Let’s start with a trip to the supermarket.

This will be familiar to most of you. It’s 5.30pm, you’re on your way home, you need one or two things for the meal that night or lunches the next day. You pull up to a local supermarket larger than the size of a football field and undergo the grim experience that long ago became one of the greatest success stories in the psychology of customer manipulation.
From the super-sized trolleys to the exit/entry layout, the fluorescent lighting that makes you feel like a teenager out at 3am, you forget what you wanted when you went in and shop dazed and confused This is of course no accident, this isn’t a case of poor design or cost cutting, this is a sophisticated, tightly controlled, contemporary retail experience, set within a culture raised on the economic principles of growth and consumption.
The most powerful thing any of us do on any given day is spend money; there is nothing more influential or more immediate. The direct negative implication of this, is that the power is held by those who have more money to the detriment of those who have less. What is so persuasive and sinister is that this power, this handful of votes we cast every day is so often offset by a feeling of deep helplessness that the choice has been made for us. That the supermarket already knows how many items will be in our trolleys and it doesn’t matter which side of the road we fill the tank on because the petrol stations are likely to be owned by the same company.

Fig. 1
Supermarket, downtown Wellington

The story of the supermarket is true but it’s also a cliché; the burgeoning growth of online shopping, farmers markets and organic supermarkets is testament to a shift in consumer consciousness. The question for us today is how big is the shift? How far have we come and how far can we go in rethinking what it is to be a consumer or to be in business.
Free Store [Paton’s project for Letting Space, in which local retailers provided excess stock to give away] is a test or experiment in redistribution over production and its success will be in its ability to pose alternative possibilities in a competitive commercial environment. We’ll return to Free Store shortly.
Two years into owning a business I began an MBA at Waikato University’s Corporate School. The first of many large text books I was issued was Greg Mankiw’s Principles of Economics. Mankiw is a world famous economist, his book is the most widely used economic text book in the world, he is also a former advisor to George W. Bush and many would argue a key proponent of the escalating liberalization of the market that lead to the 2008 crash. No one better represents how entrenched the outdated neoliberal economic agenda is today than Mankiw: he presents economics as a unified discipline that sits in isolation from people and from the environment.

Fig. 2
Adbusters’ Mankiw warning campaign.

Image courtesy of adbusters.org

In the Adbusters #75 ‘Thought Control in Economics’ (2009), economist Professor Gilles Raveaud writes of Mankiw: According to Mankiw, since markets are a good way to organize economic activity, supply and demand is just about all you need to know.…Whatever you desire, you can pay for in the market: tomatoes, health care, housing, a car. That’s demand. On the other side of the market, firms compete to supply the consumers with the latest cool clothes, or mobile phone or housing. That’s supply. When supply is higher than demand, the price falls.…When demand is higher than supply, the price rises.…The very notion of “need” is absent from Mankiw’s text.…Mankiw’s world is one where “there is no such thing as society.”… But it is a world where fairness prevails: everybody gets what they deserve. It is also a world where, thanks to the magic effect of markets, private enterprise and property rights, standards of living rise constantly. It’s a beautiful world…if only it existed.
Mankiw’s fundamental principle is that trade always makes participants better off. And trade equals more growth, more credit and more consumption.

Fig. 3
Kim Paton,
The Wal-Mart Effect (2008)

Govett-Brewster Art Gallery

Figures 3 to 5 show a previous work installed at the Govett Brewster Art gallery in 2008, a floor to ceiling mind map, spanning over 25 metres, of every Walmart ever opened in the world from 1982 to 2008, over 6500 and counting. The use of Mankiw’s textbook gets right to the heart of the matter, because where do we look if not to academic institutions for alternative propositions to mainstream theory. But here in New Zealand in 2009 Mankiw
is taught straight up and down, with no disclaimer that this, like
all theory represents a specific point of view based on a series
of imperfect assumptions and by its very nature requires a rigorous critique.

Fig. 6
Circulation in macroeconomics

Mankiw’s world view is the common view; it’s the world we do business in. Growth, credit, production, consumption. If your number one focus is not higher and higher returns on investment then you’ve got no right to be there. To compete in business, no matter how small your enterprise, is deeply challenging if you don’t share the growth point of view.

Fig. 7
Image courtesy of adbusters.org

The aim of Free Store was to create a brief respite from the normal rules of trade. A chance to test the viability to work within a commercial framework, that is to operate in commercial space, speak the language of retail and create a network of relationships with other businesses big and small. The basic premise being that Free Store would work with food producers and retailers in Wellington, they would donate goods that would otherwise not be sold or re-homed. These goods
No eftpos [electronic debit card], no cash drawer, no hidden costs, no bartering, no stipulation for who takes, or how much. The individual determines value. How useful is a product to us? How much do we need or want it? How much do we think we deserve it? The basic economic principle of Free Store is redistribution. At point (A) a product has become worthless but moving it to point (B) recreates its value. Many of the products at Free Store will already have been paid for several times over—every loaf of bread or bag of apples we buy includes the unseen cost of however many are wasted.
There is no doubt that with a project like this, rejection, doubt and scorn are to be expected. What does it mean for a business to expose its waste, to expose product sporting their name but suddenly with no attached value. Damage to brand was the number one reason for businesses saying no to Free Store, and it was often the businesses we least expected that said no.
The nature of business and the restraints that the rules of business place on us through ever increasing competition in the market, leave little or no room for acting like a free thinking rational human being. Give me a rational humane reason for throwing edible good quality food in dumpsters and locking them. Give me a rational humane reason for not having two bins for staff to grade produce, one that says edible and the other that says compost. Give me a rational humane and economic reason for why businesses can’t be more intuitive, more inventive and more responsive. How is it not possible for some element of forecasting to be introduced to waste management, allowing goods to be redistributed earlier in their life cycle?
The answer is Mankiw every time.

Fig. 8
Corporate Social Responsibilty Model (IBM Institute for Business Value)

Every business will tell you they are committed to sustainability or the environment, but 9 times out 10 it’s a pretty safe homogenous and overly simplistic adoption of a triple bottom line.
And here is where I would argue so many businesses grossly misunderstand their customers. Any consumer that visits a supermarket or farmers market and sees just how high the produce is stacked can imagine the waste. Not one of us is under the illusion that what we see is what we get; that the amount we are charged represents only the value of that one apple. To be innovative in business, to manage waste in the way a free thinking rational human being would has an economic imperative, and in the context of increasing environmental anxiety, rising food prices and food shortages, the need to shift the current economic model is upon us. Many people have noted the irony in a large Australian-owned multinational corporation [Progressive Enterprises Limited] being Free Store’s biggest contributor. Part of the puzzle of this is solved in how large their marketing department is—they were able to understand the potential
value economically and socially of a more dramatic response
to sustainability.

Fig. 9
Free Store, Wellington

Fig. 10
Free Store, Wellington

Free Store opened to the public last Saturday [22 May 2010], with an empty shop. A week ago the “nos” from businesses outweighed the “yeses” 10 to 1.
On Monday two of Wellington’s best bakers and coffee roasters began contributing end of day stocks and on Tuesday we hit a snowball. Food in pallet sized-quantities started being sorted and packed out the back end of supermarkets for Free Store.
Opening Free Store to any individual indeterminate of need is controversial, but underlines the main aims of the project: 1. to make public a point in the supply chain that exists behind closed doors, and 2. to see what discussions and issues are raised through a retail experience void of a money exchange.

Fig. 11
Photo: Mike Mills

Reactions to Free Store have been extreme; humour, surprise, wariness, desperation, bemusement. But where I feel confident in the project’s unequivocal success is that the strangeness and discomfort of the value having shifted to something other than money, means people talk. There is relief and delight and an opening up, hundreds of small conversations about businesses, waste, charity, goodwill, hunger and people being human beings.