Honesty Box

There’s something about the sight of an ordinary “honesty box” that reminds me that common decency still holds value for some amongst us.

After all, the almost daily bombardment of headlines highlighting atrocities or avarice can shake your faith in the next person. So, I’ve decided to give you a breather and describe a seemingly quaint system of sale and purchase that essentially prods us to tap our “light side”.

Honesty boxes can actually be used in various situations: from parking lots to newspaper stands to even hotel bars. From my experience in Germany so far, they are especially popular in the rural areas. Farmers often set up makeshift stalls offering fresh, homegrown produce such as seasonal fruit, vegetables, honey and flowers. The fruit and vegetables are usually neatly arranged on tables, while bunches of cut flowers are placed in buckets of water.

But, no one mans these stalls.

All you have are the produce, their prices written on notice boards, and the aforementioned honesty box into which you pay for what you take. And, your conscience.

There are practical grounds for this practice. After all, there are fewer customers in smaller towns and villages and so, it doesn’t make monetary sense for a farmer or a vendor to man a stall all day. In the bigger scheme of things, it is also a gauge of whether people still abide by social norms, and behave when not under constant surveillance.

Having personally never seen nor experienced the concept of an honesty box in Malaysia, I thought it was indeed a novelty – and an enormous leap of faith – to sell and charge for products or services based only on your faith that your customers will have the moral fibre to actually pay up.

I still recall how astonished I was when I encountered my first honesty box. We were then living in a town ringed by farmlands that grew wheat, corn and rapeseed, which for us meant meandering, scenic routes that were perfect for evening walks.

One evening, my husband and I were walking past golden wheat fields when we came to a clearing in which stood what looked like a makeshift standing post box. Hammered onto the post was a crudely written sign with an arrow pointing towards a field of sunflowers that said, “Sunflowers – 50 cents per stalk.”

“He actually trusts people not to come at night and steal ALL his sunflowers?” I asked my bemused husband, incredulously. (Just to give you perspective, we once had a rose-mad family acquaintance back in Malaysia whose philosophy was that “stolen roses grow best” and who always carried a pair of garden clippers in her car).

You see, besides grain crops, farmers also grow other plants on their plots. Depending on the seasons, they plant daffodils, sunflowers or gladioli, which they then cut and tie up in bundles and sell for a price. Or under the wider umbrella of the “honour system”, they even trust you enough to cut the flowers yourself and pay for the exact number of stalks you take.

There’s a strawberry plot near my mum-in-law’s home that during strawberry season allows visitors to gather as many strawberries as they want and then pay per kilogramme. I must add though that there is someone who mans the weighing machine. And technically you can’t monitor who’s been eating their fill on the plot itself while picking the strawberries – except for their telltale pink-stained tongues!

Given that we are dealing with humans and their foibles, it’s not always utopic though. For instance, in 2013, a German potato farmer finally caught a thief who had abused his honesty box over the course of 15 years! Having realised early that someone was robbing him blind, yet not wanting to deprive his honest customers of his produce, he had three hidden cameras installed at his stall.

The crafty thief, who’d merrily stolen kilos of spuds while paying close to nothing, always wore large sunglasses to avoid identification. However, his luck ran out and eventually the farmer got a clear shot of him and he was turned in. It was reported among others, that he’d once taken 19kg of potatoes and paid only 15 cents into the honesty box. Another time he was filmed taking 12.5kg that would have typically cost him around €10 at a regular store.

As I mentioned earlier, this honour system is neither limited to fresh produce nor to Germany. Interestingly, when I Googled “honesty boxes + Malaysia” I found a Borneo Post article published in 2013 that highlighted a fruit-n-veg stall using an honesty box in Lawas, Sarawak.

And you’d be amazed at the many articles that have been written and published on the uses and abuses of this system, with behavioural biologists weighing in on human integrity or the lack of it versus the selfish desire to appear upright and thus pay to avoid censure by your peers.

I find it heartening that despite economic uncertainty and difficulties, wariness of what is to come, and weariness of greedy politicians, there remain those for whom trust and trustworthiness are worthier currencies.

After all, isn’t honesty supposed to be the best policy?

The Star2, Published: July 25, 2016
Can you count on your customers’ honesty? ;
Overwhelmed by incessant headlines underscoring humanity's uglier side, our columnist turns her attention to honesty boxes.
By Brenda Benedict
Brenda Benedict is a Malaysian living in Bonn. She’s thrilled that a farmer recently set up shop selling sunflowers near where she lives.

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