I hold the fate of 211 Bolivian Altiplano villages and 71,000 llamas in my palm, and it weighs just 12 ounces.
The small brown bag preaches planetary reform. “Be Part of the Solution,” it implores. Unexplained statistics litter the packaging — “71,000 llamas for HEALTHY SOILS” — while the back label outlines an international recovery plan to “keep families healthy and strong,” “sustain farmers and ecosystems,” and promote “carbon insetting [that] will mean a brighter future for us all.” In its marketing materials, the company has boasted: “Our mission is global transformation.”
What is this global force building Bolivian villages and llama-filled futures? A trendy processed grain. The details come from a bag of Alter Eco’s Organic Rainbow Heirloom Quinoa, found in a San Francisco Whole Foods.
Alter Eco is not alone. Over the past decade, a wave of “mission-driven” gourmet food purveyors has swept across the culinary scene. From small-batch sriracha to probiotic sauerkraut, from fair-trade forbidden rice to gluten-free granola — no item is too small to claim international impact.
Today it is de rigueur for almost every new condiment and comestible to come with a an expansive mission statement. TCHO is “on a quest” to “make the best chocolate in the world, and do it in a way that actually makes the world a better place.” Lotus Foods is trying to “Change How Rice Is Grown Around the World.” Way To Life Foods aspires “to provide humanity with natural food products” such as vegan energy bars and gluten-less granola that “will lead to a ‘Way to Life’ rather than death.” Miyoko’s concludes its mission statement by declaring that its “Phenomenally Vegan” cream cheese and other products are about “How we change the world. Together.”
What sort of logic leads from cream cheese to world change? Miyoko’s sells high-end vegan products, including dairy-free mozzarella, cream cheese and butter, with a fresh attitude. Founded by celebrity chef Miyoko Schinner, the company is built on Schinner’s “mission to recreate the range of flavors … from dairy cheeses” so consumers can “enjoy familiar flavors while reducing your global footprint.”
The notion that consumer indulgence and environmental conservation can be concurrent goals is at the core of what is known as mission marketing. To equate personal pleasure with cosmic reform, magical marketing math takes a statistic such as the estimate that an omnivore’s diet requires two more acres a year than a vegan diet, multiplies it by the world population, and then arrives at the end of ozone depletion. Through such alchemy, these products morph from luxury goods into a “blueprint” for planetary regeneration. “Switching to a vegan diet,” Schinner reminds us, is the “NUMBER ONE WAY TO SAVE THE PLANET” — apparently bumping world peace down to number two.
The success of these companies reflects a larger shift in American eating. Nine out of 10 millennials are more likely to buy from food companies that share their views on key social issues. A Food Marketing Institute report found that 73 percent of consumers will switch to brands with a positive community mission, and 55 percent will pay more for those products. These value-driven items snagged 15 percent of American grocery sales in 2013, and 70 percent of growth in the category. “Brands are increasingly realizing,” says Jamie Katz, a Whole Foods representative, “that to differentiate themselves, they need to demonstrate the values they promote.”
It is unclear how many buyers actually believe premium condiments constitute meaningful political action. But there’s a sort of coping mechanism at work here: Affluent millennials reconciling the conflict between their aristocratic shopping habits and egalitarian ethics through “socially responsible” luxury food. More expensive equals more ethical. It is a radical reversal: costly gourmet food (the ultimate embodiment of wasteful spending) is conveniently repackaged as a symbol of fairness. Twelve-dollar cream cheese transforms from a symptom of economic inequality into the unlikely solution to it.
Such leaps of wishful thinking — in which a marketing pitch begins with making miso and ends with saving the planet — lead many foodies to embrace a flattering delusion that they can change the world by barely changing their diets. The trouble is that it frames the question of ethics as a choice to buy rather than a choice to act. But some changes can’t be bought. Is it rude to ask: Should society’s wealthiest members outsource the battle for a better world to the condiment aisle?