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Going Nuts for Nuts: Why We Do (or Don’t) Eat Sustainably

November 12, 2009

I’d never seen someone buy $60 worth of nuts and dried fruit before…that is until Austin and I went to his hometown of Hays, KS a few weeks for dried fruit

Our stay in Hays coincided with an annual visit from Root’s Nut and Dried Fruit Farms, a farm from California that travels across the U.S. for a few months during the year to sell their products.  We stopped by their stand, where many other locals walked around tables covered with nuts, dried fruit, and snacks, eager to partake in this one time deal.

Before that day, I had never seen Austin spend so much money on specialty foods before.  Constrained by a college student’s budget, we’ve always been Wal-mart frequenters.  Though I would splurge on a few items like soy milk and organic vegetables, Austin shopped with only two guidelines in mind: caloric necessity and price.

Organic or not organic, free trade or not free trade, local or not local…for Austin, that was not the question.

Therefore, it surprised me when he eagerly filled a whole cardboard box with these goods that weren’t conventional grocery store cheap.  Did this mean he wanted to start shopping more sustainably?  Were we going to start making the Community Mercantile, a natural foods store, our new grocery store of choice?

Not necessarily.  Here’s a little excerpt from our conversation about his food buying discrepancies:

Janie: When we went to the nut and dried fruit stand in Hays, you spent a lot of money.  But whenever I suggest we go to the Merc, you always say it’s too expensive.  Why is there that difference?

Austin: I dunno…I never really thought about it.

Janie: So there’s no reason why you were willing to spend $60 on dried fruit at the nut stand but not willing to spend an extra dollar or two buying organic or local.

Austin: Well, I guess it’s because Andrew told me he dropped almost $200 at the fruit and nut stand because their stuff was exceptionally good.  When he told me that, I felt like I should go and buy a lot of their products too…and that the price wasn’t a big deal because the products would last a long time. I trusted his judgment that the quality of the products justified spending more than I normally would.

Janie: It was your friend’s recommendation that was the biggest influence for you?

Austin: Yeah, definitely. I tell Andrew about how the Merc has the best bulk granola.  And now he buys his granola there too.

Our conversation reminded me a lot of what I read about in my book, The Psychology of Environmental Problems, by Deborah DuNann Winter.  The book explains how through social diffusion, sustainable behavior can be encouraged through everyday interactions between two people.  The norms, likes and dislikes, and recommendations of others play an influential role in the choices that we make.

Therefore, when Andrew suggested to Austin that he buy from the nut stand in Hays, cost no longer was as important to Austin as complying with the accepted social norms encouraged by his friend.

Why then, doesn’t Austin buy free-range meat after reading abut CAFOs or organic after hearing about industrial produce?  My thought is that the source of the influence plays a large role.  While news sources may have scientific evidence, Andrew has the advantage of being Austin’s friend, of having a much closer relationship with Austin than some food expert on the news.  The stronger the relationship, the stronger the influence.

So what does this all mean?  Simply that we must strive to be more conscious consumers–to think about the sources of influence in our lives and to make thoughtful decisions.

And for those of you who are trying to encourage others to live more sustainably, it is easy to forget that the little things you say or do can have a big impact.  Stay true to what you believe in, and remember that your words have more power than you think.

Who or what influences your eating habits?

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