We whip the blame back and forth

We’ve all forgotten about horsemeat. The so-called ‘scandal’ has subsided. It’s off the agenda, replaced with lots of new global disasters (think nuclear annihilation) and domestic issues (think welfare reform). It begs the question: was this really a food crisis? Or was it just a media panic?

In January, the Irish Food Standards Agency found horse DNA in our beef burgers. Since then, there has been an uproar in the media about a ‘scandal’ surrounding our food: the Guardian reports that it has prompted food hygiene fears; the Daily Mail argues that the scandal is a ‘brutal warning’ to British shoppers; and the Daily Telegraph resorts to blaming Europe. Indeed, this idea of ‘the blame’ is intriguing. Blame consists of two elements: (i) the consequence of a perceived harm or loss that could have been avoided and (ii) a perceived responsibility or agency for the harm or loss. [1] Quite obviously, shoppers feel wronged because they have been eating horsemeat when they should not have. This raises the question of who is duly responsible for the deception. The blame has been hurled at many: the FSA, government departments, food labels, supermarkets, cheap food, the poor, ‘the system’, consumer behaviour, farmers, the Europeans, and every individual that’s ever eaten meat. Let’s explore.

The leaders in our play are the Food Standards Agency (FSA), experts and political leaders. They have blamed the ‘complexity’ of the food processing system, which involved abattoirs in Romania, factories in Luxembourg, meat processors in France, and traders in the Netherlands (before arriving in the UK). For a neat summary, see the BBC’s summary here. The FSA has, so far, mainly used a presentational strategy to minimise damage – drawing a line under the scandal and opening up a UK-wide investigation. However, experts have also used an agency strategy to shift blame onto ‘the system’: the complexity of the food processing system, the nature of regulatory governance, and the failure of the FSA to properly regulate meat. [2] One former food auditor has even blamed supermarkets for their ‘massive failure’ to regulate their own products.

Enter our middle-managers: the distributors of our food, popularly known as supermarkets. Food retailers have swiftly called for tighter regulation to rebuke the comments made by the aforementioned food expert. Tesco, for instance, promises to buy more from British farmers and ensure that as many products as possible are sourced from British soil. Meanwhile, Asda warns that this scandal could mean higher prices to ensure that the regulatory system works better. Supermarkets have opted for a policy strategy to prevent themselves from being blamed for the scandal. This is, perhaps tellingly, a strange twist in our blame game: why do supermarkets feel the need to undergo a damage-limitation exercise if they have done nothing wrong and put the blame squarely on ‘the system’?

This ‘system’ is also known as the meat industry. Some newspapers (here and here) have attempted to blame the farmers and abattoirs of Eastern Europe for the crisis. The Romanians, where the horsemeat apparently came from, have denied any wrongdoing. Of course, they do sell horsemeat – it’s just that they have been sensible enough to label it as such. The Romanians are of course very happy to eat correctly labelled horsemeat. This has caused a bit of a stir – are we just being snobbish about eating horsemeat? Is it a poor man’s food? The German development minister has proclaimed that we should give our beef products ‘tainted’ with horsemeat to the poor because ‘We can’t just throw away good food’. Outrageous, of course, but some have argued that the reason we have horsemeat in our food at all is because cash-strapped local councils and poor people can’t afford ‘real’ meat, and so supermarkets are just supplying our demand for cheap food. And so the horsemeat scandal has landed squarely back in traditional British political discourse: this is all about British identity and our obsession with class.

So where are we now? Apparently, we’re turning vegetarian. But aside from that, the outcry of a couple of months ago has not caused a sustained, existential dilemma for the public. At the end of the day, this was not a health crisis, nor is horsemeat necessarily a bad choice for cooking. Perhaps this has just been regulatory failure on a transnational scale. Was this so-called ‘scandal’ just a labelling issue all along? Or is it possible to extrapolate anything more from the headlines?

The tempting prospect is to reply with: ‘neigh’. But that would be horsing around, and doesn’t really delve into the mane issue. The unbridled plethora of news articles and television reports implies that our food industry has been problematised. The horsemeat scandal has raised two questions: ‘who gets what?’ and ‘what should we expect from our food?’. It has raised these two questions precisely because it is not illegal to slaughter, serve or eat horsemeat. This is a cultural and moral issue about our meat consumption. Both questions return us to the critical issue of consumption and the way in which we are willing to shut our eyes and ears to animal welfare and the pleasures of the palate. Our willingness to consume masses of meat – regardless of what kind – has taken its toll on the environment: pesticides and fertilisers have affected local ecosystems, growth hormones have affected food chains, and ranches are destroying forests and depleting water supplies. The price we pay for our food does not reflect its costs – especially not on natural resources, climate and ecosystems. This means that cheap meat continues to stimulate demand and inculcates the belief that to eat meat three times a day is without consequences. In agricultural societies, per capita consumption of meat was rarely above 10 kilograms. By 1950, this has risen to 17 kilograms. And today, it is over 40 kilograms. [3] The public demand meat in most of its dishes, and treats ‘cheap meat’ as a right. Does this imply that the blame ultimately lies with public expectations of food? Was the horsemeat scandal ultimately caused by the public? Perhaps. As Nikolai Gogol once remarked: ‘It is no use to blame the looking glass if your face is awry’. [4]

So, to recap: we’ve seen producers blaming supermarkets, the FSA blaming the ‘system’, economists blaming supply and demand, newspapers blaming Europe, supermarkets blaming the FSA, vegetarians blaming the meat-eaters, and – from today – me blaming you. Have we solved some great crisis here? Or just whipped some blame back and forth?

mg

[1] C. Hood, The Blame Game, Princeton: PUP, pp.6-7.

[2] HC 946 (2013) Contamination of Beef Products, Eighth Report of Session 2012-13 (additional written evidence), Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, London: HMSO. Available here.

[3] P. Dauvergne (2008) The Shadows of Consumption, Massachusetts: MIT Press, pp.135-67.

[4] Nikai Gogol, The Inspector General.

Pressure on the High Street?

It was not just the fact that HMV announced that it was going into administration that caused me to reflect about the state of British high streets. A few weeks ago, I also took a stroll through Broomhill, in Sheffield, where a countless number of shops had closed and a local coffeehouse was being turned into a Costa. Additionally, I found out my great granddad’s pub had closed down. The stark message appears to be that the high street is slowly dying. What is to blame for this morbid future of town centres?

The changes on our high streets have been accelerated by the economic downturn from 2007 onwards, and probably worsened by the economic policies of George Osborne. However, the long-term cause lies in a much broader shift in consumer culture that has moved from the high street towards larger, out-of-town shopping centres and towards the Internet. Earlier this month, in addition to HMV, we have seen Jessops and Blockbuster go into administration. This follows a number of other businesses including: Woolworth’s, JJB Sports, Clinton Cards, Optical Express and so on. This is a very small and selective list, but it shows that there are a wide variety of shops that are closing down. More generally, the number of town centre stores fell by almost 15,000 between 2000 and 2009 with an estimated further 10,000 losses over the past couple of years. [1] Without doubt, traditional high streets are in decline, which has seen the emergence of ‘ghost towns’ and ‘clone towns’ across Britain. [2] It means that, first, our high streets are dying and, second, those that remain all look the same, with a generic number of national outlets.

There are those that have little qualms about the decline of shopping in town centres; if anything, ‘clone towns’ have made shopping more convenient (you know what you’re getting from your Starbucks and your H&M wherever you are across the country), and better still, online shopping means you don’t even need to leave the house (hush about the tax avoidance from the likes of Amazon.co.uk though). Ultimately, however, high streets do matter. This is not just about nostalgia for an age of butchers, bakers and candlestick makers; this is about a vibrant local economy (although I do love a good cake). The problem is that national retailers suck out economic capital in town centres and take it straight back to their headquarters. Rarely do profits return to the local economy. The growth of tax avoiding retailers has further reduced the tax base for investment, which is further exacerbating the problem. Whether town and city centres are labelled ghost towns or clone towns, it damages the local economy. Communities become dependent on state-led investment, something which would be less likely in a locally independent economy where small- and medium-sized businesses work interdependently. [3]

A more fundamental point, however, is that British high streets are about public space. The space of the town centre is becoming marginalised and soulless – which may sound rather fuzzy, but is based on the idea of social capital. The problem facing our high streets has surpassed retail. It is also about our ability as citizens to contribute to the public spaces we occupy, which suggests that we need to reclaim town and city space. In other words, strong town and city centres matter because they contribute towards a dynamic economy, and they also help to strengthen and maintain a sense of social capital. We must recognise that the role of high streets has changed from a pre-dominant retail role towards one that should emphasise a social one. It entrenches a sense of belonging and localism, which is preached by both the main parties in their own ways [4]. As Jan Gehl points out:

Wanting to go into town is different from wanting or needing to shop. It is about an experience. It is about sociability and relaxation, creativity and being part of something you cannot get at home or work. [5]

To echo the points made by Mary Portas’ independent review from 2011, high streets should be bustling with people, services and jobs. They should be vibrant places that people choose to visit. They should be destinations. This is not about nostalgia – it is about social capital and sustainable economic growth.

The question, therefore, revolves around how we can improve the confidence and strength of high streets. ‘Localism’ has become a key word for this to happen. Local councils have always been marginalised in the British political system, for a range of reasons that go beyond this article’s remit. The broad point, however, is that local politics must matter to people; and the best way to do this is to empower local councils. [6] Local councils need to be at the heart of local decision-making, which includes the local economy – something which has been hoarded by central government for too long. Councils need to think more creatively about parking spaces, improving public transport and improving consultation with local businesses. The success of Business Improvement Districts is one important development (mechanisms where local businesses contribute to joint business plans), which demonstrates that working together is an important dynamic of the future. [7]

In terms of economic policies, a number of choices are available:

  • First, the model of business rates is out-dated and out of proportion. For example, the business rates for an ASOS distribution centre in Barnsley is around £40 per square metre; for a unit in a Rochdale shopping centre, this is £1,080 per square metre. This has led one commentator to question if business rates are taxing the high street out of existence. Business rates need to change.
  • Second, big businesses need to be regulated so that smaller, independent shops can grow. A diverse high street means that large supermarkets and hypermarkets must be limited in space and size, and regulated in terms of products. Changes in planning law should reduce the power of the likes of Tesco, Asda-Walmart, Morrison’s and so on. [8]
  • Third, the introduction of a ‘Small Business Saturday’. This has been introduced in the United States, and proven to be highly successful. Figures suggest that more than £3.4 billion were spent that day in 2012. This idea was sponsored by social media and supported by celebrities. It suggests that there is a lot of potential for this to work in the UK.

These are just three ideas, and many more should be looked at – reducing red tape, creating local enterprise zones, and setting up a Post Office Bank. However, none of these measures will be enough. The national economic policies of the current Coalition government are preventing the growth that is desperately needed. Austerity is simply not working. We are now on the brink of a triple-dip recession – an unprecedented and bleak outlook for the future that must be tackled. All of this makes the emphasis on local, sustainable growth even more important.

mg

Notes

[1] Department for Business, Innovation and Skills/GenEcon (2011) Understanding High Street Performance, Leeds: GenEcon, paragraph 21 (available here).

[2] See New Economics Foundation (2005) Ghost Town Britain, London: NEF (available here), and New Economics Foundation (2005) Clone Town Britain, London: NEF (available here).

[3] See, for instance, New Economics Foundation (2002) The Money Trail: Measuring the impact on your local economy using LM3, London: NEF (available here).

[4] The Conservatives, for example, have focused much on the ideas of the Big Society: see among others: D. Cameron (2011) Speech on the Big Society, London (available here). See also: Conservative Party (2009) Control Shift: Returning power to local communities, London: Conservative Party. The Labour Party has focused on One Nation as its main alternative starting point for localism. See J. Cruddas (ed.) (2013) One Nation Labour: Debating the future, London: LabourList (available here).

[5] J. Pehl, quoted in M. Portas (2011) The Portas Review, London: BIS, p.15 (available here).

[6] See J. Wilson (2012) Letting Go: How Labour can learn to stop worrying and trust the people, London: Fabian Society.

[7] Portas, p.21.

[8] New Economics Foundation (2011) Ten Steps to Save the Cities, London: NEF (available here).

The Living Wage: Supporting living standards, economic prosperity and consumer freedom

The Living Wage Campaign is a laudable campaign that seeks to protect and strengthen employee rights. The LW will be a key factor for economic recovery and crucially helps to re-balance our economic system in favour of the citizen. A decent, living wage has three positive claims: first, it rests on a moral claim that people should not be treated as cheap commodities; second, it rests on a economic claim that it will increase growth through greater consumer spending; and third, it rests on a political claim that will allow citizens to spend their money more ethically.

Living Standards

The Living Wage Campaign was founded on the principle that work should be rewarding, and that it should bring dignity. Consequently, wages should be enough to provide families the essentials of life. [1] The campaign has roots that go back to the late nineteenth century, where one MP wrote: ‘A living wage must be sufficient to maintain the worker in the highest state of industrial efficiency, with decent surroundings and sufficient leisure’. [2] A living wage is important because the minimum wage is not enough for a sufficiently comfortable life in the twenty-first century. This is not about luxury, it is about protecting living standards:

  • The Living Wage has had a colossal effect on reducing in-work poverty. Since 2001, over 45,000 families have been lifted out of working poverty, directly as a result of the LWC.
  • Relatedly, the LW contributes to a reduction in fuel poverty. A living wage would cut the horrifying situation where people have to choose between their radiator and their dinner (especially at a time when fuel bills are going up).
  • The LW is about increasing the health of employees. A higher wage means less stress, and could ensure that the money is spent on better quality food, goods and services (with obvious health benefits).
  • Being paid the minimum wage prevents parents from seeing their children at weekends because they end up with two or three jobs to make ends meet. The LW intends to end such a situation, ensuring hard-working parents’ strain is eased through wage security.
  • Better living standards will have an effect on the economy: a happier, healthier workforce will lead to higher productivity, fewer ‘sick days’ and a greater sense of social cohesion. The modest effect that the LW will have on reducing inequality is vital. [3]

Economic Prosperity

The last three bullet points of the above section have already hinted that the Living Wage plays an important part in prosperity. This is something that goes beyond the individual level, or as the Mayor of London puts it: ‘Paying the London Living Wage is not only morally right, but makes good business sense too’ (quote from LWC Website). Independent studies have shown that 80 percent of employers believed that the LW increased employees’ quality of work, and absenteeism decreased by approximately 25 percent. Two thirds of employers reported a significant impact on recruitment and retention within their organisation. 70 percent of employers felt that the Living Wage had increased consumer awareness of their organisation’s commitment to be an ethical employer. [4]

The benefits for the economy are important for the macro-level too. Higher wages allow for greater consumer spending. Workers’ spending on consumption accounts for roughly half of GDP in advanced economies. Lower wages means less spending, and hence less demand for economic output. Unless this is more than offset by new investment or exports, total output will contract as a result of a wage cut, and employment will fall. [5] Unfortunately, the UK is not export-focused. Combine that with government cuts and decreases to global investment, and we have stagnation in economic output (enter the double-dip recession). A Living Wage could counter some of these negative effects.

Citizenship

Ultimately, giving the employee more economic power can only be a good thing. A massive problem for the low-paid is that their choices, in economic terms, are diluted. They are forced to shop in the cheapest possible places, without any regard to the ethical or moral outcomes. Plenty of people do not buy goods with a Fairtrade mark simply because it is more expensive. Should our moral and ethical choices be limited because we are paid less? No. [6] I am not saying that we should all be paid enough so that we can go to Waitrose, or that everyone should buy free range eggs. But surely there is a problem if shoppers buy unethically because they are paid unethically?

A link between ethical consumption and the LW definitely exists. The LWC is not just about individual changes to eating more healthily, but also about wider societal efforts to create a more ethically-balanced economy. Higher wages means that spending power of the consumer could be directed towards more ethical goods – precisely those Fairtrade, free range and environmentally-friendly products that cost marginally more. Wages affect attitudes to shopping. As one commentator puts it: ‘spenders of the world, unite!’. [7] The LW could enhance exactly this sort of behaviour to create a more ethically-based capitalism.

Fighting For A Living Wage

A living wage has unparalleled benefits for living standards of employees, benefits the economic growth of this country, and can ensure that citizens become more active in their consumer choices. There are other reasons for introducing the LW. One is that it would reduce the need for taxpayers to effectively subsidise employers who pay their staff too little, because state benefits, such as working tax credits, would be reduced.

It is hugely misleading to say that the Living Wage would ‘kill business’. For most businesses – and especially in banking, IT and construction – implementing the LW would represent less than a one percent rise in overall costs; in other industries the costs are a few percentage points higher, but a phase-in could mitigate any harms. [8] Indeed, one way to increase the take-up rate would be to offer tax-cutting incentives to small- and medium-sized businesses for introducing a living wage.

Analysis has also shown that simply reducing income tax rates – touted as one alternative to the LW – is poorly targeted and cuts the British tax base even further, which would perversely increase debt (cut income tax but pay tax credits equals higher debt burden).

For all those reasons, I’m very happy that the Labour Party has announced its unequivocal support for the Living Wage and that Sheffield Labour Students supports this campaign. I’m also proud to support the Living Wage Campaign in Sheffield more generally. And I’m more than happy that Sheffield City Council will introduce a living wage for all its staff.

mg

Notes

[1] D. Hirsch and R. Moore (2011) The Living Wage in the United Kingdom, London: Citizens UK, p.4. Report available here.

[2] Ibid., p.4.

[3] For instance, see R. Wilkinson and K. Pickett (2009) The Spirit Level: Why equality is better for everyone, London: Penguin.

[4] These figures are drawn from the Living Wage Foundation. Click here for more details.

[5] J. Stanford (2008) Economics for Everyone, London: Pluto Press, pp.158-9.

[6] One very interesting example of this in action was Hugh Fearnely-Whittingstall’s Channel 4 three-part documentary, Hugh’s Chicken Run, from a few years ago. Here, local residents learnt about free range chicken, but some residents simply could not afford to eat ethical chicken – even if they wanted to.

[7] D. Jeffery (2012) ‘A Call to Arms: Spenders of the world, unite!’, Canvas 3:6. Article available here.

[8] M. Pennycock (2012) What Price a Living Wage? Understanding the impact of a living wage on firm-level wage bills, London: IPPR. Report available here.

Tesco, you handsome devil, I have had enough of you

For some time I have been interested in consumption, and particularly the food industry. Following books such as Tescopoly and watching films such as Food, Inc., I have entrenched my view that there is something deeply wrong with our present over-consumption, and more importantly our relationship with supermarkets. This is a topic that has seen increasing prevalence in the media too, from the BBC’s Today Programme to the Guardian in recent times.

Boycotts, door-to-door campaigning, local community groups, co-operatives, spreading the word, keeping online momentum: they are almost all entirely different things, but also amount to a growing resistance against supermarkets. One example is the Tescopoly Alliance. This organisation describes itself as a campaign group that seeks to ‘challenge the negative impacts of Tesco’s behaviour along its supply chains both in the UK and internationally, on small businesses, on communities and the environment’. This online presence is impeccable, and just by scanning the website you can see the plethora of issues that trouble consumers throughout the UK. However, that is not all. Community groups and activism exists across the country. To name a few of them:

  • Campaign Against Another Supermarket in Hadleigh (CAASH) demonstrated that over 150 jobs would go if a new supermarket was built. 56 per cent of the town opposed a new supermarket.
  • Residents Against Thundering Rattling Unbearable Noise (RATRUN) exists to expose the true cost to Harlow’s residents of the Tesco HGV network.
  • People In North Berwick Against Tesco (PINBAT) co-ordinated a raft of objections to East Lothian Council to prevent a new Tesco store.

A Colchester campaign called TESCNO called for the planned city-centre Tesco to be abandoned in 2006 – successfully.

Other campaigns include Hereford Against Supermarkets Squashing our Local Economy (HASSLE), Community Has Rights In School Sites (CHRISS) and Unthank Road. [1] These are but small examples from the backlash against supermarkets. Tesco has been targeted particularly because of the damage it causes through it’s aggressive buying and selling – it has not outstripped the other retailers for no reason.

A national alliance and local activist groups can only logically culminate in a boycott. I have not bought a single item from a Tesco store since 2009. There are eight substantial reasons (in no particular order):

  1. Supermarkets are depressing. Well-being should not be overlooked any longer, and nor should food be a suicidal mission. Local, independent shops have managed to provide a sense of trust with their customers, and developed vibrant networks. The same cannot be said of supermarkets. According to a survey done by The Grocer, 56 per cent of Tesco customers were ‘bored’ by the shop, 53 per cent were ‘stressed’, 52 per cent ‘frustrated’ and 51 per cent ‘overwhelmed’. Over half of Tesco shoppers were unhappy in one of four unpleasant ways. [2]
  2. Loss of diversity. Chain stores, and particularly supermarkets, are killing of independent high streets. Recently, the BBC Today Programme has investigated the vibrancy of local markets, and how supermarkets are the largest contributor to their slow extinction. [3] This must change – we ought to encourage local businesses of all types. I want an end to clone towns.
  3. A chilling monopoly. Tesco and Asda/Wal-Mart combined control 48 per cent of the British grocery market. The Competition Commission has called this a ‘complex monopoly situation’. [4] This is unacceptable. Do I need to mention the fact that Tesco also provides a service from cradle-to-grave, at the expense of local retailers?
  4. Identity theft. In my previous article in which I have reviewed Andrew Simms’ Tescopoly, there is a section on privacy. In effect, Tesco is creating a commercial panopticon, accumulating more data than the East German Stasi.
  5. Supermarkets do not support the local economy. Profits made from a store go to head office, and do not trickle back into the community. A supermarket may create local jobs, but only at a cost of closing down independent businesses (which will also off-set any new jobs created). For example, CAASH (see above) calculated 150 jobs would be lost by a new store.
  6. The high cost to our low prices. We may be able to pick up a bunch of bananas for £1.19, but the the profits do not end up at the producer: just over 12 pence would go to the producing country. [5] Tesco and others abuse food suppliers on a global scale, and our relationship to cheap food must change. We are deferring the costs through time (the future) and space (to the developing world).
  7. Over-consumption. Supermarkets encourage you to spend more money than you necessarily need. Of course they do, they want to profit. The problem is that this causes a tendency for over-consumption, including obesity. However, there is also an environmental impact. If the world consumed as much as Britain does today, then we would need 3.1 times as many Earths. [6]
  8. The environmental impact. We are losing 13 million hectares of natural forest each year due to consumption; and Canadian stocks of cod have been depleted by 99 per cent over the last four decades. [7]  If we bought more local and organic food and shopped by bus, bike and on foot, we could save over £4 billion worth of environmental damages to the British economy. [8]

This may not be an exhaustive list. If anything, it is very short and obviously people can try to take issue with some (all) of them. But I have had enough of Tesco, of clone towns, and of supermarkets. Evidently I can’t live without them – supermarkets have made that impossible – on a realistic level. However, where I can, I will shop local.

[1] Andrew Simms, Tescopoly, pp.258-62.

[2] Ibid., p.20.

[3] BBC Today Programme, 29 August 2011: ‘Bristol road’s ‘bright retail future’’ and ‘Britain’s favourite High Street?’.

[4] See the report by the Competition Commission here.

[5] Simms, Tescopoly, p.218.

[6] Ibid., p.233.

[7] Peter Dauvergne, The Shadows of Consumption, p.19.

[8] Jules Petty and Tim Land, ‘Farm costs and food miles: an assessment of the full cost of the UK weekly food basket’, Food Policy 30:1 (2005).

Review: Tescopoly, Andrew Simms

It’s one of those books you see on the shelf that makes you roll your eyes. Luckily, I was pleasantly surprised. Dotted with statistics and a truly engaging writing style, Simms offers a provocative account of the British retail industry and how it is eating away at our independence. Tescopoly makes a number of arguments: firstly, how high streets are becoming ‘clone towns’; secondly, how supermarkets are unnecessarily invading your privacy; thirdly, the colonial-style global operations; fourthly, the detrimental impact on the environment; and fifthly, how to restore some order. I am only going to cover three of these here: communities, privacy and globalisation.

Communities

Libertarians and liberals rightly fear a state monopoly over services, and especially a cradle-to-grave-type government. This Orwellian picture has shifted, however, towards a new founder for dominance – namely, the supermarket. Tesco won’t just sort all your grocery needs out, but it will also provide: an in-store pharmacy, opticians, alcohol, junk food, healthy food, drugs, house decorations, lighting, music, DVDs, electrical appliances, clothes, plates, cutlery, crockery, washing machines, microwaves, garden furniture, loans, mortgages, credit card and other financial services, mobiles, holidays, insurance, photography centre, broadband, paperwork for a divorce or to make a will. Should we have a problem with this? Yes, if you believe in diversity of produce and freedom of choice. And especially if Tesco takes up to 50 pence out of every pound spent in local economies. The problem with providing all the services above is that it puts local, independent shops and retailers out of business. Local businesses are often governed by an 80/20 rule, in which 80 per cent of profit comes from 20 per cent of goods (p.26). This allows independent shops to stock niche and specialist goods, catering for a wide range of customers in a given community. If, however, a general retailer like Tesco takes away 80 per cent of profits by providing the 20 per cent of high-turnover goods, then independent businesses go bust. Allowing one super store to cater for all your needs might be convenient at first, but if you want variety then that convenience will be out of favour, especially due to supermarket power in terms of below-cost selling and price-flexing (pp.305-6). British towns are turning into ‘clone towns’ with identical high streets across the country.

Privacy

Another point raised in this book is something that could easily be mistaken for identity theft. Tesco boasts that it could produce the following consumer profile:

Mrs Smith is a young adult. She is a Premium shopper. She uses Watford Hypermarket for major monthly shops and Covent Garden Metro for daily requirements. She often shops late in the evening and buys upmarket products. She is particularly loyal to her cat food brand and fine fabric washing powder. She buys Hello magazine and sometimes country life. (p.98)

Tesco will also know her address, phone number and probably her email address. Imagine if Mrs Smith also held a Tesco bank account and her mobile was on a Tesco contract? Tesco holds a record of every single movement and conversation you ever make. All this from a little Clubcard! Neo-liberals will say it’s all for marketing purposes – yet I wonder whether or not Tesco knows a little bit too much about Mrs Smith. And a further note: there are 25 million registered Clubcards, which means that Tesco holds more files on its customers than the notorious East German Stasi ever held on its 16 million citizens (p.96).

Global Operations

A third point from Simms is the global reach of retail. Even the bastion of right-of-centre thinking, the Sunday Telegraph, has said that Tesco’s global operations is a form of ‘neo-colonialism’. To see why, take a look at the reception that Tesco inspectors got from a farm in remote Africa, witnessed by an investigative journalist:

The visit was the visit of a king. They [the community] slaughtered animals. They roasted a lamb. The schoolkids rehearsed welcome songs for three days and gave Tesco presents. Tesco gave nothing back. The adage ‘To those that have shall be given’ came to me. Why would poor Zimbabwean children give present to Tesco when they didn’t even have a school on the farm? (p.206)

The farmers assumed Tesco was a country and its staff were royalty. The low prices in our supermarkets have high costs elsewhere. Simms notes that we are indirectly financing a new form of slavery: a plantation worker in the Dominican Republic gets paid £2.48 for the day (the day being a start at 5am and bed the next morning at 2am); a girl in Bangladesh gets £9 per month to make those £3 jeans in a Tesco store. In a final example: for every £1 worth of fruit (a banana in this case), the producing country gets 12 pence (p.218). Free marketeers will tell me that this is competition in action. Really? Tesco will:

  • Request a financial contribution to place its products on promotional offers, to cover product wastage, to refurbish a store or to open a new store, to the costs of bar-code changes, or to help a specific promotion that Tesco could not afford.
  • Seek improvement in terms (of Tesco) as a condition to display their products, increase the product range or threaten to de-list the supplier.

That’s all well and good, and suppliers should just tell Tesco to stick their business. But seeming as 78 per cent of our goods come from supermarkets, suppliers do not have that choice but must sell to Tesco and others. This is not a ‘free’ market.

There are a few shortcomings to this book: i) no internal investigations of how Tesco works and hires its staff, ii) Simms seems fine to just use someone else’s work to offer solutions on how to tackle the problems, and iii) there is also too much focus on one supermarket. Nonetheless, this book is an essential guide for anyone wanting a broad picture regarding British retail. Read this book!

Review: Affluenza, Oliver James

This book review is part of Lippy’s re-launch in September. For more details, click here and here.

I opened the first few pages of this book with a sense of promise that this would be an interesting read, particularly given the title’s mix of ‘affluence’ and ‘influenza’. I read the prologue and was satisfied that James would make a good author with intelligent points. For example, he characteristically dropped ‘mental illness’ and replaced it with ‘emotional distress’ – rejecting the idea that our personalities are physical diseases that could be treated with a pill or two (p.xx).

From the outset, the author argues that we have become obsessed by consumption, and that our mental well-being is in the process of severe damage due to our superficial interests in money, success, and status. Individuals do not judge people based on integrity or personal values (if people should judge at all), but rather focus on their monetary gains and material goods. How often do people ask: ‘So what do you do?’ and you reply with your job title and industry that you work in? Have we sacrificed our senses to industrial pursuits, medicated through buying ‘things’ and supplemented by a long-term sense of anxiety, hyperactivity and/or depression (p.15)? This message is a powerful one. Unfortunately for Oliver James, he failed to articulate this at all. Whilst he does indeed set out to demonstrate that this is what is wrong with Western civilisation, which he calls ‘Selfish Capitalism’, his message is poorly phrased and long-winded. 510 pages could easily have been condensed into a 300 page work that would have probably made the point more succinctly. For starters, James runs out of steam by page 209, in which he spends the sixth chapter re-hashing and re-formulating the previous five chapters. Moreover, there are large tracts of autobiography that simply needn’t be there: for example, he uses six pages to recall a dream and go into family history to make a mediocre point about how property is seen as an extension of one’s identity (pp.214-20). His writing style isn’t the best in the world with random capitalisations for words he deems are really important. His gimmicky ‘vaccines’ to solve all our problems also seem a little out-dated.

All of this is a shame, because his central idea is well thought-through, and one can easily identify with his points about the so-called Affluenza Virus and how this pervades the English-speaking world. People work themselves to death in order to consume insatiable desires that lie far beyond one’s means – mortgages spring to mind immediately. At times, however, even this message was lost through James’ own moralising mission. It is fine to make the generalisation that people who hate their job and work only for material goods and to pay off a mortgage are probably suffering (for a start, they aren’t enjoying their job). However, James judges far more than the stressed workaholic. He attacks ambition and argues that success is a hollow, temporary boost to our self-esteem (p.38). Perhaps, but does this mean that we can’t strive to make our dreams come true? He goes on to attack people who care about their appearance, who work really hard for its own sake and scorns those that are ‘oblivious’ to ‘basic needs’ of emotional intimacy (p.88-95). I find this hugely frustrating. Who is to say that someone who passes by emotional intimacy due to the interest in their work that they are emotionally illiterate and fail at the ‘basic’ things in life? Are people not allowed to work hard if this is what they enjoy? Luckily James redeems himself somewhat later in the book when he argues that intrinsic motivation for a challenge is a good value. This in itself suggests a poorly structured book, something which happens all over the place (for instance, he later re-hashes his criticism of appearance so that we must seek to be ‘beautiful’ and not ‘attractive’).

Later chapters focused on education and parenting. I gleaned from them that children must have their emotional needs met early on in life which would otherwise leave the grown-up adult wanting and frustrated all their life, always feeling guilt or shame for whatever reason their needs were not met as a child. This is partly where I find Oliver James most interesting. He seems far more passionate and can come across a great deal more wholesome on the issues of parenting than any other subject. It is also the parts that which I thought make interesting reading (interesting in the sense that it actually seemed worthwhile). There is also a lot of sense from his ideas on education, in which the system ought to focus a great deal more on the well-being of pupils and students alike and far less on passing exams and creating a workforce.

Having said all of that, James’ book so far presents a mixed message: a clear premise to uncover the horrors of neo-liberal capitalism that have their roots in Thatcherism and Reaganomics. That was the good part. The bad part was how poorly he wrote it and how unstructured his book became. His solutions hardly deserve comment, all of which seem out of the world. He wants to ban attractive models from advertising and have a single ‘government estate agency’ to set all prices for property. I don’t think so.

No doubt on reading this you will be no better off in thinking ‘should I read this book, then, or not bother?’. Well, if you like the idea and can see past the writing style, then go for it. In the end, James does make some valid points. And it adds to a growing weight of criticism on neo-liberal consumer society. It is hugely disappointing that they are veiled in a questionable methodology and poor execution by the author.