Social Solvents

The superstores are dumping their costs on all of us

By George Monbiot. Published in the Sunday Telegraph 17th August 1997.

If you’ve just come back from a holiday abroad, the chances are that you landed on someone’s vegetable patch. Heathrow was once the market garden that fed London – every day leeks and lettuces, beetroot and beans would be trucked out and delivered to the capital’s countless street markets and corner shops. Today, just as much produce leaves Heathrow, but it comes not from the land, but from the bellies of the aircraft that carried you. The greater part of it will be taken to the huge and booming warehouses of a supermarket distribution centre.

The superstores have just about killed British horticulture. They demand produce that’s simply too uniform for the wobbly British climate to provide and, because it helps their distribution systems, they want precisely the same stuff all around the year. They bind farmers to the most extraordinary contracts, in some cases forcing them to buy back their own vegetables at retail prices if the superstores fail to sell them. Today, french beans are being flown in from Kenya while our remaining growers plough theirs back in. Bland, out-of-season Coxes arrive from New Zealand just as our own apple harvest starts rotting on the ground.

Over the last few years, I’ve come to see the supermarkets as a pox on everything that British people value most. They are consuming our sense of time and place, fragmenting our communities and obliterating the neighbourhood without which there can be no nationhood. Far from representing, as they often claim, a triumph of free market economics, the superstores have prospered by means of some astonishing market distortions.

They have made no secret of the anti-competitive pricing they call “loss leaders”. By drawing in customers with offers of bread at 29p, milk at 19p or beans for nothing at all, they don’t hurt each other as much as the local bakers and grocers trying to make a meagre profit on the same lines. Between 1976 and 1989 – the superstores’ great growth phase – 44,000 small food shops closed down. When we lose our independent shops, we lose not only local character and distinctiveness, but also the glue that holds our neighbourhoods together. No themed encounters that the superstores invent, however ingenious, can replace the spontaneous chat supplied free of charge in every specialist corner shop.

Hardly a superstore is built without a quiet deal being struck with the local authority. Some negotiate “business rate holidays” – unlike small shops they will have to pay the council nothing for the first five or ten years of their existence. Others effectively buy their planning permission with inducements to the council of up to £5 million per store, often in the face of massive local opposition.

But above all, the monster-markets have perfected the art of passing on the costs they would normally carry to the rest of us. They are truck-crazy. One company drives fish down from Aberdeen to be smoked in Cornwall, then hauls them back to its stores in Scotland. Another imports bananas at Southampton, trucks them to Liverpool for ripening, then back to Southampton for distribution. Herefordshire lettuces travel to a warehouse in Basingstoke, while West Sussex lettuces go to Herefordshire. Milk from farms on the south coast of England is turning up in stores on the north coast of Scotland.

These deranged ergonomics have been made possible only by the most energetic lobbying. The superstores have persuaded successive governments to keep down the price of lorry licences and fuel, so that we, not they, continue to pay for the massive damage they do to our roads, homes, health and environment.

Powerful and manipulative as they are, however, these greedy behemoths are not invincible. In towns and villages all over Britain, ordinary, respectable folk are quietly rebelling against their tyranny. Some have organized “food cooperatives”, buying direct from wholesalers. Organic market gardeners have joined up with local people to sell weekly boxes of whatever fruit and vegetables are in season. In a few places, even corner shops are making a comeback, as people begin to realize that, behind the loss leaders, the superstores’ lines are often dearer. Together we can drive these monsters from the nation they have blighted, but only once we recognize them for what they are. Far from bringing us cheapness, convenience and choice, supermarkets have made our lives more expensive, more difficult and less diverse.