Dave Reay: guilt-free trip to conscientious consumption

July 14, 2006

THE FARMERS' MARKET, EDINBURGH

Tucking into a large pork pie made with outdoor-reared meat, a friend of mine confessed: "This is the closest I get to substance abuse."

For the multitude of people who visit farmers' markets every weekend, the substance in question may take different forms. But the sentiment is no less heartfelt. Ethical buying, once little more than an oxymoron, has risen to the top of the grocery list for millions.

Noel, a weather-beaten man shopping for himself and his housebound mother, could have forgone the windswept rows of stalls at the farmers' market in Edinburgh for a trolley and a free parking space at the supermarket. As he's keen to point out, though: "I'd spend half the day wandering up and down the aisles looking for what I want and end up with a trolley full of stuff that I didn't. Here, I can get good local lamb and all my organic veg without going near a car."

At the farmers' market at Castle Terrace, the buzz of conversation mixes with the delicious aromas of ostrich burgers and happy pig sausages. It's obvious from the start that this is neither a one-stop shop nor an exclusive weekend diversion for the rich. Students and retired couples mill with young families and city professionals, the atmosphere one of a relaxed village fete. Chatty, disorganised queues have formed for some of the most popular stalls, including the one with wild boar baps.

The enraptured faces of those already tucking into their ethically produced brunch instantly bring to mind the idea of substance abuse. But theirs is a rapture born of more than a momentary hit. It is a high unsullied by the global side-effects common to the bulk of what fills the nation's shops, the produce in their bags and the baps in their hands; a retail methadone to the shoppers' heroin on sale in the malls and supermarkets.

This Saturday, millions more of us will drive to out-of-town shopping centres for our weekly fix. There's the food shop to do, a visit to the DIY warehouse, maybe some new shoes to buy.

Having blown most of the week's earnings in one morning of muzak-filled joy, it's back home to stow the food and assemble that flat-pack wardrobe.

The comedown is swift, the side-effects severe. The credit card statement soon rolls in, the emissions from those jet-setting strawberries set themselves to warming the planet and in a faraway sweatshop, another order for trainers arrives.

At the farmers' market, there is no hint of guilt. But the need for a fix is no less powerful. One customer points me in the direction of Mrs Hamilton's Lamb. "Great stuff, that," he enthuses. On to the cake stand and the beaming stallholder admits to having put on a stone and a half in the past year - because "I have to sample everything here, and everything here's so good!" The customers have come to the farmers' market for something the malls don't offer: local produce, car-free access, a producer with a face and specialities such as rhubarb vodka and Northumberland chorizo. Our addiction to shopping will continue, but giant retail pushers of the world beware: there's now an alternative on offer that's a great deal more appealing than cold turkey.

Dave Reay is a research fellow in the school of geosciences at Edinburgh University and author of Climate Change Begins at Home , published by Macmillan, £8.99.

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