Reuse, Recycle, Repeal?

We Aren’t A Gallery,2019.

This is a literary piece written for the indie exhibition We Aren’t Sustainable that took place in Hackny. The exhibition aimed to combine Instagram’s power and reach with a physical forum to share ideas for sustainable cities from around the world.

#renovation #london #urban #research #art
Charles de Vert is proud of the substantial line growing outside his shopfront within sight of the once bustling Hackney Tesco Metro car park. ‘We had the initiative as well as some savings to take advantage of the opportunity when it came,’ he explains. ‘My wife and I figured that if the big supermarkets weren’t going to adapt quick enough maybe we should take the fight to them.’ He is just one of many Londoners who have taken advantage of Start Local grants created by the mayor’s office to encourage small business creation. In the last three years 65% of these have been gone to ‘food and drink distribution’, startups taking up the shortfall left over from the collapsing ‘big food’ corporations as they leave the London inner-city.

This upsurge of entrepreneurialism is just the latest manifestation of a policy program with a long and arduous lifecyle. The Eat Local policy package started as a simple mantra out of the 2020 Khan campaign machine, designed to encourage environmental and distribution conciousness in a city incredibly dependent on its just-in-time supply chains. Perhaps concoted as a throw away crowd pleaser the civic-minded message seemed to chime with a post-Brexit London having to fend for itself in an increasingly hostile country. The widening divide between the comparitively insulated urban elite and the rural poor combined with rising eco-conciousness spurred calls to reinforce the rhetoric with a genuine policy initiative. The result was a series of policy proposals aimed at reducing the climate impact of feeding a megacity the size of London. Taking cues from the recently succesful implementation of the ULEZ (a London low emissions zone) the mayor’s office concocted a sequencing of taxation and eventually restriction to limit the sale of single use plastics - a great enabler of the food import industry. Starting in 2020 – shortly after his re-election – a tax per weight of plastic was implemented, ramping up to a full ban by the tax year beginning 2025 this past April. The single-use plastics ban was be coupled with a carbon tax on food transportation emissions with a flat rate per mile from point of origin based on mode of transportation. Starting low this tax has been increased to .5p a mile from this May for air freight and .3p for road. As of this year 70% of the cost of an imported banana in London is freight tax echoing tax ratios more common to cigarettes and alcohol.
At the time of his election campaign industry leaders launched lawsuits and media campaigns against a law they claimed would leave the city starving. Yet, despite dire warnings the slow progress of the initiative has led to its rising popularity as the populace adjusted to its effect. Despite the absence of larger food conglomerates whose business model requires the bulk ordering and delivering of food in single-use format, smaller outfits like de Vert’s have sprung up in their place. Often coopting disused civic spaces they are leveraging local networks to combine food sales with services like goods delivery, recycling, and refilling of essentials such a fizzy drinks, washing-up liquid and bleach. Now, with the further increase in freight duty this May, these distrubuted food hubs are diversifying in to production as well. De Vert takes advantage of a break in the customers to take me up a back stair where rows of budding tomato plants sit under pink UV lights. ‘The first crop should be in June. Just in time.’ he confides.

Eat Local is a rare example of radical policy done well. Despite teething pains and pressure from industry, Khan’s plan is beginning to see fruit. London, despite the political upheaval, has leveraged local governance for good and set out a well considered path for other cities to follow if they intend to meet ambitious national emissions targets.