The wine industry seems so very forward-thinking. We’re inundated with stories about this or that winery’s new sustainable innovation. We check websites to read about how our wine was made. Everyone seems to be doing something new. Have you ever checked a website for info about how your canned tomatoes are made? Did the marketing for the crackers you eat proclaim where the wheat was grown? Does the brown sugar package in your baking cabinet tell you where it came from and how it was processed? Unless you’re a strict vegan, a strict locavore, or uncommonly environmentally conscious with a lot of leisure time on your hands – an extra for Portlandia, say – it’s likely that none of these things is true.
Here’s my confession: I ticked “no” for all three of those boxes, and I’m a reasonably conscientious reusable bagger who buys local/organic and volunteer at the nearest farmers market. I might have seen that my Watties tomato can* said “Grown in NZ,” but I hadn’t bothered with the website until tonight. It has a nice little vignette about a tomato grower, but no additional details on how the tomatoes actually in my can were grown. That’s awfully backward from my enlightened wine perspective. I’m buying really standard grocery store tomatoes so, for a fair comparison, let me look at Kim Crawford’s website. I just did, and I found…
…exactly the same level of non-detail and regional generalizing. Let me repeat the exercise with a package of Chelsea brown sugar and 14 Hands cabernet sauvignon. Chelsea didn’t tell me where my sugar comes from (and this is a real concern, and I should be ashamed of myself for knowing better and still not buying responsibly), but their website does have a nice generic little sustainability section listing their sustainable practices in carbon management and wastewater treatment and the like. The sustainability page on 14 Hands’ website is pretty similar in tone and purpose; it’s shorter but, company-wise, the Chelsea operation makes 14 Hands look like a babe-in-arms as far as size and age go.
One more comparison. I buy decent, NZ-produced, FairTrade chocolate from a Wellington-based company called Whittaker’s. Whittakers’ website is animated and makes noises and is therefore massively annoying, but if I persevere I can find out that the cacao in my bar comes from a Ghanian collective called Kuapa Kokoo. The sugar is Costa Rican, their roaster holds 180 kgs of beans, and they’re GMO-free. If I call out Ponzi as a larger (for Oregon) Oregon winery, LIVE-certified but not specially known for sustainability, I find that their website (refreshingly animation- and music-free) gives me roughly the same level of detail: brief, list-form, but communicates the gist.
Now, to be fair, I don’t know of a single winery without a website, even if it has my-techie-uncle-made-this-for-us-in-1999 wallpaper. My most reliable purveyors of local processed food often don’t; wonderful Moscow bread man who uses local wheat, I’m picturing you and your mini brioche, though I just discovered that the Palouse Brand local grain processor does, and with a little “Green Living” page. But I began today thinking that wineries were a lot more out there with their sustainability stories than other processed foods producers, and now I’m not so sure. In fact, I’m beginning to think that the difference is all about me. I buy standard tomatoes (and the store brand when Watties isn’t on sale, honestly), but I don’t buy Kim Crawford. I care enough to read about most of the wine I buy, but I’m lazy about checking up on most of my other foods. The difference isn’t the company. The difference might not even be the company website. The difference is me.
Here’s what I don’t know. If I started caring more about everything I consumed, would the world be a better place? Or would my head explode first?** This is why the solution to agricultural sustainability problems needs to be structural, about policy, not just individual decisions. We can’t all care about everything all the time. It’s more than a full-time job. We need to delegate.
*Can I make myself feel a little better and note that I only buy canned tomatoes when the ones I froze from last summer are gone?
**Ignoring, for a moment, the possibility that my head exploding might make the world a better place.