Having the privilege of studying and immersing oneself in the issues of sustainability and environmentalism means also having the burden of realizing that we are far from achieving the goals necessary to create impactful change in our systems. Sometimes it can feel overwhelming ; how can people still be standing in line at McDonalds when everything on the menu contributes to the further exhaustion of our agricultural resources ? Obviously, part of this question is answered by the fact that we live in an inegalitarian society where people are not all afforded the same access to wealth and education and thus cannot be reproached for consuming in the way they learned/needed to. Furthermore, the solution to changing our systems will never be found in placing blame uniquely on individual consumption. Political action is needed to restructure industries that have long profited of the fact that our globalized market allows for them to place competitive prices, disadvantaging those at the bottom of the supply chain and creating opportunities for the monopolization of certain sectors (i.e. four companies holding more than 60% of the global seed market). However, as we wait for these policies to be drafted and negotiated, perhaps there is a way we can work with the current system in place in order to raise awareness on the issues we should all be working towards. This way we can start to plant the seeds necessary to open up more avenues to sustainable activism that can then inform our communities, our governments, and eventually our laws.
If we are going to start raising awareness on food sustainability issues, why not start on a global scale ? At least that is what Airbnb and Slow Food thought when they entered into partnership in June 2019, launching their first Slow Food Experiences on the vacation-rental company’s online platform.
Airbnb, an American based company, was first created in 2008 with the idea that people could rent out their homes to earn a small profit and offer an alternative to hotels. In 2016 the company expanded its offer to include “experiences”, or activities to take part in once the person booking arrived at his or her destination. Recently Airbnb created Social Impact Experiences, an initiative that allows non-profit organizations, aligned with a certain local or global cause, to host activities on the Airbnb website in hopes to raise awareness around these issues and grow their communities. For these Social Impact Experiences, the company waves its service fee so that 100% of profits go directly to the non-profit organization.
Slow Food is a grassroots organization that was founded in 1989 by Carlo Petrini after he realized that the globalized and industrialized food market was starting to change the gastronomic landscape of his home country, Italy. Since then, the organization has expanded internationally, and its main objectives are embedded in its “Good, Clean, Fair” motto . The Slow Food mission includes preserving gastronomic traditions, encouraging biodiversity, protecting the environment, and ensuring fair compensation for farmers. One of the ways the organization hopes to reach these objectives is by creating local and global communities that are informed about the current environmental and agricultural crisis.
In 2018 Airbnb contacted Slow Food to start discussing the partnership. The company flew Michele Rumiz, Director of Slow Food Travel, and his colleague out to the San Francisco offices to discuss working together. The two representatives spoke with several departments and were able to solidify the partnership in 2019. Since then, the project has had great success. In February 2020 Slow Food Experiences had over eighty hosts participate around the globe in countries like Italy, Japan and Mexico (the number of experiences has significantly diminished during the pandemic, and the two organizations are actively working together to re-activate hosts who have gone “dormant”).
Experiences on the Airbnb platform are run by a host who writes a small excerpt on the website where he explains what activity he is offering and how much it costs (Slow Food Experiences vary in cost from anywhere between 10 to 200 EUR per person). Past participants of experiences can write reviews on the host’s page giving their opinion on their experience. Liz Martinez, Global Director of Food and Drink Experiences at Airbnb, expressed that the hosts are vetted before allowed access to the platform (Martinez, 2021). They are given a set of guidelines to adhere to and if one of the participants reports on any misconduct demonstrated by the host, then Airbnb will monitor the experience to ensure the violation does not happen again, before removing the experience from the platform completely if the violations continue.
Before sending a host through the Airbnb vetting process, Slow Food first recruits and accepts potential hosts based on a list of nine criteria :
1) Host must have extensive gastronomic knowledge such as being aware of what threatens the quality and durability of food products.
2) An experience cannot include any products that do not abide by Slow Food standards (GMOs, farmed fish, etc.).
3) The experience must follow general guidelines of Slow Food events.
4) Host must respect seasonality of products.
5) Experience should raise travelers’ awareness of the Slow Food values, disclosing the main Slow Food projects in the area, and utilize the products of the communities whenever possible.
6) Experience must focus on artisanal food products (and producers) that are rooted in a given territory ; not necessarily traditional or autochthonous, yet clearly linked to local communities (e.g., a tour to discover the culinary traditions of the Moroccan community in Turin).
7) Experience must include food tastings, as Slow Food believes that gastronomic understanding entails tasting products.
8) Experience must be run by members of Slow Food network.
9) Experience must be approved by Slow Food HQ.
At the beginning of the project, Airbnb had dedicated a team of four to work with Slow Food on this partnership, including the head of the Social Impact team and the head of Food Experiences at Airbnb ; however, due to Covid-19 pandemic and budget cuts, Slow Food now mainly communicates with the head of Food Experiences on the project. Airbnb gives feedback every two weeks on how the partnership is going. Both organizations are content with the amount of communication there is between the two sides and believe that it allows for a collaborative process to take place.
Giacomo Miola is a Slow Food Experience host from the Amalfi coast in Italy. He offers a “Gastronomic Trekking” experience where he invites his participants to engage in a 5-hour discovery of the region. His experience consists of trekking along the coast area’s food trail (from the field to the kitchen). Along the way he explains the historical context of food production and consumption in the region, and he places emphasis on the region’s agroecological practices. For example, Giacomo explains to the participants that wild herbs and foraging have a significant importance around the Amalfi coast because the region’s soil and terraced hillsides are hard to cultivate on. The locals were not always able to rely on stable crop harvests, so they included a lot of wild herbs in their cooking because they were available almost year round, in part due to the region’s temperate climate. Giacomo also makes the participants taste a traditional olive oil from the region that is made with several varieties of olive. With this example he is able to convey how gastronomic traditions can promote biodiversity.
Giacamo began his Gastronomic Trekking experience as a response to what he calls “90’s style tourism” which he views as the predominant form of tourism in the Amalfi coast (Miola, 2021). 90’s style tourism is based on offering a one-sided service for people visiting a chosen destination. Giacamo wanted to create a tourism option that worked with the people of the place being visited and not just for the tourists who were visiting it. As part of the leadership team for Slow Food Campagna, Giacomo is an active member of the organization and contributes to one of their branch actions, Slow Food Travel, which, according to their website is “a new model for tourism, made up of meetings and exchanges with farmers, cheesemakers, herders, butchers, bakers and winegrowers”. Giacomo believes that the kind of experience he offers is important for disseminating the values upheld by Slow Food on a more global scale.
Explaining world-wide issues, such as a loss of biodiversity and the importance of consuming what is in season, is important to do on a local level so that people have a tangible example of what these issues look like and then can take that information with them back home and apply it to their own context. Giacomo sees proof of this absorption of information when past participants have sent messages showing recipes they made that were inspired from their time spent with him but with ingredients they found locally.
Although Gastronomic Trekking was in place before Slow Food partnered with Airbnb, Giacomo has only seen benefits from the collaboration. He believes that one of the major advantages of smaller, research-based organizations partnering with big corporations is that they are able to give those organizations access to marketing tools and data that allows them to amplify their message and access new audiences who might not have been aware of these issues before. Personally, Giacomo has been able to increase the number of participants with the partnership. In 2019 he had over 1,000 people take part in his experiences, however due to the pandemic, the number of participants decreased to 50 in 2020.
Slow Food Experiences can be classified as a food tourism activity as the participants of these experiences are most often people who are on the Airbnb website looking for activities to partake in once arrived at their trip destination. Valued at $1,116.7 billion in 2019, the Global Culinary Tourism market has enormous potential as a leverage point for these sustainable food initiatives (Allied Market Research, 2020). Food is a mandatory daily activity that tourists participate in, accounting for one-third of their vacation budget according to the Global report on Food Tourism. This means that food has become a big driver in choosing which destination to visit.
If food and culinary experience can be a decision factor for choosing a location to visit, then it creates an opportunity for local farmers, producers, and ethical food associations to work with tourist structures to create a sustainable food tourism market within those regions. Locations often struggle to distinguish themselves in the tourism market, but by employing ethical food experiences it not only can play a part in the development of more sustainable systems but also offers a way for these destinations to differentiate themselves from other locations who might not have that kind of eco-conscious offer put in place (Viassone et Grimmer, 2014).
Food tourism also has the potential to develop rural local economies. Much of our food production happens outside of urban spaces, yet urban areas are the most visited by tourists. If tourist opportunities are placed in rural areas because of their food production appeal, that could allow these economies to develop all while supporting the sustainable food supply structures in place.
An article published by the Sustainability Journal in 2017, argued that a subdivision of food tourism, agri-food tourism , had the potential to be used as an “eco-innovation strategy” for small farms (Liu et al., 2017). The article discussed how coffee production in Taiwan was an interesting tourism opportunity for the country because it encouraged farmers to continue or transition to organic farming methods in order to capture a larger audience of tourists. The unique history and style of cultivation, farmed in the mountains, innately attracts curious visitors, and distinguishes this kind of coffee production from other regions. These farms could offer guided visits viewed as an educational opportunity for tourists. This added attraction could create work opportunity for the people leading the tours as well as a commercial opportunity for the farms if they wanted to sell their products directly to the tourists after the visits. The graph below illustrates how this model of rural tourism can be used as a leverage for two sides of business : the supply/industry side of business as well as the demand/customer side of business.
Another advantage of creating various streams of revenue through tourism is that it allows small famers to no longer be at mercy of their sometimes-limiting supply chains. In the case of Taiwanese farmers, the coffee of that region was all collected by the same buyer, who was able to set his own prices. With the development of a tourism-based initiative for this product, farmers will have more negotiating power when their product is valued at a higher price, since tourists are willing to pay more.
It must also be acknowledged that the promotion of tourism activities can lead to mass tourism and to destructive and pollutive effects of destination. However, in the case of ethical food tourism, there are possible local economic and sustainable benefits to be explored when these activities are regulated.
Global Health Crisis and Tourism
Both parties in the partnership were severely affected by the Covid-19 pandemic. Airbnb is primarily a travel accommodation platform and relies on tourism, which has decreased by over 70% in 2020. Airbnb had to let go of 25% of its employees because of the global crisis, and as a result had to discontinue its Social Impact team. Despite this setback, the company decided to renew its contract with Slow Food for 2021 and continue to host Social Impact Experiences on the platform.
Michele Rumiz also reported that because Slow Food is a volunteer based organization, it struggled to get people organized during the pandemic (Rumiz, 2021).
A silver-lining to the partnership activities being put on pause is that the extra time was used as an opportunity to rethink the partnership and find ways to expand their reach for when tourism becomes an active sector again.
Slow Food tried to transition to online experiences, but had trouble getting all hosts on board. Hosting online requires skills similar to filming a television show, much less interactive and the person hosting has to be comfortable on camera. Therefore, there was some hosts who were not interested in this alternative form of animating an experience. The other difficulty is that hosting experiences online did not allow for the same kind of varied offer that is possible outside of the internet. An example of this is that you can have 10 pasta making classes in the city of Milan but you cannot have 10 pasta making classes hosted on one website, since people see this as too repetitive when presented through the online format.
One of the unavoidable paradoxes with this type of collaboration is that these two organisms, at their foundation, are motivated by different economic objectives. Airbnb is a for-profit company that takes an entrepreneurial approach to doing business and is interested in making decisions around what is best for the company. Slow Food is a non-profit organization that is focused on advocating for values and policies that help move forward the company’s cause.
Both organizations are also operating on an international scale. Airbnb’s motivations behind expanding globally can be attributed to the company’s interest in dominating the travel-booking industry and out-competing their rivals. For example, Airbnb does not disallow the hosts of Slow Food Experiences from promoting their experience on other travel-booking sites, however Airbnb asks that Slow Food hosts only have participants who have signed up via the Airbnb platform attend the experiences. This means that these hosts would have to set up different calendars for their activities to be able to promote on several platforms, which can be a deterrent.
Slow Food also proudly states that it is an international organization with plans to keep growing it’s network. However, the organization is doing so in hopes to create communities of people working together for a common cause that allows for collaboration between organizations and projects and acts as a link between these initiatives.
This difference in interests leads to a potential critique of the partnership for contributing to the expansion of monopolizing structures, like Airbnb, who can use the good reputation and long-standing efforts of an organization like Slow Food to gain a sustainability “label” without contributing to a change within the system.
Slow Food Experiences are not accessible to all populations. The tourism sector in general, meaning those who can travel, is limited to people with enough income and opportunity to be able to take time off and visit destinations. Slow Food Experiences also require the participants to pay to partake in the activities. The cost is justified by the fact that hosts need to be able to pay for the expenses around the meals, transport, and producers implicated in the experience. Therefore, it is important to note that people of lower economic status are not able to access this transfer of knowledge regarding sustainable food systems. There are organizations linked to Slow Food, like the Food Literacy Center in Sacramento, that specifically work with underserved populations in order to give them access to information around ethical eating. That being said, there is still a lot of work to be done to make sure that the sustainable food movement is led by and includes every population effected by agriculture and food issues, and not just those with enough resources to position themselves as the forefront of the movement.
Although this is still a young project (less than 2 years old), Slow Food and Airbnb have plans to push the partnership further. One of these ideas was launched before the global health crisis but has since been put on hold. Slow Food was planning to host a cooking competition at the Slow Food University in Pollenzo, Italy. The organization would use the Airbnb platform to select one hundred contestants from around the world to come to the school for a week and participate in workshops, producer visits, and take advantage of the school’s utilities to work on perfecting a family recipe. At the end of the contest, a winner would be chosen and given a cash price. Additionally, all one hundred recipes would be put together to create the first ever Airbnb cookbook.
Additionally, Michele Rumiz spoke on how he hopes that Slow Food will be able to expand its role into sustainable food advisor for Airbnb. His first project is to ban all GMO foods from every Airbnb experience, not just the ones hosted by Slow Food (Rumiz, 2021).
Both Michele Rumiz and host Giacomo Miola spoke about their ambition to work with Airbnb to create a more community-based approach to these experiences. Instead of having one-off interactions with people, they would like a way to continue the experience further and have people who participate in the Slow Food Experience become members of the network (Rumiz, 2021 ; Miola, 2021).
Airbnb also offers other opportunities for the social impact project. The company gives its employees monthly hours of paid time to volunteer for different projects in their communities. Airbnb also offer low-cost or free housing to people who are in need (for example, traveling for a medical procedure), and they partner with hosts during disaster relief situations where people need emergency free housing.
Recently, Airbnb has teamed up with a power-generating waste-incineration plant in Hinwil, Switzerland, and offered free tours to visit the plant’s CO2 removal system and learn about the importance of removing the gas from the air through a science-based lens.
Finally, an evergreen initiative of Airbnb is managed by their Global Partnership’s team, who is constantly looking for organizations and companies who are contributing positively to society to partner with. This initiative does prioritize partnerships with organizations that have the bandwidth to work directly with Airbnb and expand on the partnership, so it is difficult to work with smaller groups who may not have the experience working at an international level.
The Slow Food x Airbnb partnership is an example of a sustainable food systems organization trying to use the current structures in place to amplify its cause and raise awareness on the biggest scale that it can. Airbnb is a company that, like many others today, is realizing that it needs to use the company’s economic and market power to do something impactful.
Slow Food already has an international network of people and therefore has many existing communities that could use this Airbnb partnership to strengthen and grow their local efforts. By associating these Airbnb Experiences with local causes and combining forces between hosts and people of the community working on similar projects, Slow Food could work towards achieving local and even national goals. Hosts of the Slow Food Experiences could include actors from other sectors of the environmental movement. For example, while doing a tour of the local fishery and discussing the declining yield of the catch every year, the host of that experience could introduce someone working for waste management in the city. The link could be made between water pollution and aquatic animal health. If waste if not properly managed and ends up in a city’s waterways it would become harmful to the aquatic ecosystems and the creatures who inhabit them. The link made between these two systems could then lead to a discussion around solutions that could be applied to help both departments. This kind of interconnected work could help change perspectives on how systems of sustainability work. This change in understanding could then be applied to any community in any part of the world.
Along with using Slow Food Experiences as a way to provide examples of sustainable food systems in differing locations, it could also be beneficial to develop these sorts of experiences with local actors and people of the community who can use these opportunities as ways to educate themselves on what is happening in their own city/country. The fact that Slow Food Experiences always offer a tasting portion and are gastronomically linked means that they have an advantage in appealing to people who are not solely participating because of their interest in sustainable development/environmentalism. Slow Food does already and can continue to leverage the fact that everybody likes to eat to retain more people and perhaps introduce more people to the Slow Food cause. Airbnb also allows Slow Food to have access to a larger audience who might initially partake in an experience because they want to try authentic Italian pasta and then find themselves learning about the lack of diversity in wheat varieties and how this, in part, is leading to the collapse of our agricultural system.
The partnership might also consider expanding into offers that allow for more people to participate, perhaps by opening an experience page made for people to participate in local activities that have little to no entry fee. This would empower people to participate in their own communities and allow access to those without the economic position to otherwise participate in Slow Food Experiences.
The Slow Food and Airbnb Partnership can be seen as an example of successful promotion of sustainable food issues through a culinary context, now lets figure out how we can invite more people to the table.
Auteure : Caronline Lahey