Fashion, Eggs, Supply Chains and Covid
Yes, this is another mention of the dreaded COVID-19. But when something spurs a thought worth discussing, you have to give it some credit. Actually, a shortage of eggs inspired this more than anything…
End of March 2020 and we were all shocked at the speed at which food and other essentials genuinely felt scarce. The sudden inability of our supermarkets, those reliable places, where day-in, day-out we can just waltz in and see a bottomless supply of food, to provide, to be reliable. And when (or if) anyone asked – “Where? When… would the next possibility be of obtaining flour, courgettes be?" we were met with shrugs, a general confusion, not knowing.
Not knowing is something that has characterized the time of the pandemic. The store assistants shouldn’t be expected to be any the wiser. Maybe if you’d asked the manager for Norwich’s Tescos she or he might have been able to answer your question. But maybe not.
This uncertainty around food (and other items), the prospect of being greeted yet again with empty shelves, stood in quite stark contrast to what I was experiencing every Thursday at Norwich Farmshare’s hub where crates upon crates of fresh veg was being brought up from the farm each week and sacks of potatoes and crates of eggs arrived from farms down the road on other Norfolk organic farms, to be shared up amongst members and delivered to their doors.
I almost felt guilty at times, with my bag bursting with veg and one, maybe two boxes of eggs stashed carefully alongside, as I breezed past the queues outside the local Tesco express, knowing that those people would likely be faced with the prospect of again, no eggs, gaps in veg, a general feeling of there not being enough.
But aside from the guilt there was a feeling of ‘Of course’, ‘It’s obvious’.
Whilst Tesco (and other supermarkets) have many middle men, warehouses, traders, between the farm and the shelf, Farmshare had none, or perhaps one or two. The farm manager could get on the phone and speak directly to the potato or egg producer and check numbers, supplies etc. But there was no reason for doing this anyway at this time – the potatoes weren’t affected by COVID-19. What was making the ever-providing, ever-reliable supermarket suddenly not so was the immense distance from farm to shop, and the many people, companies, warehouses in the middle. All this was so clearly, undeniably visible to me, as I cycled home with the prospect of devilled eggs with my dinner.
It’s something I’d always known – the failings of long-supply chains, not knowing where your stuff comes from, the fragility of it. But this pandemic, for me, brought it in stark, plain daylight.
It’s an amazing system as well, if you come to think of it. But we also actually often don’t know very much about it. And this is where the link to fashion comes in.
Supply chains are equally long if not longer in that industry than with food. We didn’t experience empty underwear aisles. But that doesn’t mean the uncertainty and fragility isn’t there. And the not knowing. Not knowing when next there will be eggs also means not knowing who’s been paid what, or how many hours he or she has laboured in battery powered, electric lit factories, barns, how many henshumans have been crammed there in rows, how many eggs laid per day, T-shirts made…
Turning up at the hub every Thursday was a bit of a lifeline during lock down. There I would find smiling faces: the faces who were the links in the small food economy of Farmshare; faces of a reliable network. A community.
We should turn to look around us and find more of those opportunities. Supply chains that reach their source a few people down the line, not a hundred, where you can talk to the seller about the producer, about the things you buy. Maybe we don’t always want that conversation. Maybe we just want to grab that chocolate bar, pay, and go. But one thing COVID-19 has taught me is that, for reasons social as well as economical, we’re definitely glad to have that community there in times of crisis.