Would you buy Nike-branded fruit? What about Tiffany & Co. yogurt?
Um, actually…I totally would.
So I read an article this week on NPR.org about artist Peddy Mergui, whose current exhibit features (faux) grocery store staples like eggs and milk packaged in designer-inspired boxes and bags. I highly recommend that you read the article and check out the photos.
This artwork really hits home for me. I definitely see how expensive designer groceries would entice shoppers looking to project a certain image or participate in a certain lifestyle, but I think there’s something else at play here, too: Well-designed items are a pleasure to use. They’re nice to look at, they work well, and they usually last longer than other products.
Still, I know that I (literally) buy into the allure of fancy packaging for common items, and I will often choose “fancy” products over more inexpensive—or even FREE—versions of the same thing. I greatly dislike drinking plain water, for example, but if I buy Fiji or Evian bottled water I’m more likely to actually drink it and enjoy it…even though there are multiple sinks and fountains around me supplying endless amounts of clean, free water. The fancy bottled water seems to taste better to me (I know, I know…but I swear it does) and the bottles are pretty. In fact, I bought some SmartWater earlier this week. Look at this little dolphin hidden behind one of the labels!
I think, too, that giving inexpensive goods a designer gloss, as Mergui invites us to imagine, would provide the opportunity for us “commoners” to dip our toes into the pool of the wealthy. I can’t afford a Cartier watch, for example, but I could participate in some small way in the world of Cartier by buying a bag of Cartier coffee. Target does a version of this, too—the store often partners with designers like Philip Lim, Lilly Pulitzer, and Joseph Altuzarra to provide cheaper designer products to middle America. (Brands have to weigh the risk, though, of such democratization devaluing the cache of the brand among their wealthy core customers).
Mergui’s exhibit also makes me consider how we waste and throw away so much food in first-world countries. For many of us, food is cheap and plentiful. If our food was more expensive and exclusive, maybe we would respect it more—perhaps we would plan for it, buy it, and store it more carefully, and then use it more completely. And what if we could we could somehow apply the price markup of the fancy foods to provide assistance to the hungry and food-insecure? Or would all of this be trading one form of waste (food) into another (excess packaging)?
Lots of food for thought here (hah!).
P.S. – Some good counterpoints: Marie Kondo advises her readers to remove all tags, labels, and stickers from consumer goods as soon as you bring them into your house. The tags are an aesthetic distraction, she says, but they also give outside forces too much influence and presence inside your home, which is supposed to be a sanctuary and retreat from the world outside. Actress and super-organizer Jamie Lee Curtis advocates for something similar. She even decants all of her groceries and personal care products into plain containers to avoid looking at marketing and packaging in her home.