How Ireland Is Moving Toward Sustainability

During my trip last month to Ireland and Northern Ireland, I was pleasantly shocked to see evidence that this was a culture that cared about working conditions for both humans and animals.

Yes, of course, I could find fairly traded products in the health food stores and even in supermarkets. But it was astounding to me that every roadside convenience store had them as well. Little places in the middle of nowhere, just bathroom stops on the motorways, uniformly offered a pretty good selection of fair-trade chocolate and coffee, among other products. Such items are much harder to find in those types of stores in the United States, where I live.

Furthermore, the Insomnia coffee chain, which seems to be Ireland’s largest, has also gone fair-trade over there. When I encountered that brand in Canada about seven months ago, I saw no fair-trade markings.

Supermarket shopping was actually fun. I got a fantastic house-brand fair-trade chocolate bar at Sainsbury’s, which is comparable to Giant Food or A&P. If I remember right, the cocoa content was around 82 percent, and the quality was terrific. I also noticed that Hellman’s mayonaise is made with free-range eggs over there; if that’s true in the US, it hasn’t said so on the label, last time I checked.

As a percentage, the number of “conscious” products in these stores is still quite small. But if roadside convenience stores are carrying fair-trade products, that means enough people who shop in those stores have requested those products that the store chains have decided to carry them. And I find that remarkable, especially considering that as a culture (and particularly outside of Cork, Galway, and Dublin, which all seem to have higher food awareness), Ireland is not particularly focused on eating well. It’s very meat-centric, vegetables are routinely overcooked, and the food generally is bland and heavy. Dairy is very good, however.

Those three cities seem to have a well-established local/organic culture. We found vegetarian restaurants in Dublin and Cork, a terrific Saturday farmers market including not only organic produce but also artisan foods and crafts in Galway, just outside an amazing artisan cheese shop. A health food store in Dublin offered an amazing selection of raw chocolates, and one raw chocolatier had a booth at the Galway market.

One other trend that surprised me: the infiltration of ethnic restaurants (particularly South Asian and Far Asian) into just about every corner of the island. So if you’d rather not have beef and cabbage stew with potatoes, you’ll find options like Afghani kebab shops, Chinese or Korean restaurants, or Pakistani takeaways in even relatively small towns.

This is a slice of globalization that actually leads toward greater sustainability—not only because it’s easier to find healthy food choices, but also because I believe monocultures are not sustainable, whether you’re talking about growing a single crop or a single human culture. Cultural diversity allows for cross-pollinating the best practices that other societies have come up with, recognizing that some may not be appropriate for a different climate.

Here are a few other random observations from my trip:

  • Wind power plays a significant role. It’s common to see large wind turbines (as in much of the rest of Europe), though for the most part in small clusters of one to five, rather than in the vast wind farms of say, Spain—and also to see older, smaller  private installations on individual farms, of the sort that were common on US farms in the late 1970s.
  • Solar’s role is minimal. I have seen only a handful of rooftop solar hot water installations, and most of the  photovoltaic have been on self-powered electronic highway signs. Of course, it’s not the sunniest place in the world; an Italian immigrant told us, “in Ireland, they call this a beautiful day. In Italy, we would call it a disaster.”  But there must be more than is obvious, because we passed quite a number of solar businesses, even in some pretty rural areas.
  • Big cities have some limited public recycling in the major commercial and tourist areas. I imagine there are recycling programs for households, too.
  • On the campus of the technical college we visited, environmental awareness was quite high. This school is also about to launch a degree program in sustainability and one in agriculture, yet they haven’t explored the obvious linkages between those two program offerings—in part because they’re slotted for different campus, 50 miles apart.
  • Since it’s part of Europe, I wasn’t surprised that attention to conservation is more prevalent. Toilets with low/high settings, tiny cars, and composting projects all seem fairly common.Yet. to my shock, the small conference center we stayed at in rural Donegal was still using energy-hogging incandescent light bulbs.

Leave a Comment

Name: (Required)

E-mail: (Required)