Collaborative Consumption

February 3, 2012

What's Mine Is Yours: The Rise of Collaborative Consumption by Rachel Botsman and Roo RogersA few days ago I talked about politics and food choices: how deciding not to give your money to a company that may well be poisoning you, and instead supporting a healthy food economy, is a political act that empowers you to react against what you feel are harmful practices.  While that post was specifically about food, it should be obvious that this idea extends to everything you spend your money on.  When you purchase clothing will you buy new or second hand?  Will you purchase a local designer’s offerings or a sweatshop-made garment?  Will you purchase synthetic or natural fabrics and will those fabrics be organic or made from pesticide-laden crops?

The questions are complicated and there are no right answers, but making informed decisions that align to your sense of justice should at least be an option.  When information is hidden from the consumer and people feel like they have no choice (or in fact HAVE no choice), often we find ourselves supporting things we didn’t realize.  Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) are a perfect example of this.  There are no regulations for labeling foods containing GMOs in North America and a startling number of products contain them.  Anything containing corn or soy (high fructose corn syrup qualifies as corn) almost certainly contains GMOs and while they are consistently touted as “safe” for human consumption, they provide no benefit to the consumer and introduce a level of risk to the safety of the food chain.  GMO seeds are patented, and cross-pollination with non-patented seeds has resulted in lawsuits against unsuspecting farmers.  GMO crops are routinely sprayed with large doses of harmful chemical herbicides.   The corruption associated with the production and marketing of GMOs is reason enough to avoid them, and buying organic (the only way to ensure you aren’t supporting and ingesting GMOs) is a bold political statement indicating your support for a just and fair economy.

Okay, so that took a tangent that I hadn’t intended, but the point is that choice is important when it comes to consumption and sometimes it takes more effort to make a choice you feel good about than one you are at best indifferent about.  And today there are more choices than ever (which can be overwhelming, but that’s a different topic entirely) and more “non-traditional” choices that promote sharing and a decreased overall consumption-footprint.  For example, when I travel to Montreal, I almost always stay in a short-term rental apartment rather than a hotel.

Giving my money to an individual rather than a corporation and staying in a more energy efficient space where I can make my own meals and do laundry when I feel it appropriate is a more attractive alternative in my mind than staying in a hotel, which I see as an inconvenient, expensive, and wasteful option.  There are many people who see hotels as their only choice, but there are others who are increasingly becoming aware of and embracing the cost-effective model offered by vacation rentals.  One need only look at the success of website airbnb for an example.  While the big hotel corporations are of course trying to stamp out this business model, it is going strong in many vacation destinations and I will continue to support it.  This idea of lending out or borrowing items that go unused for a good portion of their lifetime is taking off in multiple consumer segments, including automobiles, tools, and gardening, and is related to swapping of items that are in good condition but no longer useful to the present owner, such as books, DVDs and clothing.

This way of consuming has actually emerged with a name, called “collaborative consumption”.   It stresses that the experience or results achieved by the use of an item is really what consumers want, so that’s what they should pay for.  They shouldn’t buy a car to have it sit in the garage the majority of the time, they should pay for the ability to get where they are going.  They shouldn’t buy a DVD to have it sit on a shelf for the rest of eternity, they should pay to watch a movie and then perhaps keep trading that movie for others indefinitely, only shelling out the money for the medium once.  Services like NetFlix that offer viewing of films for a subscription are also in this vein with the difference being that finding a swap partner is no longer required.

Collaborative Consumption’s benefits are numerous, including a decreased environmental footprint (less raw materials, less waste, less shipping), lower cost to the consumer, and in some cases, increased interactions among members of a community in the case of sharing land for the purposes of gardening.  It promotes an environment of trust and penalizes those who try to scam the system by not keeping up their end of a bargain.  This inspiring TED talk by Rachel Botsman explains the phenomenon and its benefits perfectly:

I have been practicing Collaborative Consumption unknowingly for some time now, buying and selling used or unwanted items on eBay, swapping makeup on Makeup Alley, finding homes for unwanted stuff through FreeCycle, attending clothing swaps, purchasing used books and CDs, subscribing to NetFlix.  I’m sure most people have participated in a swap or bought a used or “antique” item at some point, and the idea is not really all that novel.  What is novel is the change in perspective associated with embracing Collaborative Consumption as a philosophy.  It means moving away from owning and possessing, and moving toward experiencing and sharing; moving away from competition and greed, recognizing that these values are destructive.

Wouldn’t it be nice if connecting with people and sharing experiences were more important than having the most expensive car?  Think about the last movie you watched at home.  Do you think you would have enjoyed it any more or less if you watched it on a bigger or smaller television?  A more expensive or less expensive one?  What about the last book you read – would it have been better had it been printed on gold leaf?  I think not.  And I think we are all waking up to these facts at a time when we really need to.  Collaborative Consumption is easy, fun, and smart.  It is an opportunity to enrich your life and reduce your dependence on loans, corporations and the burden of possessions in general.  If nothing else, think about how much easier your next move would be.  😉


Slow and Steady

January 31, 2012

Today marks the renewal date of my Slow Food International membership.  Slow Food is a global organization with a mandate “to counter the rise of fast food and fast life, the disappearance of local food traditions and people’s dwindling interest in the food they eat, where it comes from, how it tastes and how our food choices affect the rest of the world.” This statement aligns to my own feelings about food, and its importance to the health of individuals, communities, and the environment.   Sadly however, healthy food and the time it takes to prepare meals are becoming luxuries few can afford.

Organizations like Slow Food are trying to raise awareness of these facts and promote change that will result in a more equitable, healthier food production and delivery system.  A recent article in The Atlantic outlines Slow Food USA President Josh Viertel’s change of organizational focus from one of food appreciation to social justice.  Now that Slow Food has brought attention to the importance of good food to a healthy, happy lifestyle, Viertel proposes that action must now follow.  He sees the rights and security of food producers and consumers as a top priority and hopes that Slow Food can play an instrumental role in creating a food system that benefits both farmers and eaters.

While the topic of social justice as it relates to food is a complicated issue that has no simple solution, as the Atlantic article suggests, the mere act of eating and the choices we make can have political implications.  Backlash against companies that use highly processed ingredients in their products is on the rise, as are sales of local and organic produce. Groups seeking to limit the use of chemicals, antibiotics, and genetically modified organisms in food production are finding increased support.  Individuals and businesses alike are taking up the cause of promoting and funding an economically and environmentally sustainable food chain.

Local Kitchen & Wine Bar is a Toronto restaurant in my neighbourhood that puts Slow Food’s philosophy into practice.  They serve handmade pasta and salumi made from local ingredients, using traditional techniques.  Realizing that it is a privilege to be able to eat in such an establishment, I have endeavoured to try my hand at making similar versions of some of Local’s delicious offering.  The first thing this undertaking has taught me is that Slow Food made in your own home is a whole new level of slow.  It’s Suh-loooooooooow.  But it is also fulfilling and serves to empower the individual with knowledge and skill, enabling them to make informed choices.

I’ve made homemade pasta a few times in the past and it has always turned out pretty great, although don’t get discouraged if your first attempts aren’t perfect – you’ll get the hang of it quickly, and the results are well worth the time and initial frustration.  This weekend I made Squash Lune with Butter and Sage from Mario Batali’s Babbo cookbook.  It was my first “stuffed” pasta (I have always made long flat noodles in the past) so I was a bit nervous.

Making Lune on a Sunday Afternune

Luckily there was not much to worry about; the recipe was in fact quite simple.  However, it took a looong time to execute from beginning to end.  I first made the pasta dough and while it was resting, I roasted the squash.  Once the squash was cool I then mixed the filling, rolled out the pasta sheets (I use a manual pasta machine but it’s possible to roll the dough by hand) and cut each sheet into rounds.  Assembly of each lune was the most time consuming aspect, as ensuring each one was sealed took a bit of time, and the recipe made over 30 pieces.  I would most definitely make this again, however, as the results were extremely satisfying: delicious, impressive, and also relaxing.  I feel like I could make pasta all day every day if someone were willing to hire me to do so.  (Anyone?)

The finished product

Eating “politically” might sound difficult or pointless, but the ripple effects of merely committing to making more food at home can be significant. The more I experiment with new recipes, the more I try to respect the limits of seasonal produce, and the more I support farmers and producers who are concerned about the well-being of their customers and not just profits, the better equipped I feel to make other decisions big and small.  I feel just a little more self-sufficient and therefore just a little more confident.  Yes, it sounds corny, but it’s absolutely true, and I can only imagine what an organized group of confident, capable, committed people like those within the Slow Food organization can do when they set their minds to fixing a system very much in need of repair.

After receiving my copy of “The Art of Living According to Joe Beef,” one of the first things I did was write down a list of not-too-intimidating recipes to tackle.  The first undertaking was Lentils Like Baked Beans, a scrumptious and simple side-dish that I was happy to eat with dinner, and as leftovers for two weekend breakfasts.  Satisfied with my first Joe Beef experiment, I decided that Spaghetti Homard Lobster would be next.  After watching several video interviews, and in particular, this demonstration, it was clear that I had to try what seems to be the quintessential Joe Beef dish.

St. Lawrence Market

St. Lawrence Market

On Saturday my husband and I made a shopping list and headed out to St. Lawrence market to pick up the required ingredients.  We cheated and purchased pre-cooked lobsters, which is very un-Joe Beef of us, but I hope we can be forgiven.  I could make a ton of excuses (lack of a pot large enough for cooking lobsters, desire not to transport live sea creatures on the streetcar) but instead I’ll just promise to do it right next time.  Although, doing it wrong turned out deliciously, so there really isn’t much incentive to change our approach.

Homard Lobsters

Homard Lobsters

After making one last purchase of way too many cheap Brussels sprouts we lugged our bounty home and immediately disassembled the lobsters and began work on the cream sauce.  While it was reducing, we watched a couple of episodes of Montrealer Chuck Hughes’ program Chuck’s Day Off on foodnetwork.ca.  Then, somehow, without really even trying, we ended up with a beautiful and absolutely spectacular-tasting meal that we ate while watching the Canadiens take on the Leafs.  Unfortunately the game didn’t turn out in Montreal’s favour, which would have been a fitting end to the day even if it would have made for one very unhappy Toronto fan.  Perhaps things turned out as they should have, then, depending on how you look at it (or who you ask.)

Sauce Ingredients

Sauce Ingredients

Over the course of the rest of the weekend, we made a cheese curd sandwich and Oeufs en Pot à la Joe Beef.  Now we’re recovering from cheese-cream-bacon overload and will be taking a short break from JB’s tasty temptations.  While I’m dying to try the Hot Delicieux Sandwich, I’ll just have to be satisfied with quinoa and carrot sticks for a little while…

Spaghetti Homard Lobster

Voila! Spaghetti Homard Lobster

Inspiration: it is something I am constantly stumbling upon rather than seeking.  It comes from people, art, events, and nature, but more than any of these I have found that places have a profound ability to stir excitement.  Perhaps it’s because places contain the characters, the experiences and the connections of life, or because they offer a unique perspective on even mundane activities that they have such a huge impact.  Going to the market or eating a meal in a new environment can be elevated to the level of the sublime when the experience connects you to the people, the history, and the soul of a place.  For me, nowhere is this more likely to occur than in Montreal.  My regular visits to the city are usually a week or more in duration, but even a couple of short days are enough to both satisfy and further pique my curiosity.

Eating and shopping in Montreal... magnifique!

McAuslan Brunch at Au Pied de Cochon and Jean Talon Market

Recently, I purchased a copy of the “cookbook of sorts”, “The Art of Living According to Joe Beef.”  In the pages of this book (which I have read from or cooked from every day since receiving it) I find kindred spirits in the proprietors Frederic Morin and David McMillan.  Their love of food, drink, trains, nostalgia, history, simplicity and humour, not to mention the city of Montreal, exceeds my own; this is not an easy feat, either in itself or for me to admit.

Yours truly, atop Mount Royal

Yours truly, atop Mount Royal

The Joe Beef philosophy is my philosophy, but before reading this book I didn’t even know it was a philosophy.  To say that this book has inspired me is an understatement.  It is the reason I am writing this, and the reason I want to continue writing about what inspires me.  What I jot down may not resonate with anyone, or it might, but either way, I look forward to reflecting on the experiences and influences that leave their mark on me.

Travelled by train from Halifax to Montreal this summer.

On board the Ocean, the oldest continuously-operated named passenger train in North America.

So what can you expect to see here?  Expect to see ramblings about food.  Expect a lot of gushing about Montreal.  Expect the odd rant about politics or the environment, and expect to be surprised.  I’m all about connecting dots in the hopes of there being a somewhat discernible picture in the end.  Right now, things look a bit scattered, but I’m confident that the more dots I find or create, the clearer everything will become.  Maybe one day my own philosophy will materialize, but for now, Joe Beef will be my patron saint and source of inspiration.

Joe Beef receipts, photos, and mementoes

Memories of past Joe Beef experiences