Sleeping with the enemy
Let's make one thing clear: I really don't like supermarkets. They are soulless places, temples to the consumerist religion where the latest bogof offer is announced over the tannoy much like a priest sings his praises of his god's unlimited generosity to the faithful. BUT...
About ten years ago, after the summer of foot and mouth disease here in Wales, we found ourselves facing winter with very empty cupboards, mainly due to the lack of tourist trade. Farmers and other businesses affected by the quarantine got compensation, but that wasn't the case for small time craft workers like us. Both my husband and I decided to take temporary jobs with the local Safeway supermarket so as to be able “to give the kids a proper X-mas”. He did the night shift, in the morning we met in the car park, I handed him the baby and toddler and went off to do a day's shelf stacking.
Now I've done a lot of different jobs in my life, but none of them ever made me feel as small and miserable as working for a supermarket. Maybe it was the polyester uniform, maybe it was the classic bullying line manager or just simply the tediousness of stacking crisps and bogroll all day long (a few hours on the preserves or tins was a real highlight). I had plenty of time to ruminate over the validity of the reasons we'd given ourselves for doing this job and in the end we decided that it wasn't worth it. We quit and went back to being impoverished craft workers, one of the best and most joyful decisions in my life.
In Machynlleth, a town of just over 2000, we have three supermarkets: Harry Tuffins, Spar and the Co-op. Tesco has loomed, but for the moment seems to have set it's sights on Aberystwyth instead. Never in my time here has there been an issue that divided the locals more than the Notescomach campaign. Around the same time that Tesco courted the local council to get planning permission, the Co-op applied for planning to be granted for expansion. Tesco didn't get theirs, but the Co-op did and so we will still get our much desired increase of “choice”. Because you really do need to be able to buy bogroll in fifteen different colours, textures and makes. What happy bottoms we'll have!
I was relieved that it was the Co-op that got its planning though and not Tesco, because even though you might think that a supermarket is a supermarket, all equally bad news, I've got to disagree with you; the Co-operative is different and I'd hate to lose it. The Co-operative is more of a cluster of businesses, comprising food retail as well as banking, pharmacies, insurance, travel and a few more, but how it is different from the Tesco's of this world is by it's firm commitment to social justice.
In 2011, we launched our groundbreaking new Plan with one clear goal: to be the most socially responsible business in the UK. Now, in 2012, the International Year of Co-operatives, we’re taking Our Ethical Plan even further, to inspire more people than ever to change their world.
As a Co-op customer, you can choose to become a Co-op member, earn a share of the profits and have a say in how the business is run. That's not something your average greengrocer will offer you. The Co-op is also miles ahead of other big food retailers when it comes to Fairtrade and has a fair range of organic and free range animal produce. None of it's own brand cosmetics are tested on animals. The Co-op is the largest farmer in the UK (comprised of many smaller family farms) and constantly trying to reduce fossil fuel inputs and CO2 outputs. And then there's the campaigns: From Save the Bees to Stop the Tar sands, they are lobbying the government to invest more in community based renewable energy, leading the campaign against Fracking, supporting the creation of Co-operative ventures worldwide, now in partnership with Oxfam, but that is not all.
On a local level, I've lost count of all the organisations that have had financial or other help from the Co-op (several of which I have been involved with). Last year they organised a day long conference and forum here at CAT in the WISE building titled “Food in Transition”, exploring how the Co-op could join up with the work that Transition Initiatives are doing on this topic and they supported our Transition Bro Ddyfi Trawsnewid steering group member Sarah Woods and the kids from a local school with the making of their documentary “SpOILt”; which looks at the devastating effects of tar sands mining.
Lastly I'd like to draw your attention as to why the Co-op was started in the first place, a powerful story that has now been told in a soon to be released movie and one we all need to take note of, lest we make the same mistakes over and over again:
The story is set in 1844 when a group of working-class people from the town of Rochdale came together to change the unfair society they were living in. Fed up with dishonest and corrupt shopkeepers selling poor quality products at high prices they decide to take matters into their own hands. By pooling the few resources they have, the group manage to get enough money together to open their own shop and pledge to only sell quality, unadulterated products, sharing the profits fairly with their customers. The shop is only small and stocks just a handful of products like butter, flour and sugar, but the idea itself is revolutionary and the way they do business fundamentally different in its nature.
These were the Rochdale Pioneers and I think they have a lot in common with us Transition activists. As this story shows, it is not a little naïve to think that small independent traders are not into profit or that their sole reason for existence is to make our communities more lovely.
The Co-op has shown, both through it's actions and language, that it is keen to work with Transition Initiatives, that it is willing to listen and change, so why are we not seeing more joint ventures? Is it possible that there is a certain prejudice or even snobbishness that prevents us from doing so? After all, the vast majority of people do like supermarkets so they must be doing something right. Stating that the success of supermarkets is due to ordinary people being so stupid that they have managed to brainwash them all is downright arrogant and disrespectful.
When you are financially poor and you have a family to feed here in rural Wales, supermarkets are undoubtedly your best bet regarding bang for buck. Few enough of us are so lucky as to be able to afford an entirely organic diet and markets are great if you are able to get to them, as they are usually during the day when a lot of people are tied up at work. Laying out large sums of money to have bulk deliveries to your home is not for those on a minimum wage. Or your home might already be so cramped and small, you wouldn't know where to stash it all. I feel in this supermarket debate transitioners are at risk of showing their ugliest, most middle-class face by making very sweeping statements and dismissing the habits and desires of what is after all the majority of their communities. I just don't get why we are all of a sudden so “right” and sure of it all. What happened to the idea of raising the questions and then allowing the answers to arise from within the community? Why, when it comes to supermarkets, the sudden Don Quixote act?
One of the characteristics of Transition is that it looks for appropriate solutions, for instance a recognition that you are not going to combat climate change by just getting everybody to change their lightbulbs, so why would TI's try to take on the corporate megalomaniac might of Tesco all by themselves?
What I'm saying is: I believe we have an ally in the Co-operative and they are big too, they've got clout and they are using it for the right reasons. By working a bit more together we might have a far greater impact on how supermarkets do business, we can put ourselves forward for election on the local area committees and help the Co-op work out how it could stock and sell local fresh produce, something they are already considering and in part doing.
This doesn't mean that local small independent traders aren't a good thing and I'd love to see more of them, but let's face it: in the current economic climate we're losing more of them than we are gaining and setting up a community shop is not an option everywhere.
Sometimes you have to realise where the odds are stacked and cut a deal. To get the best out of that deal takes a lot of hard work, commitment and a preparedness for your work to go unrecognised. There's no glamour in working in, for, or with supermarkets, it is head-bangingly slow and frustrating, but for now, you'll find me sleeping with the enemy, because if we can get one of them to change their way of operating and be successful, the rest will follow.