk bag of battered fries you bought at Costco, or even the pre-packaged cereal, power bar, and cookies you bought at the health food store. Is the company that made your food aiming to make you healthier, or drop more coinage into their pockets? This applies.
Today would be [Thomas Midgley’s] 124th birthday. A fine occasion to think about the effects of industrialization, and what happens when short-term profit-taking meets marketing.
Midgeley is responsible for millions of deaths. Not directly, of course, but by, “just doing his job,” and then pushing hard to market ideas he knew weren’t true—so he and his bosses could turn a profit.
His first mistake began when he figured out that adding lead to gasoline appeared to make cars perform better. At the time, two things were widely known by chemists: 1. Adding grain alcohol to gasoline dramatically increases octane and performance, and 2. Ingesting or sniffing lead can lead to serious injury, brain damage and death.
The problem for those that wanted to be in the gasoline business was that grain alcohol wasn’t cheap, and the idea couldn’t be patented. As a result, the search was on for a process that could be protected, that was cheaper and that could open the door for market dominance. If you own the patent on the cheap and easy way to make cars run quieter (and no one notices the brain damage and the deaths) then you can corner the market in a fast-growing profitable industry…
As soon as the lead started being used, people began dying. Factory workers would drop dead, right there in the plant. Even Thomas himself contracted lead poisoning. Later, at a press conference where he tried to demonstrate the safety of the gasoline, he washed his hands in it and sniffed it… even though he knew it was already killing people. That brief exposure was sufficient to require six months off the job for him to recover his health.
Does this sound familiar? An entrenched industry needs the public and its governments to ignore what they’re doing so they can defend their status quo and extract the maximum value from their assets. They sow seeds of doubt, and remind themselves (and us) of the profits made and the money saved.
And we give them a pass. Because it’s their job, or because it’s our job, or because our culture has created a dividing line between individuals who create negative impacts and organizations that do.
People who just might, in other circumstances, stand up and speak up, decide to quietly stand by, or worse, actively lie as they engage in PR campaigns aimed at belittling or undermining those that are brave enough to point out just how damaging the status quo is.
It took sixty years for leaded gas to be banned in my country, and worse, it’s still used in many places that can ill afford to deal with its effects.
After leaded gasoline, Midgeley did it again, this time with CFCs, responsible for a gaping hole in the ozone layer. He probably didn’t know the effects in advance this time, but yes, the industry fought hard to maintain the status quo for years once the damage was widely known. It’s going to take at least a millenium to clean that up.
We might consider erecting a statue of him in every lobbyist’s office, a reminder to all of us that we’re ultimately responsible for what we make, that spinning to defend the status quo hurts all of us, and most of all, that we have to balance the undeniable benefits of progress, innovation and industry with the costs to all concerned. Scaling has impact, so let’s scale the things that work. No, nothing is perfect, but yes, some things are better than others.
I can’t imagine a better person as the symbol for a day that’s not about honoring or celebrating, but could be about vigilance, candor and outspokenness instead.
As I read this, I couldn’t help be reminded of the attacks I have come under for questioning the ingredients in Arbonne, declaring that Coca-Cola (diet or otherwise) for breakfast is insane, telling a major Canadian Food manufacturer their products could not and would never be nutritionist approved, the stacks of propaganda I get from the Dairy Boards and High Fructose Corn Syrup refiners Association, Chef Boyardee claiming there is a serving of veggies in every tin of processed GMO starch, and on it goes.
We’re ultimately responsible for what we make, that spinning to defend the status quo hurts all of us, and most of all, that we have to balance the undeniable benefits of progress, innovation and industry with the costs to all concerned. Scaling has impact, so let’s scale the things that work. No, nothing is perfect, but yes, some things are better than others.