The ethics of leek-ripping

4th February, 2006

Dear Economist,
I recall watching a famous TV chef breaking the woody stems off asparagus and ripping the leafy tops off leeks before paying for the produce. Since supermarkets charge by weight, this saves money. I have an ethical dilemma. Should I do this or not? It seems to me that I need the money more than the supermarket does.
Darryl Tiverton, Darlington

Dear Darryl,

Your moral compass is obviously spinning, but before we let it settle let’s be clear about one thing: this is not a zero-sum game between you and the supermarket.

The supermarket does not set the price of asparagus depending on how greedy the shareholders are feeling: it does so based on the cost of getting the stuff on the shelves, and on your willingness to pay.

In a world where no customers broke asparagus stems, the supermarket would be able to charge one price per kilo. In a world where every customer broke the stems and threw the inedible half away, the supermarket would charge twice as much per kilo – or the same price per pre-broken kilo. As long as all customers do the same, it makes no difference to anybody except the man who sweeps up the vegetable section.

In the real world, some customers will rip leeks and some – lazy, high-minded or nervous – will not. That’s fine by the supermarket, which likes it when customers signal their willingness to pay. The leek-rippers are proving they’re sensitive to the price and they’re rewarded for their efforts with an automatic discount. If you’re tight for cash I suggest you join them. If you don’t have the chutzpah to do so, then you obviously don’t need the money as much as you claim.

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