Adventures in Ethical Consumerism

Monday, September 06, 2004


I'm going to do some commenting on supermarkets. For now, I'll keep it fairly general. I wanted to do some research and check some facts, but I ended up realising just how little I really know. So here is where I stand currently:

Supermarkets are not completely evil. They have been accused of many things. Here are some that spring to mind:

- putting friendly local traders out of business
- destroying communities by taking shopping away from the high street
- restricting choice by deciding what you can and cannot buy
- unethical treatment of suppliers
- pollution
- poor treatment of staff

I'll look at each of these in turn.

Putting friendly local traders out of business

Don't think so. My local high street is still thriving with little shops. During the time that supermarkets have been springing up all over the place, I haven't noticed any real changes in the local shopping scene except that the choice of stuff available has increased. Maybe our friendly, local traders look like saints next to the multi-nationals, but if the supermarkets had not been around offering a much greater level of choice to the customer, would local traders ever have thought about finding out what it is people want before stocking their shops?. Belive it of not, your friendly local trader, like the supermarkets, is interested in one thing: money. If the supes had not offered us more choice, I don't think local traders would have bothered to even try.

Destroying communities by taking shopping away from the high street

Ditto above. My community is thriving like it hasn't done in decades. I lived in Leith ten years ago, when supes were in the ascendency. It was a dump then. Recently I moved back. Now there is a lot of regeneration in Leith and, yes, even community spirit. All this taking place while the supes are supposedly walking all over us. Mmmm, not sure about that...

Restricting choice by deciding what you can and cannot buy

This just isn't true. Supermarkets, I think, have vastly increased the consumer's ability to choose. Maybe I will turn out to be wrong on this one. My experience, however, tells me that supes offer a great deal of extra, 'marginal' stuff that may not be available elsewhere. When I was trying to eliminate wheat from my diet, I would have been lost without the supes. Being allergic to a great many other things, I was really struggling to find anything at all to eat after I was advised to give up wheat. At the same time, some of the major supermarkets (Sainsburys imparticular) were busy responding to the demands of people for more allergen-free products. They listen. When you ask for something they will try to stock it. They know they have to listen to their customers, or their customers will desert them.

Unethical treatment of suppliers

This is a serious one. Room for a huge amount of improvement here, methinks. Supermarkets can - and do - use their immense buying power to force prices, and therefore staff working conditions, down to apalling levels. I'll report more when I know more.


This is pretty major as well. Flying apples in from New Zealand on a daily basis and filling our roads with delivery trucks cannot be considered ethical when you look at how much pollution these things are responsible for. Trust me, it's a lot. Supermarkets are not solely responsible for this trend, however, though they could potentially do a lot to help put things right.

Poor treatment of staff

Supes probably aren't as bad as, say, McDonalds on this one. I don't think they're brilliant either, though. Lots of room for improvement.

A major issue at the moment is unethical treatment of animals for the supermarket trade. Again, I don't think the supes are necessarily the cause of this, but they could possibly help to sort it out. When a supe is named and shamed for accepting animal products from a supplier that brutalises its livestock, they pretty much have to act. The suppliers are used to being anonymous, but the supes have no choice. As long as we keep letting them know how we feel, we can force more changes in the way things are done.

There is a lot more to know about supermarkets, and I'll be posting whatever I find out. I'll try to post some positive things too, though, so we don't all have to slit our wrists.


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