business corporate responsibility fair trade shopping

An introduction to supermarkets

Every week 32 million of us shop in supermarkets. They’re a part of our landscape and a part of our weekly schedules. They have brought affordable food to all, increased the range of foods that we eat, and considerably reduced the time we spend shopping and preparing food.

It has become fashionable to bash the supermarkets, and often this is little more than snobbery. However, there are major problems with supermarkets, and some very good reasons for shopping elsewhere.

  • Big stores have destroyed local town centres by drawing customers to out-of-town stores, and killed off specialist shops by stocking things like books and CDs.
  • Rumours of mistreated suppliers abound, stories of aggressive young buyers putting the screws on UK farmers. Huge buying power means unreasonable demands have to be met, and supermarket patronage can make or break companies up and down the supply chain. Factory workers in poorer countries work long hours for tiny wages, keeping prices low for western consumers.
  • Since supermarkets are out of town, they are visited in cars, changing the way we shop. Vegetables and fruit all year round, regardless of season, have become taken for granted, at great cost to both the environment and local producers. Cheap imports of everything from clothes to toys generate carbon emmissions from shipping.

There are many reasons to avoid supermarkets altogether, and shop at local shops and markets instead, but for many of us there is little choice. Besides, not all supermarkets are created equal.

I wanted to do a supermarket comparison, like we’ve done for oil companies and banks, some time ago. It’s taken me a while to get the information together, but I’ve been collecting reports and articles for the last couple of years and I’m confident we’ve got enough information.

Criteria:
I’ve loosely categorised points around Fairtrade and labour, environmental practice, animal welfare, and corporate behaviour. I haven’t research animal testing, GM policy, political lobbying, and a host of other things. My review is therefore pretty superficial, and if you want to know more or get them in order, see Ethical Consumer magazine.

Sources:
Books include Joanna Blythman’s Shopped, Andrew Simm’s Tescopoly, and The Rough Guide to Ethical Shopping. Reports from War on Want,  Traidcraft and ActionAid on suppliers and labour.  I’ve also drawn on features in Compassion in World Farming‘s ‘Farm Animal Voice’ magazine, newspaper articles, environmental reporting from Ethical Consumer magazine, and the supermarkets’ own reports. Some charities give awards for supermarket performance, such as Compassion’s Good Egg Awards, or the Marine Conservation Society’s reporting on sustainable fishing, and these are useful to consumers and a good incentive for supermarkets.

Read the report here

2 comments

  1. Interesting post and I look forward to reading your comparison. What if supermarkets are your local shops? We buy most of our food from a small to medium size Sainsbury’s that is five minutes walk from us. There is also a new Tesco express just around the corner (which has resulted in the demise of the nearby Alldays). We could possibly get bread, fruit and veg from other local shops, but I don’t think it is feasible to shop locally and avoid supermarkets (unless we change our diet radically and start using leaves instead of toilet paper).

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