For good or ill, we're in thrall to lords of the aisles

We can't stop Tesco and co growing ever more powerful - but we can start holding them to account, argues William Young
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The Independent Online

Tesco celebrated record figures this week. It made pre-tax profits of £1.6bn on sales of £33.6bn. For every £8 consumers spend in the UK today, more than £1 goes to Tesco.

Tesco celebrated record figures this week. It made pre-tax profits of £1.6bn on sales of £33.6bn. For every £8 consumers spend in the UK today, more than £1 goes to Tesco.

But what price does society pay for Tesco to produce these profits? As consumers, we are delighted to be offered an incredible range of cheap goods, not only groceries but bank accounts, televisions, clothes, medicines, books, toys - and more. Consumers have rewarded the top supermarkets - some may say justly - with total domination of the market. According to figures included in the Competition Commission report into the takeover of Safeway, the big four chains (Tesco, Asda, Wm Morrison and J Sainsbury) will be responsible for more than 90 per cent of supermaket sales by 2006.

Not only do these four supermarket chains control what consumers eat (and, increasingly, other aspects of our lives), they do it in such a ruthless manner that society and the environment suffers. One of the most common allegations against supermarkets is that they bully suppliers and farmers. In Europe, according to Professor Tim Lang at City University, just 110 buyers act as gatekeepers between 3.2 million farmers and 250 million consumers. This buying power has capped farm prices, something that has been achieved through the use of direct contracting, rather than suppliers competing on price, as well as by the use of (or threat to use) imports. The Office of Fair Trading's Code of Practice on Supermarkets' Dealings with Suppliers, which was supposed to even the balance between the farmers and the big chains, has been widely seen as a failure, not least by suppliers.

With their purchasing and marketing power, supermarkets have out-competed smaller independent stores. The New Economics Foundation states that between 1995 and 2000, the UK lost roughly one-fifth of local stores, and predicts a further loss of a third of the remainder by 2010. Both Tesco and Sainsbury's are aggressively trying to buy smaller chains in the convenience market. It is estimated that a community can expect to see a net loss of 276 jobs on average when a supermarket moves into its area. When small food retailers leave, the poorest households find themselves living in so-called "food deserts" without adequate local food shops.

In fact, all consumers suffer. The sales of convenience foods grew to £11bn in 2001, and have been projected to grow by 33 per cent in the next 10 years. Friends of the Earth found that most of these items were fatty and sugary processed foods, contributing to the (now widely accepted) problem of obesity in the UK. According to the Food Commission, childhood obesity is "epidemic".

The drive for artificially perfect products has little respect for the environment. Forty to 50 per cent by weight of raw vegetables or salads are rejected at various stages of production due to physical attributes considered to be "flaws". Furthermore, government tests show that 46 per cent of apples sold in supermarkets between 1998 and 2001 contained pesticide residues, and 18 per cent contained the residue of more than one pesticide. Only a few varieties of crops that allow efficient harvesting, processing and packaging are sold. Over 2,500 national varieties of apple and 550 varieties of pear are grown in the UK but a Friends of the Earth survey found on average just three varieties of apples on supermarket shelves.

According to Sustain, a food charity, the impact of the ever-increasing transport of food by air significantly contributes to climate change. A sample basket of 26 imported products could release as much carbon dioxide into the atmosphere as an average four-bedroom household does through cooking meals for eight months. The 26 products could collectively travel a distance equivalent to six times round the equator (240,000 kilometres). The food system now accounts for between a third and 40 per cent of all UK road freight.

So why blame supermarkets? Essentially because they have an enormous responsibility as a result of the power they exercise over society. This responsibility has been ignored as initiative after initiative fails to address the fundamental impact of their operations. The Government has reinforced the supermarkets' dominance by either focusing on competition between the big chains, or by simply ignoring other food retailers, or by treating supermarkets as shops and not as an incredibly powerful industry. Inquiries have either addressed the wrong questions or skated over the issues.

Pressure and consumer groups have fallen into the trap of focusing on single issues. No one has seriously addressed the supermarkets' stranglehold on markets and hence our society and the environment. We as consumers do not see the connection between the death of local shops, congestion on the roads, packaging waste, food deserts and the farming crisis and our obsession with cheap, convenient shopping.

The big supermarkets must recognise that their success has come at a high price to society and the environment. The industry needs to untangle its web of actions. Supermarkets should change from companies into organisations that care about their actions. The Co-operative Group, for example, conducts audits to assess whether its social goals are meeting those of society. However, such management tools are only as good as the goals, missions and philosophies of the supermarkets themselves.

Lobby groups have argued that supermarkets lack a genuine commitment to corporate social responsibility initiatives such as environmental auditing, ethical trading, local sourcing and waste minimisation, and see them only as marginal, bolt-on programmes. It is encouraging that these tools and initiatives are being used - but it is not enough. Supermarkets need to bring society's values into the heart of their activities.

Is it time for Government, pressure groups and us as consumers to accept some responsibility and recognise that the supermarket industry should be held more accountable? Government creates the rules, while consumers use their buying power to realise their desires, which should be used to create demand for a better society and environment through a change in supermarket operations. The potential is there; look at the rejection of GM food and the rise of fairtrade and organic products. The question is, have the supermarkets got the vision or even the will to change, and if not, do we as a society care enough to make them change?

Dr William Young is a lecturer in environment and business at the University of Leeds and author of 'Sold Out: The True Cost of Supermarket Shopping', published on 6 May by Vision Paperbacks at £10.99. To order, call 020 7928 5599 or go to