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GREENINGS: The disproportionate impact of inflation (Jan. 2022)

February 4th, 2022 · No Comments

Examining the interconnectivity of consumption, labour, and the environment

By Terri Chu

The richest among us earned record profits during another COVID-19 year while the poorest among us are risking their lives in understaffed service jobs. 

Is it any wonder that there’s a general labour shortage? Inflation is being blamed, in part, on this labour shortage and it is hitting the food business particularly hard.  Let’s take a moment to think about how this relates to climate change. 

We are used to being a highly wasteful society. In the last half century, we have introduced more and more single use items into our lives.

We have an expectation of cheap food. Historically, about a third of labour went into producing and acquiring food. I am guessing most people reading this paper spend nothing near a third of our incomes on food in a year. 

Food prices have not inflated in line with other things for a variety of reasons, though we are likely to see this change. In the second half of the 20th century, crop yields around the world increased dramatically due in large part to petrochemical use. This has come at the cost of both water and soil contamination.

Growing more than we need has kept prices low, but they have come at a tremendous cost. That cost has been largely hidden to consumers, who have come to expect cheap food delivered to their doorsteps for next to nothing. 

However, we have normalized food being cheap. This leads to two more issues to discuss: cheap labour and material waste. 

There’s no polite way of look at the issue of cheap labour. Cheap labour is made possible by racism. 

In the 1990s, mediocre food at Kelseys cost about half of what my family could afford to charge at our Chinese restaurant. 

We had a really nice, fancy, clean place that was in no way inferior to the mid-tier brand names. 

The expectation that ethnic food be cheap persists to this day. The labour of minorities was never worth more than a pittance in the eyes of the ruling elite. 

Thankfully for my generation, public education has leveled this playing field. As we become educated, get better jobs and leave the lower end labour behind, the ethnic majority is no longer willing to let themselves be abused and has left this undervalued sector of the economy behind them.

Now let’s consider the materials that our food comes in when we get take out. 

Pumping oil from the ground, using its by-products to make a container, delivering that container, and throwing it out is somehow viewed as less labour intensive than bringing back containers and washing them. 

I am more than confident that nobody who reads these columns needs me to spell out how environmentally destructive this practice is, especially when we now know that plastic recycling is nothing but a sham. 

Cheap materials have been another area where we replaced labour, requiring even fewer people to do the same job. 

We are used to being a highly wasteful society. In the last half century, we have introduced more and more single use items into our lives. 

The milkman who delivered milk in glass bottles and took away the empties to refill no longer exists. They have been replaced with 4L plastic bags that ultimately clog up our landfills and waterways. 

As we transition away from fossil fuels, we will see further increases in material costs and hopefully, a shift back to reusing. 

As climate change decimates our established growing regions, it will take time to adjust our agricultural practices. 

The increase in food prices will hopefully decrease food waste, but I am not hopeful we have learnt any lessons from our monocultural ways. 

The dependency on fossil fuels and petrochemicals has come at a very high cost to water quality and human health. 

Valuing one’s labour does not necessarily have to come at an increased cost if only the CEOs were willing to take lower salaries and profits. 

A $2/hour wage increase for front line staff causes us to collectively clutch pearls at what it will do to consumer prices, but rarely do they question the impact of a $4M pay package, as received by the head of Canada’s largest grocer. 


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