War on Want report on Stopping Supermarket Power
A special report by War on Want
Supermarkets have long been a large, visible and ever-growing presence on the UK high street. As these corporate giants expand here and across the world, governments herald their success as an economic miracle: profitable businesses that create jobs and can feed people cheaply in a recession. Yet just as supermarkets have become ubiquitous in the UK, the opposition to them has increased and is not going away. A diverse ranger of groups, from workers' rights organisations to food and diversity campaigners and Palestine activists have all found a common enemy in the large food chains.
But how did we get to this situation, and what's really the problem with these food giants? In short, the case of the modern-day supermarket reveals the disastrous effects on people and the environment that result from unregulated, free markets which invite concentrations of power and place profit above social welfare.
Large supermarkets operate on a global scale, sourcing their products from across the world. They do this in order to maximise their profits which in turn allows them to expand, grabbing more of the market share and shutting down businesses that cannot compete on price. As the economic power of supermarkets becomes more and more concentrated, they are able to buy in bulk and sell at below cost prices, allowing them to undersell smaller businesses and generally act as a larger presence than their rivals. This eventually means that smaller retailers are forced to close.
Competition between shops allows consumers to buy cheap food, but with negative consequences. The most visible one in the UK is a lack of diversity. Rather than supporting a myriad of small, individual and unique businesses, as it used to, the UK high street is increasingly nothing more than a large number of chains. When it comes to the food market, we see countless supermarkets springing up wherever they can, all selling identical products. Price is kept low (though not so low to stop supermarkets making huge profits), but choice is stifled and restricted.
A more hidden problem is the effect that supermarkets have on their suppliers, both here and overseas. Supermarkets don't just reduce prices magically; they do so by using their massive buying influence to force their suppliers to sell to them at a lower price. This kind of practice in recent years has seen UK farmers, particularly in the dairy industry, being forced out of business as supermarkets increase their demands for cheaper produce to unsustainable levels. This again restricts choice as well as destroying livelihoods.
For people in the developing world though, the situation is even worse. Supermarkets source products like garments from countries where they can get them much cheaper than in the West, through reduced labour costs. When they demand even cheaper clothes from suppliers, with the threat of relocation hanging over them, it is inevitable that cutbacks are passed down supply chains to the workers who actually produce the clothes. This has led to the huge sweatshop industry across south-east Asia where workers toil for a pittance with no hope of improvement in their work or lives.
A third major crisis that is being precipitated in part by supermarkets is around food production and sale itself. It's certainly true that supermarkets are able to seemingly work miracles in selling foods from across the world, all year round to its customers. But this model of food provision is unsustainable on a number of levels. The environmental cost of flying foods halfway around the world is obvious - alongside the packaging that accompanies it. Furthermore, the centralisation of food sales through supermarkets logically does not account for need - so mountains of food are thrown away or wasted in rich nations whilst people continue to starve across the rest of the globe.
This kind of paradox occurs simply because of the profit motive that governs all corporate activity, including that of supermarkets. While their current practices make financial sense, they will carry on. And with no proper environmental or social regulation governing what they do globally, this situation will continue.
It is this kind of amoral business model that also sees supermarkets continue to sell products that are produced on Israeli settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories. Selling these products helps to economically maintain the occupation of Palestine that has seen poverty, oppression and militarism rule the region for over sixty years. Again, it's money that makes the final call.
But against these economic giants, activists, trade unions and the general public are finding ways to fight back. On the question of Israeli settlement produce, consumers have organised boycotts, targeting supermarkets that stock them. Activists continue to come up with creative stunts and effective direct action to stop the sale of these goods and bring attention to the issues around the occupation.
In the UK, local campaigners, in conjunction with the Tescopoly coalition, have long been stopping new supermarkets opening along their high streets, using the technicalities of planning law, stubborn citizen opposition and political lobbying to win their case.
Meanwhile, as workers continue to suffer abuse in supply chains overseas, War on Want is leading the call for meaningful regulation of British companies. By making links with trade unions and activists in sweatshops, factories and plantations in the global south, their struggles are supported and voiced in the UK political arena. This same transnational solidarity is key to struggle for a better global food system.
As campaigners here look to limit the environmental and social costs caused by supermarkets, groups on the frontline - from Brazil to sub-Saharan Africa - are fighting for better local control of resources, using sustainable and environmental farming methods.
The inspiration from these different groups is what lies behind an upcoming event in London run by War on Want, "Fight Supermarket Power". It aims to bring together and reflect some of the different groupings from the UK and overseas that are campaigning against the negative effects of supermarkets, allowing them to share skills, information and ideas for action. As the fight to stop supermarket power continues, this is the next point in the struggle.
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