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Last Updated: Friday, 16 March 2007, 14:53 GMT
The devil in the retail
Andrew Simms
VIEWPOINT
Andrew Simms

The combination of low prices and endless choice has been a recipe for success for leading food retailers - but at what cost? In this week's Green Room, Andrew Simms argues that local communities and the environment are paying the price for the rise of these global giants.

Tesco supermarket in Beijing, China (Getty Images)
Tesco is growing at a massive rate, in the UK and globally

Before Tesco came along, who among the British general public had heard of the goji berry?

Having discovered one of the Himalayas' "best kept secrets", Tesco assured us that goji berries were the next big thing, available now, in store; and they do appear to be enormously nutritious, a product of the "unique conditions" of climate and altitude in the Himalayas.

Britain's indigenous fruits, like blackberry, blueberry, raspberry, strawberry, gooseberry, blackcurrant, and redcurrant, despite being packed with goodness, suddenly seem old-hat and second-best next to the exotic newcomer.

Fruit fashions may come and go; but there are real consequences to the way that supermarkets have extended the reach of our consumption across geographical and seasonal boundaries.

As the UK's most successful supermarket, Tesco is both an architect and reflection of the way we live in modern Britain.

Goji berries
Himalayan-grown goji berries blow a raspberry at home-grown fruit

It has brought within our grasp vast possibilities for consumption, beyond the imagination of previous generations.

Supermarkets have trained us to believe that nothing but affordability should constrain what, when or how much we consume.

Unfortunately this means that we have forgotten that we live on an island planet.

Galactic gourmet

As Britain's self-sufficiency declines and our material consumption rises, we depend on a growing, one-sided, global interdependence. If the rest of the world wanted to follow our example we'd need more than three planets like Earth to provide the resources.

We are driving further to buy our food, and supermarket lorries are driving further to keep the shelves stocked. According to the last publicly available estimate, Tesco's fleet travels 68 million miles (109 million km) per year - the equivalent of 142 round trips to the moon - a sort of galactic commuting.

Weapons manufacturer BAE Systems launched a range of 'environmentally friendly' munitions... with these immortal words: 'Lead used in ammunition can harm the environment and pose a risk to people'

Food freight is also growing significantly faster than the average for all sectors, as supermarkets set up complex global supply lines to deliver on the year-round demand for exotic goods - a demand that they have, themselves, manufactured.

The inevitable environmental consequences have not gone unnoticed.

Raised awareness of global warming and enormous public pressure for greater corporate social responsibility (CSR) has extracted promises to go green from a range of retailers.

Any improvement is welcome, yet a healthy scepticism surrounds conspicuous demonstrations of public virtue by big business.

The reputation of CSR was not helped, for example, when weapons manufacturer BAE Systems launched a range of "environmentally friendly" munitions as part of its corporate responsibility initiative with these immortal words: "Lead used in ammunition can harm the environment and pose a risk to people."

High street
Hypermarket chain stores act like giant vacuum cleaners sucking spending out of an area

It's hardly surprising that people question the giant retailers' promises to be good neighbours, or friends of the Earth.

How do we know if it is merely PR, or just pre-empting otherwise inevitable legislation? Without independent monitoring and verification of, for example, greenhouse gas emission reduction pledges, how will anyone know if it's real?

Tesco's much-applauded cause-related marketing schemes providing computers and sports equipment for schools took a knock when it emerged recently that to earn your school a trampoline you would have to spend around 1m ($1.9m) in Tesco stores.

The emphasis seemed to be on the marketing, rather than the cause.

'Winner-takes-all'

There are problems at the heart of how retailers like Tesco operate that no amount of green or ethical polish can solve.

Like its international competitors Wal-Mart, the French chain Carrefour, the Dutch Ahold, and Germany's Metro Group, Tesco is growing at a massive rate, in the UK and globally.

In the shadow of Wal-Mart it is also quietly morphing into a US-style "big-box" retailer, operating from ever larger warehouse-style hypermarkets on the edge of town or beyond.

One prediction suggests that by 2010 there will only be 10 major global food retailers

This means that whatever environmental improvements are being made elsewhere, we are getting locked into an energy-intensive, "drive-to" shopping model.

This type of business tends to dissolve the social glue that holds communities together, as recent evidence has shown about the impact of Wal-Mart's operations in the US, where "dead zones" are created. Because you have to drive to them, rather than walk, the day-to-day exchanges that otherwise bind communities together either decline or simply don't happen.

Economically, the hypermarket chain stores act like giant vacuum cleaners sucking spending out of an area. Smaller, locally owned stores tend to be better at keeping and irrigating the flow of money where it is spent.

As Tesco stalks its competitors in the global markets, none are standing still. As one leading trade journal asked: How big can a retailer get?

Wal-Mart, Carrefour, and a few other global giants seem to be testing the limits, with no end in sight for growth via international expansion.

Just 30 retailers have already captured around one-third of the global food market, and their control is increasing. The logical consequence of a handful of giant retailers using their leverage to expand still further is that more and more of the world's food system falls into fewer hands.

One prediction suggests that by 2010 there will only be 10 major global food retailers.

It's a winner-takes-all dynamic. And potentially on the losing side stand approximately two billion people whose livelihoods depend on the success or failure of the world's estimated 400 million small farms.

Trolley dollies

In wealthy Britain, even the most powerful farmers cower before the big supermarkets.

In global regions where the supermarkets are spreading, such as Latin America and developing parts of Asia, small farms and enterprises are being designed out of their centralised systems, geared to meet the needs of richer urban consumers.

Equally controversial is the fate of people working in poor countries to supply our needs here in the UK.

Farmers' market in west London (Image: BBC)
A desire for local food has seen a growth in farmers' markets

The supermarkets' price squeeze is so great, and the supply chains so long, involving endless subcontracting, that whatever the stated ethical policies, low pay and poor conditions are almost inevitable somewhere along the chain.

For example, a report by development charity War on Want said it found that sewing machine operators in textile factories in Bangladesh were working more than 80 hours a week for five pence per hour. They were making clothes destined for Asda/Wal-Mart, Tesco and Primark.

Neither was this just a typical step toward economic development. Overall pay in the sector had halved in real terms in the 1990s.

In years to come, when we reflect with a disbelieving shake of the head on our current profligacy, I believe we may be haunted by a variation of Hannah Arendt's observation on "the banality of evil".

For our generation it will instead be the banality of conspicuous consumption that ushered in a domino effect of linked economic, social and environmental crises.

We'll see that our lifestyles have been like cars badly parked in a supermarket car park, taking up the environmental space needed by others.

What with climate change, rising fuel prices, the need for hungry people to be able to feed themselves, and not to mention a backlash against "clone towns", impersonal big business and a new popular desire for real, local food; suddenly supermarkets look very out of place in the modern world.

Andrew Simms is policy director of the New Economics Foundation (Nef) and author of Tescopoly: How One Shop Came Out on Top and Why it Matters, published on 29 March by Constable & Robinson

The Green Room is a series of opinion pieces on environmental topics running weekly on the BBC News website


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