The impact of supermarkets
Large supermarkets and Internet shopping are having a devastating effect on High Street shops. Dairy farmers have for many years suffered from the low price they get for their milk from supermarkets. On the 3rd November 2005 TV News programmes in the UK reported that several dairy farmers were pouring their milk down the drain in protest at the low prices they were being paid by supermarkets for their produce. In November 2015 farmers mounted further campaigns to highlight this crisis. Some supermarkets gave customers the option of higher priced milk to support the farmers. Hardly the response the farmers were seeking! These were just some of many protests against the tyrannical manner in which large supermarkets are driving farmers to bankruptcy and putting local high street shops out of business, reducing the nutritional quality of food and imposing degrading working practices and poor pay on staff.
Over 80% of independent shops on our high streets have closed. Meanwhile, hundreds of new supermarkets are opening, and supermarkets like Tesco and Sainsbury’s are increasing the number of local convenience stores they own. Supermarkets control 97% of the grocery market.
Supermarkets also produce vast quantities of waste that cannot be recycled. Items are overpackaged, and a total of 6.4 billion non-recyclable carrier bags were given to supermarket customers in 2010. In November 2015 the government brought in legislation which required customers to pay for plastic bags and this is likely to result in a huge reduction in their use. Legislation forcing supermarkets to provide a fair price to dairy farmers for their milk is required to stop dairy farmers going out of business.
60-70% of all food in the UK now passes through four companies; Tesco, Sainsbury, Safeway and Asda-Walmart. This control over the food chain allows supermarkets to determine the price they pay to farmers. Farmers are forced to take that price due to there being no other buyer left in the market place. This price-setting power, together with the requirement by supermarkets that farmers either supply them on a large scale or not at all, is behind the continuing industrialisation of agriculture. Big farmers are getting bigger to survive while small farmers are going bust. This is leading to prairie farming monoculture and unemployment. In 2015, dairy farms were closing down at the rate of one a day. Since 1995, 21,735 dairy farmers have gone out of business.
Another serious source of waste is the amount of travel involved in bringing food from its source to the supermarket shelf. A typical family lunch is estimated to have travelled 26,234 miles. A report, by the UK Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs [DEFRA], estimates that transporting food to and around the UK produced 19 million tonnes of carbon dioxide in 2002, of which 10 million tonnes were emitted in the UK – 1.8 per cent of total UK carbon dioxide emissions. The report says that the overall social and environmental cost of food transport is £9 billion with impacts on road congestion, accidents, climate change, noise and air pollution.
There are many aspects of supermarket activities that involve scandalous waste. Due to the vast distances that supermarket food travels, the time it takes to make that journey, and the need for the product to be stacked on a shelf, dropped into a trolley and fitted with a barcode, supermarket food is encased in far more packaging than is used by local production and distribution networks. It was also the supermarkets who dictated that the returnable bottle disappeared; returnables only work on a regional basis, not the national and international scale of the supermarket. All of this leaves an ever growing waste mountain, much of which is multi-material (eg cardboard stuck to foil wrapped in plastic) and therefore impossible to recycle. This means it must be buried (to pollute the soil and water) or incinerated (to pollute the air), the cost of which is met by the taxpayer not the supermarkets.
The appearance of fruit and vegetables on the shelves is put before flavour and nutrition. For example, at the supermarket distribution centres, potatoes are scrubbed and the small ones rejected. They must be oval and without blemishes. In this process 30% are wasted. An organic supplier may have to reject 15% of his/her crop before delivering to a distribution centre where a further 25% (40% altogether) are likely to be rejected. The farmer will only be paid for those accepted. Farmers are treated in a shabby manner and must suffer further loss of profits when supermarkets decide to do ‘buy one-get one free’ promotions. It is the farmer who carries the extra cost, not the supermarket. Dairy farming is in crises, mainly as a result of the low prices paid to farmers for milk. The dictatorial power of supermarkets over their suppliers is described in the year 2000 independent report of the Competition Commission “We received many allegations from suppliers about the behaviour of the main parties [supermarket chains] in the course of their trading relationships. Most suppliers were unwilling to be named, or to name the main party that was the subject of the allegation. There appeared to us to be a climate of apprehension among many suppliers in their relationships with the main parties” (Blythman,2004)*.
Shopping at supermarkets is destroying British agriculture and ruining the countryside.
At the end of September 2005 the UK Government announced that ‘junk food’ school meals will be banned and that extra funds would be provided to give children nutritious meals with adequate amounts of fruit and vegetables. This decision followed a high profile televised campaign by the TV personality, Jamie Oliver (who, surprisingly, has advertised supermarket products) exposing the poor quality of school meals throughout the country.
This came after an equally damning series of programmes about the way British based supermarkets were providing poor quality food high in sugar, salt and saturated fats, including fruit picked early from the far corners of the world and bread made with enzymes to increase shelf life.
Many of the chickens ending up on supermarket shelves had a miserable life suffering in large sheds or in cramped cages and so overfed that their legs cannot support their own weight. This is evidenced by bruise marks visible on the birds displayed for sale. This meat is high in saturated fats (linked to heart disease). Nearly a pint of fat can be extracted from just one bird.
Duck meat involves even greater cruelty. Ducks are also factory farmed and are not provided access to water on which they can swim. Not one duck farm supplying meat to supermarkets conforms to the RSPCA Freedom Foods standard. Steak often comes from cows that do not have access to grass pasture but are instead kept in pens with concrete floors. In all cases of factory farming, animals suffer either from disease or disabilities. 20% of cows are in pain at any given time.
There is even greater animal cruelty involved with meat sourced by supermarkets from abroad, produced under conditions which would be illegal in the UK. It is the long distance haulage of livestock, brought about by the insistence of supermarkets on using just a handful of mega-abattoirs, which was a major contributing factor to the spread of foot and mouth disease.
Shopping at supermarkets supports factory farming, poor animal welfare and the spread of disease.
People can only eat so much food, so logic dictates that shopping at supermarkets puts village shops and high street stores out of business. Every supermarket that opens results in a net loss of 200-300 jobs, as a whole network of local shops and their suppliers is destroyed. Whereas money spent in independent shops tends to stay in the local economy, supermarkets act as giant vacuum cleaners; sucking money out of an area and putting it into the bank accounts of distant shareholders.
Shopping at supermarkets dismantles communities and undermines local economies.
In 2003 a House of Commons Committee blamed supermarkets for fostering an environment that allows gang masters to recruit foreign casual workers to pick fruit and vegetables for a pittance. The exploitation is even greater in relation to third world suppliers and this can make one of the biggest contributions to supermarket profits.
In the case of the price of bananas a typical chain of exploitation provides:
Plantation worker 1.5%
Plantation owner 10%
International trading company 31.5%
Ripener distributer 17%
A similar pattern applies to other foods grown in the third world.
The takeover of Asda by Wal-Mart has compounded problems for Caribbean banana growers who were already hurt by the World Trade Organisation’s ruling that the EU’s special trading arrangement for West Indies bananas, had to end. Asda decided to source all its bananas through one supplier. Del Monte put in the lowest bid and obtained its bananas from large-scale plantations in Latin America. Asda has caused large reductions in the retail price in the UK from 114.1pence per kilo in 1990 to 79 pence in 2003. At the same time costs to suppliers have risen because of the conditions imposed by supermarkets, such as mixing different degrees of ripeness in a single pack (Myers, 2004).
In the USA in Mar 2001 Wal-Mart had 3,000 stores with 950,000 employees. Wal-Mart did not allow unions and the wages of $2-$3 an hour were much lower than at unionised stores. They were paid only for the basic 28 hour week and overtime was not allowed. In June 2003 one single mother with two children earning $6.25 an hour worked out that she could not provide enough for the basic needs of her family if she were to have done all her shopping at Wal-Mart.
Workers abroad supplying Wal-Mart products fare much worse. China Labor Watch reported that in factories of the Guangdong region of China workers were getting an average of just 16.5 cents per hour for a 7-day week (McCool, 2004)*. In 2001, the US National Labour Committee found that Wal-Mart was paying many suppressed workers seven pence an hour. In September 2005, a US labour rights group filed a civil action on behalf of people toiling in the Wal-Mart supply chain, including a woman in Bangladesh who was forced to work seven days a week, from 7.45am to 10pm, for six months without a break. Compare this with the personal fortune of the Walton family (the owners of Wal-Mart) of more than £100bil. Wal-Mart pay poverty-level wages. At the time of taking over Asda in the UK they offered just £7,000 a year for a full time job. Wal-Mart are anti-trade unions (they are however required to allow union membership in the UK). When a store in Quebec became the first to vote for full union recognition, they closed the store down completely as a fiscal punishment to warn others across the world not to get any fancy ideas (The Independent, 20th Sept 2005).
In their never ceasing quest to drive down prices paid to suppliers and so increase profits, supermarkets are increasingly sourcing the food they sell from the developing world where wages are low, working conditions poor and pollution laws non existant. This leads to countries who can barely feed themselves seeing their best agricultural land producing food for UK supermarkets at rock bottom prices.
The drive to provide out-of-season fruit and vegetables means that 95% of fruit and 50% of vegetables in the UK are now sourced from abroad. Despite the fact that there are 700 varieties of apple grown in Britain, only a small range are found in supermarkets and most are from abroad. Strawberries, usually El Santa, with little flavour, are favoured even when English strawberries are in season. A new profit making development is to sell packaged fruit and vegetables at inflated prices to the lazier consumers.
Shopping at supermarkets exploits both the people and the land of developing countries.
Supermarkets aim to maximise profits on a national scale and tell farmers to grow two or three varieties of crops in large enough quantities to supply all their stores. The result of this is more use of chemicals (less varieties equals greater threat from pests and diseases) and a subsequent loss of wildlife and threat to health.
Shopping at supermarkets reduces both biodiversity in the countryside and choice for the consumer.
Supermarkets relationship with its suppliers resembles that which exists between multinational companies and nation states. Potential clients are played off against each other to get the best deal.
Supermarkets are spreading their influence across the country like a cancer. Perhaps the most insidious aspect of their rising power is their avowed intention to expand into the non-grocery market and it is small businesses and very soul of our town centre environments that will suffer as a result.
Friends of the Earth (2005)* warn of the effects of Tesco’s dominant position in the UK:
Local traders are being pushed out of business by new Tesco stores reducing consumer choice and damaging local economies
Tesco fills its shelves with imported produce instead of supporting UK farmers; surveys by Friends of the Earth have shown that at the height of the UK apple season well over half the apples on offer in Tesco stores are imported.
Farmers in the UK and overseas are being bullied by Tesco buyers as the company passes costs and risks back down the supply chain
As alternative shops are lost, access to healthy food could be affected. Tesco performed poorly in a recent rating of major retailers contribution to healthy diets carried out by the National Consumer Council
Workers overseas growing and packing food for Tesco and UK home workers assembling goods for Tesco are not getting basic employment rights
Tesco, like other big supermarkets, causes environmental damage by transporting food long distances, over packaging its food, and building stores which are highly inefficient in terms of energy use.
Supermarkets are also seeking to influence school policies and children’s attitudes by providing benefits to schools. There are dangers to democracy when multinational companies gain influence over school policies, irrespective of whether or not this further their commercial interests. Many corporations will regard generous donations of school equipment as a sound investment for creating a good public image and securing future profits from consumers who might remember the support they received while at school.
However, these so called ‘benefits are not always what they seem. In 2001 the ‘Which’ magazine exposed the real purpose of an apparently generous scheme by Tesco involving vouchers that customers could use to get free computer equipment. ‘Over 23,000 schools benefited’ so Tesco claimed. ‘Which’ calculated that 4,490 vouchers would provide a school with a scanner. That meant that shoppers had to spend £44,900 in Tesco to get enough vouchers to buy an item that Tesco itself sold for £80. A school would have to generate £208,800 of Tesco shopping to receive £1,000 worth of equipment. In 2002 alone, Tesco distributed over 273 million vouchers for the scheme. In 2003 university undergraduates received an invitation from Asda Wal-Mart to participate in a ‘£6,000 giveaway’ using their enclosed ‘Asda gift card’. Although ‘120 lucky winners’ might each get £125 (hence the £6,000), the promotion turned out be a ploy to get the parents of the students ‘top up the student’s cards’ by shopping at Asda. These supermarkets, by wooing young people, seek to make them ‘part of their communities’.
Don’t shop at supermarkets
Despite the corporate might of the supermarket, the greatest power still lies in the hands of the individual – the power of the purse. The only hope for Britain’s farmers, the global environment and your community is for the UK to return to a position where no single business is responsible for more than 1% of UK food retailing. The only way this will be achieved is for the public to boycott supermarkets and instead support independent stores, farm shops, farmers markets, veg box schemes…
Blythman, Joanna (2004) ‘Shopped – The shocking power of the British supermarkets’, Harper Collins, London
McCool, Grant, Reuters 9/2/2004
Friends of the Earth (17/1/20050), ‘Tesco’s Growth: Every Little Hurts’