Remarkable, isn’t it, how good your local supermarket is at keeping your favourite wine on the shelves? You might assume they have a huge stock somewhere, but they don’t. They fly the wine in.
Land in the UK is expensive. Stock rooms in supermarkets are space that’s not selling goods, if they could get away with it, stores wouldn’t have stock rooms at all. And those enormous buildings by the motorways are distribution centres, not warehouses. They don’t really do any warehousing at all.
The old business model was to buy in bulk from abroad and warehouse in the UK, feeding it out to stores as required. It turns out that it’s now cheaper to leave wine with the producers around the world and then fly it in pretty much directly onto the shelves.
The key business drivers are the balance between cost and responsiveness. This is how, when some celebrity is pictured drinking “Herbert’s Herbgarden” supermarkets can ensure they have enough of it on their shelves at competitive prices. That’s important, because if they’re out of stock customers are going to go to competitors and they’ll buy more than just a bottle of wine there.
From a consumer point of view, this is a demonstration of the free market working perfectly. Competition between the major supermarkets has forced them into some of the most economically efficient and streamlined supply chains in the world. They might make big profits overall, but they’re only making a tiny percentage on each item.
The free market is a hugely useful tool, but it’s worth saying this twice; it naturally finds what is economically most effective. It doesn’t care at all about people or the planet. In particularly, the free market is extremely effective at finding ways to use more energy. Right now, because less than 20% of our energy comes from renewable resources, that’s a very bad idea.
If we want to make the free market beneficial to society we need to twist it, we need to tip the playing field in our favour, make the free market do things that secure our future rather than wreck it.
Herein I have a problem: I’m an engineer, not an economist. I don’t know how to do that. One thing is very clear, however.
What I’ll do, then, is I’ll put an idea to you and you can tell me if it’s silly, OK?
Let’s start with three pertinent facts:
- Wine doesn’t perish quickly. I’m told that mass production wine should be drunk within 2 years of bottling.
- Local wine shortages are not critical or even particularly damaging to society or humanity. If Tunbridge Wells is short of wine for a week, it will cause nothing more than moaning. And there’s a lot of moaning in Tunbridge Wells already.
- Europe produces a lot of wine that can be shipped overland very efficiently.
So, why can’t we substantially increase tax on shipping wine and other similar luxury non-perishables by air?
Then we could use that extra revenue to fund sustainable shipping methods? Surely someone is going to give me a really good reason why we can’t, why we haven’t?
That would give supermarkets and consumers the choice. If they want to keep their entire range in stock all the time, they could warehouse wine from more distant regions. They could choose to fly the wine anyway, at additional cost. Or they could choose to cover any gaps by shipping alternatives overland from within Europe.
Moreover this is all really just a symptom of something I hinted at further up; our view of energy usage is seriously skewed:
- We’re very conscious about our direct, personal energy use and largely ignorant about our indirect energy use. We diligently recycle, then impulse-buy a t-shirt from China completely unaware of the enormous amount of energy it takes to make just 1 piece of clothing and ship it across the world.
- We get our focus drawn into clean energy and forget that – right now – reducing the total energy we consume (mostly indirectly) is more effective.
The Climate Emergency is in the public consciousness, we know that things need to be done. So far we – as Western society – have been very good at telling people what they can do directly, but there is very little awareness of our indirect effect.
We need to tackle consumerism, we need to tackle throw-away culture, artificially short design life, etc. We’re fighting an uphill battle here; the Free Market is ever so good at selling us things to reduce our energy usage, but to get anything done it relies on profitability. The messages we need to convey aren’t profitable except in relatively niche ways.
What we need to do is keep the conversation moving. Point out that supermarkets fly wine and how ridiculous that is, how idiotic fast fashion is. Write blog articles, social media posts about indirect emissions / carbon / energy. The point here isn’t to get people to take personal responsibility – although everyone that does is a bonus – the point is to shove this issue up the political agenda so that politicians actually have to start thinking about how to restructure the economy to reduce our indirect energy consumption and our indirect emissions.
 Somewhere North of 30% of the UK’s electricity is renewable, but we do burn a lot of fossil fuel directly, so our overall energy percentage is much lower.