Every little hurts - supermarket power in Britain

Richard Griffin explores the power of the supermarkets and finds a rapacious monster at our doors

Sittingbourne in Kent is not famous for much. It does though claim to have the longest High Street in Britain. If you had walked along it forty years ago you would have passed four fish mongers, seven butchers including a specialist pork one, no less than nine green grocers, four bakers and not a single supermarket (the first one arrived in the mid 1970s). Shops sold local produce including fish landed the same day and a short train journey away in Whitstable and fruit and vegetables from the surrounding country side.

Today there is just one butcher and fishmonger left, a single green grocer and a lone baker. There are though three supermarkets in the town and even more a quick car drive away. One in ten car journeys made in Britain are now to a supermarket. While these supermarkets are full of out of season fruit and vegetables intensively grown abroad and flown thousands of miles you will struggle to find locally grown produce. Green beans from Kenya in December, yes, cherries and apples from Kent orchards in the autumn, forget it.

Karl Marx got a lot of his economic predictions wrong. In one respect he was spot on, though. Capitalism, he predicted, would reproduce itself by growing bigger. Capitalist companies if left alone would become monopolies allowing them to maximise their profits and increase their power to exploit.

This trend can be seen clearly in Britain’s retail sector. Four supermarkets – Tesco, Sainsbury, Asda and Morrison/Safeway’s control between them 80% of a market worth £125 billion a year. Tesco’s alone account for 30% of the market. In 2001 its share was 15%. Last month the store announced record profits of £2.2 billion. An incredible 26 million square feet of England’s soil is now covered by a Tesco store, a figure set to rise by a further two million. Commenting on Tesco’s profits Friends of the Earth Supermarkets Campaigner Sandra Bell said: “Tesco's booming profits come at a cost with consumers, farmers and our environment paying the price. It is time to put the breaks on the Tesco juggernaut. The Government and competition authorities must recognise the value of small shops to local communities and create an environment that allows retail choice to flourish.”

So serious is the situation that the Office of Fair Trading at the start of May announced that they were going to refer the sector to the Competition Commission. Campaigners against supermarkets have though asked why the big four and particularly Tesco’s have already been allowed to grow to the point that £8 out of every £10 spent on groceries is in a supermarket.

Tesco’s power means that it is able to pay suppliers less than prevailing market prices. The UK pressure group Farm estimates that a quarter of Britain’s farms will close or merge with a loss of 50,000 jobs due to unfair competition. It is the same with small retailers.

Since the 1940s around 100,000 small shops have closed according to Felicity Lawrence in her book Not on the Label. Fifteen years ago there were 47,000 independent grocery retailers. Now there are just 28,000 and the number is dropping. Tescopoly an alliance that includes Friends of the Earth and the GMB trade union report that “in the five years to 2002, 50 specialised stores like butchers, bakers, fishmongers and newsagents closed every week. In May 2005 the IGD, in its authoritative Convenience Retailing Report revealed the loss of 2,157 unaffiliated independent convenience retailers, compared to only 1,079 the year before”.

As with all capitalist companies profits come at a price to workers. Tesco’s make around £800,000 profit a week from selling bananas. The pressure group Banana Link report widespread trade union repression and many workers failing to receive a living wage on plantations in Costa Rica that supply the supermarket. Action Aid and Oxfam have both exposed the appalling working conditions of thousands of women workers in South Africa who grow fruit and vegetables that end up on Tesco’s shelves.

In Canterbury down the road from Sittingbourne there is an independent butcher who puts ‘Air Miles’ on the produce he sales. Most are in single figures. His lamb isn’t flown from New Zealand but comes from a farm seven miles away. The environmental impact of the meat he sales is minimal. Tescopoly estimates that it would take more than 60 corner shops and greengrocers to match the carbon dioxide emissions from one average sized superstore. Each year 15 million plastic bags given away by supermarkets end up in landfill sites.

At the heart of anarchism is an absolute and unbending opposition to the concentration of power. Anarchism seeks to liberate social relations from the state and from capitalism. Through films such as Supersize Me and best selling books like Fast Food Nation and Not On The Label the issues associated with the production and consumption of food are becoming better known.

While supermarkets give the illusion of choice and convenience, these ‘Temples of Consumption’ to borrow George Ritzers’ phase are in fact sources of exploitation and alienation. When I buy bread from my local bakers not only am I getting a loaf that tastes of something, because it isn’t pumped full of air and water, and is also made locally. I also know the people in the shop. We chat. If I am late they will put my loaf to one side for me. Shopping there is a pleasant and human experience. That isn’t how I feel when I go to Sainsburys. Humanity is bled out of supermarket shopping.

By the way I am lucky that I have a local baker to shop in. While there are 38,000 craft bakers in France there are just 2,800 in Britain. Of course I pay more for my loaf (£1.20). It is true that many working class people cannot afford the prices that independent retailers are forced to charge regardless of the quality. There is a reason why so many families surviving on limited incomes shop in supermarkets. Food politics cannot be seen in isolation from the wider struggle against capitalism and class exploitation.

There is the beginnings of the backlash against the big four supermarkets. From Workington in Cumbria to Wadebridge in Cornwall people are protesting against supermarkets and the impact they have on local communities. These bottom-up campaigns are good news.

Forty years ago Sittingbourne High Street like so many was vibrant. Local people could buy local products and had a variety of shops to choose from. Now like so many places it is in danger of becoming a Clone Town – devoid of character with the same few shops you can find anywhere. The rise of the supermarket has a large part to play in this story. It is not too late to stem the tide but time is running out.