Healthy Living or a Mindful Living?

I divide my year between Jakarta, Indonesia and quaint Upstate New York. I am lucky to be faced with such polarized experiences. Jakarta is so hectic, congested, polluted, with 11 million socially unequal people dictate its pulse, whereas Ithaca is an open space of 30 thousand people surrounded by gorges, forests, blue sky and clear open space.

Twice a year I bring back and forth fresh perspectives half across the globe. Despite much lower income than Ithaca, the numbers of health food stores are mushrooming in Jakarta, mostly filled with imported items or local items that are packaged nicely to look like imported products. Moringa, coconut oil, coconut sugar are among the highly demanded items in the west, treated as superfood, and these local brands imitate the west in their packaging and logo designs. And so they unjustifiably rake high prices even when we all know Indonesia is laced with coconut and moringa trees. 

Then, why do we still gobble them up at hefty price? Well, here my economic degree comes in handy - it is because of the internet and asymmetric information.

In a split second, google search results for both 'healthy eating' and 'healthy lifestyle' hits more than 1.1 billions. Within those there will be subsets of people having contradictory opinions about particular things. So we need massive skills to narrow down searches to synthesize the information. Many quickly succumb to western memes, headers, savvy bloggers and influencers saying things about what to eat and do. Quinoa? Chia? Oats? Checked. Coconut Oil? Checked, even though couple of years ago I still remember coconut oil was deemed unhealthy. Acai? Yup, you guess it, checked.

Asymmetric information happens when one party in a transaction has less information than the other. Asymmetric information almost always cause an adverse selection, that people make less than optimal choice.

In our isolated case here, problems stem from the facts that traders will simply pick up on the demand cue and monetary incentives and respond with importing highly-demanded trendy goods. Consumers, on the other hands, rarely bother to check the truth of these diets. Facts aside, domestic substitutions are available - we could have saved the earth from corresponding import-related carbon footprint - but the power of internet and mindset are immovable mountains.

A friend picked up a tiny bag of US-brand moringa powder for an equivalent of US$9 from one reputable health food store in central Jakarta. The same bag would cost half in the US, even taking into account that moringa was imported to the US from either India, Sri Lanka, and wait for it, Indonesia. When I pointed out that moringa is actually daun kelor, she shrieked.  She realized now she could have gotten two kilos of moringa powder from a reputable domestic vendor. Same thing with coconut oil and coconut sugar.

Ah, the power of information or the lack of it. With the lack of information, often price is used as an indicator of quality, and this can be misleading.

I get it, we all want to be healthy. But we can be frugal and factor in environmental damage. We can eat macrobiotic food like our grandma used to do, find local sources for health food, in turn help our country's balance of trade, rejuvenate our agriculture, help our farmers, reduce carbon footprints, create demand for organic farm practice in Indonesia. Only you can vote with your wallet and nudge local businesses to step up their game and compete with foreign brands.

Consumption can be an artform of being mindful. You have the power to change the world with the way you spend your hard-earned money. Let's exercise it.

And the money you save from buying domestic? Use it to invest goodness in you, your loved ones or the world. Take a language class, go to a dance lesson, or help those in need. Easy choice.

I rest my case, and may we all get the health, peace and love we deserve.




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