The Omnivore’s Dilemma; The Consumer’s Dilemma; The Small Business Owner’s Dilemma

Today’s post is going to seem like a bunch of plagiarism and I promise you it is not. I have quoted the author and noted the pages you can find each quote as well as the book below.  I just could not decide what quotes to take from Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma,  so I’ve decided instead to share the ones that I felt deeply about as I read the 411 page book.

This is a heavy post. Especially for a few days before Christmas, but I think now is the perfect time to be so reflective and aware- after all, we are full swing into the mix of shopping for the Holidays. It is not light or fluffy or even warm and fuzzy. It is more like a pensieve a la Harry Potter–through it I’m able to remove parts of my thoughts that will help shape a larger argument that I’m having both with a friend and myself about consumerism, capitalism, and being a small business owner and entrepreneur- and review them with more clarity.  I hope it makes sense enough for you to follow along.

Some history before I get into my long-winded speech about capitalism, consumerism, and the problem with America- I started reading The Omnivore’s Dilemma back in November for my Community Supported Agriculture’s (CSA) monthly book club. Due to cancellations for our meetings in November and December, I took my time reading the book and only just finished last week. I had been interested in the book for some time, but never found the right space to read before now.  As I always tend to believe-things happen as they should-me reading this book now just makes sense.

Not only is the book a delicious use of language-visually it is stunning. The images that crossed my eyes were amazing and made me long for a journey and experience like his.  I appreciated his depth in explaining history as it relates to the story of his four meals. I also appreciated his respect for food and nature. After all, nature is what is responsible for our bounty.

As I read every word, sometimes more than once, I found myself reading his book not just as a non-fiction account of his own experience with food and the food industry, but as commentary on the current state of American culture- about the way we consume food and non-food goods; the way we are too busy, unaware of our own selves and in constant flux because of cultural trends and “suggestions”.  

I have always maintained my individual self, but I’m not oblivious of these trends, I just choose which ones to pay attention to and which not.  I learned my lesson as a overweight teenager who got picked on in middle school and hated my curly hair and my body. By the time I got to college, I stopped caring about my curly hair and embraced it as a sign of who I am.  My first awareness of this change was when I stopped actively trying to straightened my hair every day. Now, I rarely consider straightening my hair as an option. Oh, how far I’ve come.

I’m moving away from the main point here, but what my example above explains is that I once had an idea of what I wanted to be based on what I was as a child (I had straight hair and was skinny) and have as an adult become comfortable with myself and the person I am and am still growing into.  Of course, I have spent time learning and having experiences that helped move me in this direction, but in a culture where there are lots of directions and “role models” and things to buy to make you skinny, or more beautiful, or whatever the offer is these days,  how is one to learn who they really are and what they really want?

And all of this relates to being a small business owner and entrepreneur, I feel responsible to shape my business in a way that is sustainable not just for myself and the planet, but for my customers.  I’ve been aware of this for some time now, since I launched the business to be exact, but The Omnivore’s Dilemma helped me see it larger and more clearly than I have in a while.

I’ll start with how I couldn’t help but see the similarities in the food industry as the same as the commodity industry. The quotes that I’ve selected to share below while specifically discussing and describing the massive food industry that produces the food that many of our citizens eat on a daily basis, but can be used to describe Wall Street, or any large company producing a commodity that is sold on a global scale.

There is one quote where a farmer compares Whole Foods to Wal-Mart that I found incredibly eye opening. For me, it wasn’t until I began shopping at the Farmers Market and getting produce and fruit through my CSA that I learned that even Whole Foods is not my preferred shopping market. After all, Whole Foods sells you strawberries even when they are not in season.  (I try to keep a local and seasonal diet even though I fail miserably at times.)  Even though, I prefer knowing that my food comes from conscientious companies, I don’t like eating out of season or soy bean based foods, nor do I like buying from non-local growers. So Whole Foods doesn’t quite solve all of my problems. Which is okay, it’s just not what I’m looking for completely.

” Opting out” is a key term for Joel, who believes that it would be a fatal mistake to ‘try to sell a connected, holistic, ensouled product through a Western, reductionist, Wall Street sales scheme’-by which (I think) he means selling to Whole Foods.  As far as both Joel and Bev are concerned there isn’t a world of difference between Whole Foods and Wal-Mart. Both are part of an increasingly globalized economy that turns anything it touches into a commodity, reaching its tentacles where in the world a food can be produced most cheaply, and then transporting it wherever it can be sold most dearly (248-9).

Which leads me to how I connected this to my small business…

Back at the early stage of December, I decided that I would take the time to think about what I want for myself and S2 in the future. After all, building my business can only go as far as I’m willing to take it, especially in the beginning. I’ve seen success and I’ve seen some disappointment. I don’t want to say failure, because I don’t think I’ve failed exactly, but I’ve definitely seen some disappointments-some goals that didn’t happen, or orders that didn’t get done for whatever reason(s) that came up. I was challenged a bit too- customers who wanted my product, but not the price that goes along with it, etc.  I maintain that I’m better for all of this, but it still left me wondering where it is that we are going in 2012. With so much in the air and so much planned already, I have quite a lot to prepare, which is why I don’t want to make too many bold statements in this particular posting because I still need to clear up my thoughts some more, but I know this much definitely:

1. I will be more select in 2012. What I make is most definitely a good, but I also sell my services, my ability to listen and relate to customers, and create a finished good. That allows me to be selective. IF I were to ever overwhelm myself with customers, that service would falter and my goods would be mediocre, not as great as they have been for my most pleased customers.  Or, in words from the book, something like the following,    “The biggest problem with alternative agriculture today,” Nation writes, “is that it seeks to incorporate bits and pieces of the industrial model and bits of the artisanal model. This will not work….In the middle of the road, you get the worst of both worlds “(248-50).

2. What I create now is very much based on high quality paper. My finished product is a sign of my skill, talent, inspiration and high regard for quality. I will maintain this in 2012. If this means that I don’t do many markets or wholesale my business ass off, that’s fine. In the end, I prefer to have custom pieces that speak of the customer and myself more than anything else.  Or from a quote in the book, “A bowl of fresh Bing cheries is nice, but to turn them into a pastry is surely a more thoughtful gesture, at least provided I managed not to blow the crust. It’s the difference between a Hallmark card and a handwritten letter” (403-4).  

3. Similarly I discovered thanks to the following quote-  “It’s all very Italian (and decidedly un-American): to insist that doing the right thing is the most pleasurable thing, and that the act of consumption might be an act of addition rather than subtraction” (259-60) –  that I want my good(s) to inspire pleasure. I want my goods to be so pleasurable that not only do they bring meaning, but they bring experiences and adventure into my customer’s life. To some this means that purchasing a set of note cards or invitations from S2 is in deed an addition because it creates a memory. To many others, who have yet to learn the power of these experiences, it is a subtraction. Whether it is viewed in the positive of negative will depend entirely on the customer, but if they see it in the form of subtraction, I don’t want them as a customer. See the first point above.

4. I AM going to consider wholesale opportunities, but on a small scale. There are some shops that fate connected me to in the very beginning of this endeavor that I’d like to start wholesaling with (if they like my stuff). If they do, they are both small stores in a small town and I like that. I also like that I have relationships with the owners. If I’m going to build a business that is based on relationships and locality, I need to remain steadfast in that vision.  My inspiration for these thoughts are below:

Drawing on the theories of Harvard Business School professor Michael Porter, Nation had distinguished between industrial and artisanal enterprises to demonstrate why attempts to blend the two modes seldom succeed. Industrial farmers are in the business of selling commodities, he explained, a business where the only viable competitive strategy is to be the least -cost producer. The classic way any industrial producer lowers the costs of his product is by substituting capital-new technologies and fossil-fuel energy-for skilled labor and then stepping up production, exploiting the economies of scale to compensate for shrinking profit margins.  In a commodity business a producer must sell ever more cheaply and grow ever bigger or be crushed by a competitor who does.

     Nation contrasted this industrial model with its polar opposite, what he calls “artisanal production,” where the competitive strategy is based on selling something special rather than being the least-cost producer of a commodity. Stressing that “productivity and profits are two entirely different concepts,” Nation suggests that even a small producer can be profitable so long as he’s selling an exceptional product and keeping his expenses down.  Yet this artisanal model works only so long as it doesn’t attempt to imitate the industrial model in any respect. It must not try to replaced skilled labor with capital; it must not grow for the sake of growth; it should not strive for uniformity in its products but rather make a virtue of variation and seasonality; it shouldn’t invest capital to reach national markets but rather should focus on local markets, relying on reputation and word of mouth rather han on advertising; and lastly, it should rely as much as possible on free solar energy rather than costly fossil fuels.

5. I must maintain my personality in all of this and not feel like I need to compete with everyone in the over-saturated stationery industry.  I have stated since the beginning that my design is minimal-what is important is what you write, not the design on the card. Now, that doesn’t mean as a designer I should offer ugly or plain sheets of paper as stationery, NO! What I mean is that I should design stationery that encourages you to write whether it be long, full of thought pages of letters or short, concise notes on cards.  Furthermore, these cards should speak to and of you, regardless of their reflection of me and my design aesthetic. In other words, as much as my products need to be a reflection of me, and they are, they must be a reflection of the customer which means that I have to find the customer and design for that customer. The quotes from the book that brought this clarity is the following: 

   “We don’t have to beat them.” Joel patientily explained. “I’m not even sure we should try. We don’t need a law against McDonald’s or a law against slaughterhouse abuse–we ask for twoo much salvation by legislation. All we need to do is empower individuals with the right philosophy and the right information to opt out en masse.

   “And make no mistake: It’s happening. The mainstream is splitting into smaller and smaller groups of like-minded people. It’s a little like Luther nailing his ninety-five theses up at Wittenberg. Back then it was the printing press that allowed the Protestants to break off and form their own communities; now it’s the Internet, splintering us into tribes that want to go their own way” (260).

6. It is incredibly important that I maintain hand skill and craft in everything that I do. I mean that I must always include some element of handwork in my products even if it is by the hands of an employee, friend, intern, etc.  S2 Stationery and Design was built on the need to find a way to incorporate environmental concerns and social good with my passion. I have found that I can reuse materials for some designs and I hope in 2012 to design more products that align with that initial desire.  Even more importantly, I want all of my products to always have some element of hand craftsmanship.  It is vital to my design, product, and brand. It also keeps me balanced and aware of my own competencies and to some extent, awareness.  Or as detailed in the book: Aldo Leopold wrote in A Sand County Almanac,  “Civilization has so cluttered this elemental man–earth relationship with gadgets and middlemen that awareness of it is growing dim. We fancy that industry supports us, forgetting what supports industry” (281).

7. Lastly, I have created this business out of my passion for paper and my love of language and communication. As Mr. Pollan mentions in the book, we, as a culture, are left in a confused state in every aspect of our lives. In his case it is food, in my case it is how do we socialize. As a blogger and an individual who uses social media, I can tell you that as much as I use social media to communicate,  I also value the importance of in-person communication. Technology will always develop at rapid levels, but the good things don’t. They are slower, require patience and in due time become inspiration for the newer mediums-Twitter is like a post card, Email is like a letter, mp3s are just easier to access vinyl records. Stationery currently is experiencing an insurgence of “stationery lovers” yet they don’t know how to spell stationery. These stationery lovers are also huge with letter press and silk screening and lots of other hand skill based techniques. Good things, indeed, but I will not indulge in learning techniques to follow a trend. I will learn letter press and silk screening in due time and they will play their part in my design process. I will learn to learn and to teach others of the processes and skill that go into them to create their own art and passions, but I will not learn them for any other reason. There is a limit to my how my development follows the curve of capitalism.  Or in the mighty fine words, and my last quote from the book:

Several years ago, in a book called The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism, sociologist Daniel Bell called attention to the tendency of capitalism, in its single-minded pursuit of profit, to erode the various cultural underpinnings that steady a society but often impede the march of commercialization.  The family dinner, and more generally a cultural consensus on the subject of eating, appears to be the latest such casualty of capitalism. These rules and rituals stood in the way of the food industry’s need to sell a well-fed population more food through ingenious new ways of processing, packaging, and market it (303).

So we find ourselves as a species almost back where we started: anxious omnivores struggling once again to figure out what it is wise to eat. Instead of relying on the accumulated wisdom of a cuisine, or even on the wisdom of our senses, we rely on expert opinion, advertising, government food pyramids, and diet books, and we place our faith in science to sort out for us what culture once did with rather more success. Such has been the genius of capitalism, to re-create something akin to a state of nature in the modern supermarket or fast-food outlet, throwing us back on a perplexing, nutritionally perilous landscape deeply shadowed again by the omnivore’s dilemma (303).

     A tension has always existed between the capitalist imperative to maximize efficiency at any cost and the moral imperatives of culture, which historically have served as a counterweight to the moral blindness of the market. This is another example of the cultural contradictions of capitalism–the tendency over time for the economic impulse to erode the moral underpinnings of society. Mercy toward the animals in our care is one such casualty.

     The industrial animal factory offers a nightmarish glimpse of what capitalism is capable of in the absence of any moral or regulatory constraint whatsoever. (It is no accident that the nonunion workers in these factories receive little more consideration than the animals in their care.) Here in these wretched places life itself is redefined–as “protein production”–and with it “suffering.” That venerable word becomes “stress,” an economic problem in search of a cost-effective solution such as clipping the beaks of chickens or docking the tails of pigs or, in the industry’s latest initiative, simply engineering the “stress gene” out of pigs and chickens. It all sounds very much like our worst nightmares of confinement and torture, and it is that, but it is also real life for the billions of animals unlucky enough to have been born beneath those grim sheet-metal roofs into the brief, pitiless life of a production unit in the days before the suffering gene was found (318-19).

In conclusion to this long quote, I want to share something I’ve recently discovered-“The Do No Financial Harm Pledge“.  In 2012, I will make this pledge. This does not mean that I will not say no to customers and protect myself as a designer and business person, but I will do all in my power to be fair and treat customers in a concerned manner not just for their own financial health, but for mine and my company. 

Even though I said I wouldn’t, I went ahead and made some bold statements above (I’m scared of the word count in this post). I suppose it’s best that I got them out now; I am 100% committed to making them stick in 2012 and beyond.  Whether Michael Pollan intended it or not, he opened my eyes to how the omnivore’s dilemma is a much larger issue and I thank him. As an omnivore, I face these very issues; as an environmentalist, I face these issues; as a citizen, I  face these issues; and as a small business owner, fighting to grow a business and passion in the face of a drowning global economy and a lack of desire to really grow a global company, I face these issues. We all do, it’s just a matter of when we realize we’re facing them.

I suggest that every small business owner/entrepreneur take the time to read this book. It is  valid, candid, and incredibly engaging. It is also a powerful message on ourselves as individuals with strengths and passions. I know I’ll be referencing this book with the dogeared pages and underlined sentences as I continue to develop through the coming years.

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s2 stationery & designs

A rule-breaking designer, artist & entrepreneur who's passionate about paper and handcrafting stationery. I also write, travel, and focus on eco + social good.

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