The opening scene paints a picture as bucolic as anything John Constable managed, albeit in broad, animated strokes. Green fields at morning, distant mountains, a small, loving farm family and the contented grunt of a well-cared-for pig set a tone of agrarian delight. But just 20 seconds into the short video and that porker is penned up. By the time Willie Nelson starts crooning a Coldplay tune at 0:33, we’re into the age of industrial agriculture, complete with a multi-tiered pork factory pumping out chemically enhanced cubes of pink piggie flesh.
Well before a determined little animated farmer starts kicking over the enclosures and letting the livestock roam free again, I knew that I’d use this tasty bit of sustainable agriculture eco-propaganda as a discussion piece in my environmental communication class at Stanford. The capsule history of agriculture’s struggle with sustainability was nicely handled, but what really grabbed me was the design. The round, eraser-pink pigs, rotund, PlaySkoolish people and model railway backdrops evoke not just a comforting, idealized view of country living, but the innocence of childhood play, turned first foul, and then pure again. The history of agricultural development had become a morality play, all spooled out in a 2-minute stop action film.
Which NGO or advocacy group had come up with the cash and marketing savvy to produce such a sophisticated little emotion-booster, I wondered?
Oh, right. Chipotle. The “fast casual” burrito chain once owned mostly by McDonald’s. There was derisive laughter at this reveal in the final frames, in the movie theater where I first saw what turned out to be an ad for a Chipotle foundation. Skepticism about green-washing turned my own delight to disappointment. I probably snorted in disgust. But should I have?
Contemporary meat production and industrial scale farming are anything but innocent, of course. From pesticide use and food miles to animal welfare and worker’s rights, the modern food system’s less-savory tendencies have spurred many calls for sustainable change. But a somewhat less-bad fast food chain doesn’t square with most images of what that change should look like.
I’d like to say that my skepticism was rooted in hard facts about Chipotle’s claims not living up to its advertising. But by all accounts, the chain actually does do a better job of using local ingredients, supporting smaller, more sustainable farms and generally being less of a problem than its larger competitors. Ultimately, I had to admit that my problem with the place has more to do with my own snobbery, on at least two fronts: Authenticity, and scale.
My introduction to “Mexican” food came through a youthful obsession with the local Taco Time outlet, a sort of off-brand Taco Bell where tater tots are sold as “Mexi Fries.” But ever since graduate school in Los Angeles in the ’90s, I’ve been a dedicated seeker of authenticity in tacos and burritos. (Yes, I know that burritos, and tortilla chips, are American innovations of the last century. Let he whose snobbery knows no blind spots cast the first stone.) No filling is too gnarly, no cut of meat too gristly to be considered, and the mere presence of English on a menu board is enough to raise suspicions. Chipotle, with its upscale food court vibe, is like the tacky tourist spoiling the fiesta.
At the same time, I’m all for local, low-impact farming. My office mate runs Stanford’s organic farm, my baby chugs organic milk by the jeroboam, and I battle mightily against the slugs, snails and other demons of my backyard garden without the aid of pesticides. I live in one of the few municipalities anywhere that offers curbside compost pickup along with the recycling, and I still choose to nurture my own jolly pile out back. I don’t care if the city gets the deposit on my empties, but what kind of nut just gives away nutrient-rich organic matter?
But here’s the reality. My garden produces about enough food in a year to feed a nursery school class for an afternoon. Even in California, where more organic food is grown and consumed than anywhere else in North America, certified organic meat, produce and other goods still account for just a few percent of what we eat. If food is ever going to be truly sustainable, it has to be so at a massive scale, not as the niche category that it is now. And that means chains like Chipotle are exactly what sustainable food should look like—fast, easy, relatively inexpensive, and everywhere.
I don’t have to look up the words in Spanish to ask whether the ingredients served by my favorite taco truck are sustainably and compassionately sourced—they’re cheap, and that’s usually a guarantee that corners, environmental and humane, have been cut. Chipotle may not be blamelessly sustainable, but I’ve talked to enough local farmers to know that they do make an effort. The burritos cost a buck or two more than their roadside equivalents, but–and I mean this as a confession, not an endorsement–they’re actually pretty good, authentically or otherwise.
All of which means that the ad is back on the schedule for class discussion. We’ll still talk about the concise storytelling, the meaning-rich design, and the potential for simple messages to spur deeper thought. But we’ll also talk about the importance of testing our own assumptions and prejudices, and revising them when necessary.
Credits Wivenhoe Park, Essex, John Constable, 1816. Widener Collection, National Gallery of Art. Back to the Start, Chipotle/Johnny Kelly