Everyone Suffers Except the Shareholders
How can supermarkets continually cut prices yet still declare ever-increasing
multi-billion pound profits year on year? In the 1960s, supermarkets offered
the UK consumer convenience and choice never seen before. But as the years
have gone on they have become ever more powerful and have slowly eliminated
the competition, leaving us with very little choice other than to shop
there. In the process, they have caused untold damage to everything from
our local high street to the rainforests. Recently, much has been made
of Tesco's record £2 billion profits. 2003 sales for Asda’s
parent-company Wal-Mart were $249 billion. These companies are not just
interested in making money, they need to make more money every year, while
their brilliant marketing machines try to brainwash us into believing
they are champions of the consumer.
So who suffers?
Farmers suffer. Despite providing the nation's food they have been resolutely
crushed by the ever-expanding buying power of just a few big retailers.
This means they must supply produce at a lower price or face 'de-listing'.
Many now sell food for less than it costs to grow, but the supermarkets
command such a share of the market that they have no choice. Every week
eleven UK farmers go bankrupt and one commits suicide. Those that remain
are sometimes forced into employing illegal immigrant labour on slave
wages to keep costs down. Dealing with small UK farmers is often considered
too costly. It is usually cheaper for supermarkets to import produce half
way around the world, even if the produce could be grown in the UK just
as successfully. This means many developing countries only encourage agriculture
for export rather than to feed their own populations. The situation for
these farmers in the third world is even worse than in the UK. A plantation
worker receives just 1.5p out of every £1 we spend on bananas, while
the retailer will take around 40p - not exactly passing on the savings
of their buying power to us. Although supermarkets are currently making
a big fuss about stocking fair trade and organic products such as coffee,
only the Co-op has stopped selling non fair trade; and it was supermarkets'
insistence on guaranteeing low costs that caused much of the damage in
the first place.
The environment suffers
The massive logistical operation needed to keep supermarkets running 24/7
involves massive pollution; supermarkets are responsible for 40% of lorry
traffic on our roads. They fly otherwise out-of-season produce around
the world, burning a lot of aviation fuel, one of the worst contributors
to greenhouse gases and climate change. Not to mention the distance that
cars must travel to out-of-town supermarkets, often built on green belt
land and using massive free car parks to tempt people away from local
shops. Now that is being stopped, supermarkets are expanding to brownfield
sites in built up areas - causing more traffic problems and noise pollution.
In addition, the intensive farming methods required by supermarkets cause
massive damage to soil and the eco-system in general. Supermarkets who
are only interested in buying the most popular and best-looking kinds
of meat and fresh produce threaten biodiversity. The reason that nature
has so many different varieties of plants and animals is to protect against
disease in one type of plant or animal, meaning that even if one branch
of the species is decimated there will be another to replace it. It was
partly this messing with bio-diversity that led to the potato famine in
Despite the chains claiming to be major job creators, a survey by the
National Retail Planning Forum found that for every supermarket that opened
there was a net loss of 276 retail jobs in the local area. The jobs that
supermarkets do create tend to be low skilled and there is rarely any
training that could help an employee move on to better things. Pay and
conditions also leave a lot to be desired. Since Asda was purchased by
US giant Wal-Mart, the company has pushed most staff onto poorer contracts
with more working over weekends, bank holidays and unsocial hours. Supermarkets
specialize in employing students, the elderly, and disabled and long-term
unemployed. Is this part of some great social mission on their behalf,
or rather a search for a compliant workforce that will not 'rock the boat'
- staff grateful for any sort of work that they can get. Most retailers
attempt to indoctrinate staff about how good an employer they are while
discouraging union involvement. On below average pay and terrible conditions,
many workers and managers become so stressed that they become ill. Shop
assistants are usually on just above the minimum wage, while Tesco chief
executive, Liverpudlian Terry Leahy, took home a package of £4,330,000
The community suffers.
Supermarkets routinely get around planning laws by proposing 'mixed-use'
developments, promising a new playground next to a massive megastore.
Locally, this is now being tried on Great Homer Street, where the historic
indoor market is to be bulldozed for yet another supermarket. The planners
are sweetening the pill with the promise of including new 'community facilities'.
When such schemes have been planned in other towns these community improvements
get reduced in size and expenditure if they even materialize at all. Alternatively,
they simply bully town planners into submission by launching appeal after
appeal until council resources are exhausted. In addition to the traffic
and noise problems in local areas, supermarkets are slowly trying to take
over the community by stealth. Many foyers contain charity collections,
carol singers, political surgeries and even citizen advice groups. Supermarkets
promote this as 'helping our communities', but in reality it is an attempt
to humanize the giant inhuman sheds that are supermarkets, replacing the
public square with the shop foyer. They are trying to create false communities
and a sense of homeliness, hence the likes of the fake 'Market Street'
found in Morrisons. But if you want to hold a protest, get signatures
for a local petition, or even hand out flyers for your band, security
will have you out the door in seconds, along with any other 'undesirables'
such as kids, beggars, buskers, anyone who may distract you from spending
your money. Supermarket bosses envisage a time when we won't go out for
a day trip to the park or the beach but to the supermarkets. While the
kids play in the play area you can go shopping and maybe spend even more
in the store café afterwards.
Still not convinced?
Well we the consumers all suffer in the end too. Many long-standing local
shops - and even small supermarkets - have been put out of business by
the power of the big players. Now the supermarkets have local pharmacies
and newsagents in their sights. Tesco is lobbying the government to break
down the regulations that protect local businesses in these industries.
Even the paper shop could disappear from your street. Many products like
milk and bread may seem cheaper at supermarkets, but both the producers
and we the consumers are being ripped off; supermarkets may sell cheap
but buy even cheaper. The chains also make massive margins on 'prepared'
goods. For instance a Marks & Spencer beef casserole that costs £5.58
in the shop could be made at home for £1.50. Food quality suffers
too. Most fresh products are chosen on the basis of how they look and
fit on the shelves - not on taste or nutritional value. Most chefs would
laugh at you if you handed them fruit and veg you might buy in your local
Sainsbury's. There has been a slow downgrading of the food we eat, so
that items such as bread and meat that a few years ago would have been
considered standard can now be sold at an inflated price as 'Finest' or
'Extra Special' with expensive looking packaging to complete the illusion.
The lowest grades of meat and bread have virtually no nutritional value;
you might as well eat sawdust rather than many 'value' products. Supermarkets
will do anything to keep food lasting longer, so it is chilled to sub-zero
temperatures, killing many of the nutrients. Some foods are even irradiated
to keep them preserved.
Supermarkets claim they only give us what we want, yet in a recent Radio
4 poll 71% of listeners agreed that 'We would all be better off without
supermarkets'. It doesn't have to be this way, regulation has curbed the
power of retailers in Ireland and France and it could be achieved here
What will happen if we don't take any action?
Those in charge of supermarkets envisage a world where just a few major
chains look after all our needs from cradle to grave, from pet food to
legal advice. There is already an Asda in York that contains a birth registry
office and one in Scotland that is licensed for marriages. Meanwhile supermarkets
are now being planned that are surrounded by their own housing estates,
new towns where the residents' entire lives are based around a shop, providing
they can afford it of course. Many areas have already lost the choice
of going anywhere else and many people simply cannot afford to shop anywhere
else, especially those on low incomes. But if you can and you still have
a high street then you still have a choice: use it or lose it.