Last week, Tesco reported a loss of £6.4 billion for the year to the end of February - the worst year in the retailer’s history. Annual group trading profit, which counts sales through the supermarket’s tills, was down 60% at £1.4 billion, compared with £3.3 billion a year earlier. Paul Thomas of the retail consultants Retail Remedy described the results as ‘a black hole that risks consuming a once all-powerful brand’.
Assuming the British public is not simply on a new diet where they eat 60% less food than before, customers must be heading in other directions for their food shopping. But what has caused this great exodus from the empire of Tesco?
Could it be that the public has fallen out of love with the convenience of the supermarket? Organisations such as The Slow Movement, the Sustainable Food Trust, and the Soil Association have been bemoaning the hegemony of the supermarkets for decades. Their points of criticism range from the waste they incur, to the oppressive powers they wield mercilessly over farmers, to the complex and opaque supply chains that separate consumers from producers.
The complexity of the supermarket supply chains was made evident by the horse-meat scandal of 2013. Chew over this quote from the government’s Elliot Review into the Integrity and Assurance of Food Supply Networks, and see how many countries your ‘beef’burger travels through before it reaches the shelves.
“Supermarket giant Tesco, frozen food firm Findus and budget store Aldi were supplied with products containing horse meat by Comigel, based in north-east France. Comigel instructed Tavola, its subsidiary in Luxembourg, to make the products. Tavola placed an order for the meat with Spanghero, in the south of France, which contacted a Cypriot trader, who subcontracted a Dutch trader. The Holland-based company placed an order with abattoirs in Romania, which sent the meat to Spanghero. … Comigel’s factory in Luxembourg received the meat from Spanghero, and it was used in food products sent to stores across Europe, including the UK”
It’s truly mind-boggling.
Supermarkets are known for bullying their suppliers too, knowing that their gigantic size intimidates small producers into submission. Take this Sainsbury’s pork supplier for instance; he was left with £6,000 worth of unsaleable stock after Sainsbury’s cancelled half their order. With thousands of small producers feeding into around ten gigantic national retailers, it’s easy for each individual farm to feel like ‘a minnow in a sea of sharks’. An alternative advocated by the likes of the Sustainable Food Trust is to buy at local farmers’ markets, where producers get a much fairer cut of the price at the till.
Supermarkets are also responsible for causing huge amounts of food waste. It is estimated that between 20 to 40% of all British fruit and vegetables are wasted on account of their appearance. Brown tomatoes, obscure apples, and twisted carrots are rejected by retailers and left to be ploughed back into the land, wasting all the energy and nutrients they harbour, as well as ruining producers’ chances for profit.
As you might have guessed, I think the news about Tesco is ultimately a good thing. It reveals that large multinational corporations are not omnipotent, but are subject to the powers of the market. They are at the mercy of us, the consumers. Much like political parties, they are accountable to us; if they squander our loyalty, we’ll go elsewhere. However, unlike national politics, a debate in which we can only participate once every five years, we participate in the democratic food market every day when we go to the shops. As I have said in a previous blog, we vote with our wallets, and the British public has voted ‘no confidence’ in Tesco. The question remains; who are we voting confidence in?
The UK organic industry is growing; sales are up 4% on last year to £1.86 billion. However this growth is slow compared to the rise of the discounters such as Aldi, which last year saw a group turnover of £5.27 billion, up 36% from the previous year. Unfortunately, as the quote from the Elliot Review above exemplifies, Aldi is as much a constructor of complex supply chain as Tesco is, and its model will surely continue the oppressive practices of its larger counterparts upon the small businesses of our country. Choosing between Tesco and Aldi is, as Russell Brand would say of the political parties, like choosing which eye to get punched in - right or left?
Instead of being dependent on opaque, convoluted food systems that abuse small businesses and incur huge amounts of waste to the detriment of the planet and our neighbours, we as Christians need to reimagine a better way to source our food. Christians should be eager to endorse and support economic systems that honour people and the planet as creatures of God, not mere machines for economic growth. There are more healthy, just, reliable options available; consider buying from a local farmers’ market or supporting a community-supported agriculture scheme. Consider buying less, and paying more for food. Together we can drive a change in the food industry away from oppressive practice and towards justice. You just have to be prepared to vote.