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Critical consumption and new forms of political participation: the case of Italy’s ethical purchasing groups

Economy / -

IMM Lab E GAS

The ebook Consumo Critico (Critical Consumption) and new forms of political participation, the case of “ethical purchasing groups”, by Francesca Forno and Paolo Roberto Graziano, Fondazione Giangiacomo Feltrinelli, takes stock of Italy’s “Gruppi di Acquisto Solidali” (GAS).

Combining profit with solidarity is the philosopher's stone of many movements and associations. From this approach are born fair trade groups, networks of individuals who are to make purchases directly from small producers, preferably local and especially those that respect workers and the environment. Applied primarily to food, Group Purchasing is a way to go shopping in an alternative to the mall. Started as a niche phenomenon, it is becoming an increasingly common practice. The ebook Consumo Critico and new forms of political participation, such as the case of Italy’s ethical purchasing groups. Francesca Forno and Paolo Roberto Graziano, reconstruct the quantitative aspects and traits of these Gruppi di Acquisto Solidali (GAS) in Italy and how it is starting to become an expression of political representation.
 
The authors
Both authors are from the academic world: Francesca Oven is adjunct professor at the University of Bergamo where she teaches sociology and general consumption, while Paolo Roberto Graziano is associate professor at the Bocconi and coordinator of courses at Milan’s Institute for International Political Studies (ISPI).
 
A growing reality
"After a start that was limited to certain regions, these groups have been increasingly being used since the early 2000s, also following the organization of annual conferences by the National Network Connection of GAS and the creation of the site www.retegas.org.. The groups currently surveyed by the network appear to be about 1,000 (July 2014), a number that has shown strong growth in recent years, and that in fact - on the basis of some recent empirical research - should have at least doubled."
 
The ebook Consumo critico e nuove forme di partecipazione politica, il caso dei Gruppi di Acquisto Solidali is offered for reading and in free downloads as part of Laboratorio Expo, the project of Expo Milano 2015 and Fondazione Giangiacomo Feltrinelli edited by Salvatore Veca, which promotes scientific research into the theme Feeding the Planet, Energy for Life. At Laboratorio Expo you can find, not only book titles, but also take part in events, meetings and high-profile initiatives on cultural issues, such as environmental sustainability and ethics and on food culture, sustainable development and the relationship of city and citizens. It is a project that brings cultural, scientific, anthropological, economic and social questions to life and generates dialogue.
 
(Available in Italian language edition only).  
 
 

Giorgetto Giugiaro. From cars to pasta: logic, beauty and genius

Sustainability / -

Giorgetto Giugiaro
© Italdesign Giugiaro – Giugiaro Design

We meet a truly great designer, standard-bearer of Italian excellence in the world and Knight of Labor of Italy. “Giugiaro – according to the starchitect Paolo Portoghesi – uses his gifts to search for a beauty which can improve our lives.” We speak to him therefore about the different significances of beauty, creativity, tradition, sustainability…plus chef Gualtiero Marchesi, and his own “Maccheroni alla Giugiaro”.

You tell the story that as a child you were fascinated by the fact that your tailor mother’s hands could turn paper patterns into garments, transforming a drawing into concrete 3D shapes. Does this process still fascinate you?
I come from a family in which my mother was a tailor – a gentleman’s tailor! – and I used to watch her cutting and sewing: she made my first suit, when I was seventeen. I’ve always been curious about how things are made. Like a sheet metal beater making shapes out of a flat sheet. My grandfather and father, on the other hand, were painters, and so they worked only in the “second dimension”, with paintings and trompe-l'œil. Depth, perspective, vanishing points which we have seen since the Renaissance, Paolo Veronese, Raphael… representations which you can see with the eye, but above all you have to be able to think of them on paper.
 
My father used to send me out to make drawings from life in the afternoon after school, but he also said “Yes, you’re good at drawing faces and objects, but are you capable of making a table?” A table has the third dimension!
 
So… yes, effectively there is still something fascinating about making something real from a sheet of paper. Think of the first bags, for example: a piece of fabric folded and stitched became a useful tool and container. Later on, these containers began to acquire new characteristics… not so much, or not yet, in terms of luxury, but becoming objects which decorated their wearers. And here in Italy we used our skills to successfully create an entire economic sector.
 
Design is not only about beauty. You have outlined a scheme according to which art is a circle, industry is a square, and design is a quadrangle with curved sides. Creativity constrained?
The problem is that everything has its own development process, economic, ideal and emotional. Today the most constrained process is the economic one. It’s difficult to make a car that doesn’t cost much. When we were designing the first Panda (beginning from July 1976), it was almost more difficult than creating the Ghibli or a Ferrari! Like designing a fridge, that’s no joke either, having to stick to limits, in timing, in the space taken by its components…
 
Constraints that turn into prizes… like when the Panda, won the Golden Compass design prize.
In the end it comes down to logic, really. A car, like many other things, like a bag (or ravioli), is created in order to contain things, and that is the source of its logic. Only much later does it also have to express social status.
 
With a stroke of your pencil you transmit certain values. You give a car certain lines which evoke efficiency, speed, solidity, family values… what about industrial design?
There the basic logic is ergonomic. Whether it’s a camera or a bottle. What we designers do is change what we see. I see this microphone, and want to change the way it looks, to make it like this, and this… The risk is that I forget its functionality. If you design a set of table knives and forks with round handles, but really slender and slim – beautiful, of course – then you’re forgetting how and why the spoon and the fork were invented, how they have to be held in a certain way, the lengthy observation of artisans who evaluated the most practical shape to make them… if you propose something like that to the public, without a deep awareness of its functionality, then it’s a fraud.
 
 
You designed a superb little bottle for a balsamic vinegar, based on a sphere and a cube. And also a bottle of mint syrup as a parallelepiped. How did you come to choose these iconic geometric forms? The first perhaps to evoke an ampoule, and the other a picture?
We are creatures equipped with unconscious perceptions, and things enter our heads even though we don’t notice at the time, even when we are distracted. Do you see this geometric shape? Mint has a cold taste. And here you can feel the coldness with your eyes, you can hold it in your hands. Balsamic vinegar, however, is not a cold experience, it is warm and smooth, so its bottle is warm and smooth too. There are thousands of things hidden inside these drawings. I start from practical functionality, but I have to communicate through a shape. I start from logic, the logic of function, in order to arrive at aesthetics. Over the years (especially working for decades with Aldo Mantovani) I’ve become a bit of an engineer, partly renouncing youthful utopias. Even though, as an expert, I also recognize that utopian random freedom can also produce substantial concrete ideas.
 
On top of this big table in the conference room, we have set up a little gallery with various kinds of pasta shapes: gnocchi, ravioli, tortellini, cappelletti, trofie... what would you say from an aesthetic point of view?
Pasta-makers are geniuses. Geniuses. Listen to this… we’ve all seen traditional African masks. Carved from wood by shepherds, informal artisans. But as sculptures they have had a huge aesthetic influence around the world, on Picasso too, for example, in their casual, spontaneous freedom. Something similar could be said about pasta-makers. They invent this and they invent that, without being architects or engineers. When I was asked to design a new pasta format – marille – I reworked an inspiration from the world of motorcars: a cross-section of the sealing material on car doors, which is also produced by extrusion. Afterwards everything was analyzed by the technicians, palatability was discussed endlessly. But these completely normal gnocchi here in front of us are… simply insuperable!
 
The innovative qualities of marille would have been amazing: smooth on the palate outside and ribbed on the inside for the sauce to cling to…
Not only that: let me tell you something you may not know. A classic macaroni has a constant cross-section. Marille, as you can see in the technical drawing, has various different sections, this one, this one, the third one plus the final fold. Imagine the central intersection during cooking. The whole idea was that the pasta could be overcooked everywhere, except in that one place, so that when you bit it you could still feel that it was “al dente”. The project was initiated with the idea of composing a dish with low sauce content. And for this, after the first tasting ceremony in Milan in 1983, I finished up in Newsweek. I didn’t get there for my cars, but for my pasta I did.
 
But, returning to these more traditional – and less beautiful – ravioli…
Works of genius. Fruit of human intelligence which, without even wanting to, creates art.
 
We were not obliged to praise everything, we can be critical if we want to. The ribbed edging on this ravioli can hardly be called “beautiful”, this twisted cappelletto resembles a piece of offal… you can’t tell me you would have designed them this way?
But it works! Let the pasta-makers get on with it, let them express the geniality of functionality which you can only enjoy to the full when eating it. They’re geniuses, mostly unrecognized by history. Maybe they had worked their flour and water on a table in a back alley and as they worked it they came up with shapes which the whole world admires today. In that ribbed edging, which I personally find beautiful, I can see my grandmother cutting the soft pasta and lightly knurling and tapping it. I can only bow down before the things which these experts, in their simplicity, have passed down to us. Expo Milano 2015 would do well to transmit this kind of message, to pay tribute to the unknown authors of magnificent things. Let us render honor to the importance of what they did: stretching back to centuries ago, they started food out on the road that eventually led –for example – to Gualtiero Marchesi.
 
You always mention Gualtiero Marchesi with great pleasure. Why?
I’m happy to talk about him because in my opinion, in Italy he was the first to show something beyond just eating. I still remember the first time I saw his golden square on the round shape of the risotto. I was astonished. My father used gold leaf to make picture frames… What Gualtiero did, in a moment when in Italy we could finally say we had sated our appetites, was to turn food into an attraction. His risotto with gold and saffron expresses poetry and exerts an attraction far beyond its exquisite taste.
 
What is the relationship between the aesthetics of a dish and its taste?
Between various food presentations we can certainly choose the most pleasant. But what will our judgement of the dish be? What has been transmitted visually must offer, when eaten, some corresponding taste experience. If you eat what looked good and it tastes bad, it will automatically start to look bad too. Like a car: if it doesn’t work it’s no good.
 
One of Expo Milano 2015’s key themes is sustainability. You were one of the first people in the automobile industry to focus on this, back in the 1980s, with city cars and modular prototypes, cars with reduced bulk, electric, hybrid, even constructed with recycled materials. What does “sustainability” really mean? Not just avoiding dirt, I imagine…
Avoiding waste. It means avoiding waste. Unfortunately this is something that still has to enter our society’s collective head. I grew up in a modest environment, but people from wealthy backgrounds, or just wealthy people, are not conscious of this need. The more they have the more they spend and the more they waste, and all affluent societies waste heavily.
 
But you have demonstrated, through an endless list of car models, that efficient and intelligent cars are also beautiful and desirable. How did you decide to transmit these signals, contributing, at least, to a certain global awareness?
It’s simple. Simply by following logic. If I can reduce costs, bulk, fuel consumption, if I can give people what they need, it’s logical to do so. This approach sometimes clashes with fashion trends and status exhibitionism, at which point the only solution is to make laws. Stricter laws.
 
Barilla launched a competition for a 3D food printer: some amazing pasta formats came from that… Rosa, Lune, Vortipa. What do you think of them?
Beautiful. There are an infinite number of possible forms. That’s how we make our calenders. Nowadays you can do anything with technology. For designers this is an ongoing opportunity to exercise their creativity, an explosive process, really dizzying.
 
You are known all over the world and you have worked all over the world. How is Italy seen from abroad? Is there a common denominator which can confirm that Italian Quality is appreciated as much as it deserves to be?
The common denominator is individuality. Individuality is creative, in an undemocratic way. Design is authority, instinct, ability. Italy, well, maybe it’s rather living on its laurels, cushioned by past glories. Among our positive aspects, we can count good taste… although I fear that is fading away somewhat. Things that happen, that are part of life. In a couple of thousand years’ time, do you think that such a thing as a Piedmontese character will still exist?
 
On the subject of birthplaces, what is your favorite dish?
Risotto. I love it. It’s a dish I adore. And if it’s been prepared by my friend Gualtiero, on that magnificent black plate, the yellow risotto and the golden square. But also, you know, one or two dishes which I sometimes cook, a bit bizarrely.

You cook as well?
I’ll give you a recipe. Macaroni alla vodka. For four people. For four people you put in a saucepan 100 gr. Butter, four or five pieces of red chilli pepper, 70 cc. cooking crème, and stir. Then take a bowl of hot water and mix in red ‘piemontese salsa rubra’ tomato sauce, and add that to the saucepan. Then add a glass of vodka and a spoonful of cognac, remove the red peppers and stir in 250 gr. Grated cheese, to make a cream with this alcohol, this red cream, five to six minutes at the most. Meanwhile cook the pasta, along with 5 mm slices of potato, and then drain while still al dente. Now place in a serving dish and immediately cover with the hot cream from the saucepan… to be eaten instantly.
 

Land grabbing. Neocolonialism or economic opportunity

Economy / -

Un cittadino protesta contro la politica agricola della Banca Mondiale
© Afandria Afandi/Demotix/Corbis

The crisis in finance, energy and food in recent years has sparked the interest of investors in one of the most valuable resources of our planet; land. However this race to amass land is a threat to the environment and the socio-economic systems of the countries involved.

Starting in 2008, the interest of rich countries turned to the protection of their own food and energy supplies, pushing governments, corporations and investment funds to direct large amounts of capital to acquire ownership of large areas in the South and in the countries in the developing world, where land prices are lower.

Land grabbing is a growing phenomenon
According to the latest report by Land Matrix (the monitoring system proposed by the International Land Coalition), land grabbing is a growing phenomenon. Despite the incompleteness of the data and the lack of transparency of operations, 62% of 953 acquisitions were made dealing with an agricultural area of ​​35.9 million hectares (February 2014).  This is 10% more than the data collected in June 2013.  The continued increase in the price of commodities (products such as sugar and coffee whose price is determined by the market) is one of the causes of the spread of land grabbing which is viewed as the most best ways to  profit for the agro-food industries, governments and corporations. These investors, in fact,  are reacting to market demands or as method to ensure food safety,  and are acquiring low-cost, arable areas that are considered under utilized. They are replacing the existing practices  with  intensive industrial practice subsistence agriculture production models.

At the top  of the ten countries most involved the land hoarding trend are the Asian countries (Papua New Guinea and Indonesia), followed by those in Africa (Sudan, Congo and Mozambique) and South America (Brazil). In these states, rich countries have invested in 7.5 million acres of agricultural production aimed at energy needs, such as the cultivation of jatropha in Ethiopia and  the  Petrol Delta in Senegal or  the Chinese oil palm plantations in Congo and Mali.  The investment is second only to those of the Gulf countries and Korea and Japan that  have acquired 9.6 million hectares of land for the supply of food (especially grains). The USA’s major oil producers are dependent on investments abroad, especially with regards to water and grain. It is no coincidence that the investments, such as those from Saudi Arabia, focus on agricultural land in Sudan, Ethiopia and Mali, along the watershed of the Nile and Niger rivers.

The consequences of land grabbing
The problems arising from these vast acquisitions and speculative projects are mainly  of socio-economic status. The land ceded by governments, often for ridiculously low or no compensation, are fenced off, pending the activation of the production process, resulting in the exclusion of local communities from working the land and accessing resources such as water. The prospects for food security and employment are the prerogative of the rich countries, increasing unemployment in developing countries, not to mention the environmental damage inflicted by monoculture agricultural production and consumption of agricultural land allocated to new infrastructure and distribution systems.

A glimmer of hope begins to dawn. The blocking of 1 .3 million hectares  of land for 99 years in exchange for the construction of a commercial port in Madagascar by Daewoo Logistics and the policies controlling land hoarding in Brazil and Argentina are perhaps the first true actions by  governments in favor of countries in the eyes of investors.
 
 

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