Imported Goods

There’s trouble afoot in British cheesemaking. Simon Spurrell, a purveyor of small-batch Cheshire and Stilton cheeses, has been voicing his frustration that any order from a European citizen now requires a post-Brexit health certificate costing roughly 50 times the price of a decent cheddar. Sales to individual customers have become impossible virtually overnight. On the other side of the refrigerator, British consumers are noticing a paucity of Époisses and Pont-l’Évêque. Those in the fishing industry report similar woes, including a reduction of four-fifths in exports and a crisis in particular for the shellfish business, whose offering is prized by French restaurants but shunned by the local crowd.

These stories have instantly become political fodder, of course. Those who deplored Brexit immediately developed a passionate attachment to small dairies, while the other side denounced them for their unpatriotic wish for this sceptered isle to swap a little of its honest, waxy cheeses for something a little more sumptuous. Cheese nationalism is one of the more absurd consequences of recent events, but the way that broader cultural questions get attached to imports is nothing new.

We tend to fix on those that involve individual consumption or experience: food, music, ideas, religious practices, TV formats (the Dutch have a lot to answer for since giving the world Big Brother in 1999). On the other hand, we tend to overlook those so old or widespread that we rarely think of them as imports (in Britain that includes potatoes, Russian service, Arabic numerals, and the royal family).

There are many reasons to resist new imports, some more salutary than others. On the one hand, it can be simple xenophobia or rejection of change; on the other hand, it can be a serious attempt to preserve a frail ecosystem from an imported behemoth (as when international chain restaurants with ingenious tax arrangements wipe out the family bistro). And asides from self-interest of one kind or another, there are concerns for those involved in (and coerced into) overseas supply chains. Food has been especially prominent: there have been campaigns to boycott chocolate producers with dubious labor practices for as long as I have lived; Fairtrade International emerged in the 90s from attempts to improve conditions for coffee producers. But this is nothing new. In the eighteenth century, the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge was among many to refuse “the luxury of the sugar cane” on the grounds that it was, as a newspaper of the time put it, “polluted with slavery and steeped in blood.”

Clothing tells a similar story. It’s common knowledge that cotton came to dominate the world textile markets on the backs of enslaved Africans and their descendants, who farmed vast plantations in the southern U.S. and the Caribbean. Less well known is the fact that the indigo used to dye it was produced in similar circumstances. In South Carolina, indigo was so crucial to the plantation economy that it colored the state flag. In the present day, even the multinationals who are keen to champion the diversity of their customers on Twitter are fiercely resistant to improving the rights and conditions of their cotton growers and garment makers in East and South Asia, or addressing the mountainous dumps of their waste in East Africa.

As usual, it’s a mistake to think that consumer choice will (or should) solve the problem. The real solutions will be structural. One bright spot, according to some analyses, is that the naturally monopolistic tendencies of manufacturers will, in the end, force multinational buyers to cede profits back down the supply chain, increasing the bargaining power of workers. Still, there’s always a good case to favor small retailers who work with small suppliers and care about production as well as consumption. And perhaps to get into the cheese smuggling game.

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