Stealing from the Poor

The superstores are bigger criminals than the shoplifters

By George Monbiot. Published in the Guardian 18th March 1997.

I have two friends who owe their survival to supermarkets. Lindsey roams the aisles, loading food not into her basket, but straight into her mouth. Carl rummages through the skips behind the stores. Both are out of work and can’t get benefits. Of the two, Lindsey is doing best. She is often thrown out of the store and occasionally roughed up, but has never been arrested. The supermarkets, she thinks, are too embarrassed to prosecute people who are obviously starving among the sceptred aisles.

Sometimes Carl still comes across open skips containing enough good food to keep him alive for months, were he able to transport it and store it. A couple of weeks ago, he found more than a tonne of cheese in one-pound packs, with a month to go on the sell-by date. The supermarkets, he says, suddenly decide that a line isn’t selling fast enough and clear it to release the shelf space. But most outlets now push their surplus produce into a sealed skip, where it is sprayed with chemicals and ground up. Unlike Lindsey, Carl has twice been prosecuted: taking waste food from skips amounts in law to theft.

Is this the supermarket of values we’ve heard so much about? It certainly seems rather odd that those who disparagingly use retailers’ jargon – off the peg ethics, pick and mix morality – to lament the decline in moral values are also among the first to leap to the superstores’ defence. Last week the Reverend John Papworth suggested that shoplifting from supermarkets was a “reallocation of resources” from stores “destroying the basic framework of vibrant communities”. The hiss of affronted virtue has yet to die down. One can’t help suspect that, much as our commentators disdain the supermarket of values, they rather approve of the values of supermarkets.

Whatever you make of Papworth’s prescription, there’s nothing wrong with his analysis. The values of supermarkets are characteristically shaky, frequently criminal. In East Africa, white growers contracted to British superstores are now stealing water allocated to some of the poorest and most vulnerable people on earth. The Ewasongiro River, on which the livelihood of tens of thousands of central Kenyans depends, has run dry as a result of illegal pumping. Starvation in central Kenya is now directly attributable to Britain’s consumption of unseasonal mange tout.

No sector interprets the notion of “planning gain” more liberally than the superstores. In theory, planning gain is the means by which developers can ameliorate the social and environmental impact of their projects. In practice, the supermarkets use it as legalised bribery. In return for planning permission, they’ll promise to build a tennis court on the other side of town, or even offer straight cash payments. In 1995, Safeway stretched the principle still further by promising the Western Isles Island Council £375,000 worth of sports facilities, if it REFUSED planning permission for the Co-op to build a rival store. Last week, schoolchildren in Merton, south London, decided to take Sainsbury’s to court for failing to build the amenities it had promised.

In a score of subtle ways, some legal, some not, superstores force us to carry the costs of their expansion. Between 1976 and 1989, 44,000 food shops closed down, with a massive net decline in both the quantity and quality of employment. Dodgy business rate holidays and a flat refusal to pay the environmental and infrastructural costs of freight haulage ensure that their profits are our loss.

The superstores’ expropriation from the commonweal amounts to a heist of unprecedented proportions. Lindsey and her friends can stuff their faces with crisps and caviar every day of the year and do nothing to redress the balance. Only when they are forced both to pay their own costs and to compete on equal terms with other retailers will the supermarkets start to give as much as they take.

There’s no question about what needs to be done. Planning permission for unbuilt out-of-town superstores must be cancelled; the taxation of road freight and aviation fuel should be massively increased; regional retail monopolies need to be investigated by the MMC. But the big stores are tremendously powerful. Their bosses are endowed with knighthoods, peerages and, for ASDA’s Chief Executive, a safe parliamentary seat. They can buy their way into favour and out of trouble. Lady Porter, the Tesco’s heiress, could pay her part of the £31 million fine imposed by the district auditor without blinking.

The government might not be able to stop them; but, by withdrawing our custom, we can. When you step into a superstore, you are faced with a choice of two crimes: joining the poor in stealing from the rich, or helping the rich to steal from the poor. Both are wrong but, even in the supermarket of values, one crime is surely more heinous than the other.