I’m all lost in the supermarket

Issue: 106

James Woodcock

Supermarkets are hugely influential in 21st century corporate globalisation and capital accumulation. Wal-Mart (which owns Asda) is the world’s biggest corporation, and the British multinational Tesco is one of Britain’s biggest companies, worth around £40 billion in 2002.

During the last 30 years supermarkets have been a dominant force in transforming what we eat, how we shop, how our food is produced, our high streets and our countryside, and almost all the changes have been for the worse. They have also contributed to massive local and global environmental destruction. Supermarkets feature prominently in the powerful road lobby. They are aggressively targeting poorer countries and are taking over small shops in Britain, while still pushing for mega out of town stores.

Unsurprisingly there are many voices opposing supermarket domination. They range from large multinational food producers and processors (who object to supermarkets squeezing their profits) to the real victims, such as immigrant workers in 19th century conditions in Lincolnshire or near the Costa del Sol.

Wal-Mart is the superpower of supermarkets, and in the US there are many local groups opposing it. An entertaining little book is How Wal-Mart is Destroying America (and the World) and What You Can Do About It, by 92 year old Bill Quinn. Mainly written from a petty (and not so petty) bourgeois perspective, it does have the merit of suggesting practically how towns can organise to stop Wal-Mart. It’s very US focused, but a new edition due this year may be more international.

For a much more detailed history of the Waltons, there is In Sam We Trust by Bob Ortega. Wal-Mart grew up in the much smaller towns ignored by the big retailers. It built huge out of town stores, destroying the town economy, sometimes later moving on to a bigger store further away. Wal-Mart is a truly scary organisation. It pays wages that mean staff often survive on food stamps, it has fired staff for inter-racial dating and it bans material considered to offend ‘family values’—while being the biggest seller of alcohol and guns, and forcing staff to work on Sundays.

Asda, now part of Wal-Mart, was originally modelled on it. Working there is described like a cross between being at school and a Maoist re-education centre, with wages to match.

More specifically for Britain, three recent books all cover quite similar ground, and are all accessible but eye-opening reads:

Sold Out: The True Cost of Supermarket Shopping, by William Young; Not On the Label, by Felicity Lawrence; and Shopped, by Joanna Blythman.

Felicity Lawrence, a Guardian journalist, provides the most research into the conditions of agricultural migrant workers in England and Spain, including interviews with union activists. Her book is also probably the most likely to put you off your chicken, pre-packed salad or loaf. She covers food rather than just supermarkets, and describes the adulteration of food on an industrial scale. She shows how immigration laws benefit supermarkets and gangmasters, who exploit their workers’ vulnerability and shop them to avoid paying their wages. The latest high-tech supermarket production and distribution processes need cheap labour, and cheap labour in excess: ‘The link in the chain that connects fluctuating orders to casual labour around the world is the supermarket.’ She also undermines the supermarket illusion of choice: the same ingredients (usually high salt, high sugar and processed fats) are repackaged in a hundred different ways.

Joanna Blythman probably best understands the ideology of the supermarkets and what they have planned for us: the total retailing experience. Supermarkets are expanding into other areas, including health services, weddings, births, MPs’ surgeries, restaurants, as well as banking, insurance, internet and even legal services. They now try and replace, in a far more corporate form, the community life they have destroyed, just as they get industrial farmers to dress up with twee wicker baskets for photoshoots. Blythman does not really examine the transport issues around ‘food miles’, but she undercuts very clearly the idea that we get cheap food from the supermarkets. It’s overpriced, and often tastes of little more than its plastic wrap. Despite their control of the sector, supermarkets still resent having to deal with fresh food—they’d much rather we bought their frozen meals, which keep for years and have a much higher profit rate.

Supermarkets would like us to think that their dominance is driven by customers’ needs for cheap food and convenience. These books show how the supermarkets put their needs before ours—and the two are incompatible. Food is transported long distances, it is processed when unripe, and the varieties chosen are those with a long shelf life—all of which are at odds with customers’ desires for tasty and healthy food.

Sold Out gives good coverage of the food miles and the creation of food deserts (areas with few shops and little fresh food available), but it has less vision and is more based on reports than the other two. All are good for understanding what is happening to farmers, including extracts from submissions to the UK Competition Commission report from 2000.

Many of the reports mentioned in these books are available free online. The New Economics Foundation have done a really useful series of reports on ‘Ghost Town Britain’ and ‘Clone Town Britain’, highlighting the death of the high street and the role of supermarkets and economic globalisation in this (see also the article by Alex Law and Gerry Mooney in this journal). These reports go much wider than the supermarkets, but the supermarket is seen as the biggest retail force in this. They highlight some of the other harms, and have started a localist campaign.

There is also the Sustain: Eating Oil report on food miles, at http://www.sustainweb.org/chain_fm_eat.asp, which is not available for free, although there are extracts at http://resurgence.gn.apc.org/issues/jones216.htm

http://www.sustainweb.org/poverty_index.asp is a project on food poverty, currently without funding.

Farmers, NEF, Banana Link, Friends of the Earth and other organisations are supporting an Early Day Motion http://edm.ais.co.uk/weblink/html/motion.html/ref=187 to produce binding legislation in place of the current voluntary code.

Corporate Watch have a good report, available for free, which gives much of the information you need to know: http://www.corporatewatch.org.uk/pages/whats_wrong_suprmkts.htm

Opposition to supermarkets is often limited through being on a consumer or petty bourgeois basis, but socialists have a real chance to broaden and harden these campaigns, organising migrant workers, defending local communities, and organising in supermarkets. In the US unions already play quite a role in opposition to Wal-Mart: http://www.walmartwatch.com is connected with the United Food and Commerical Workers Union International.