Hello Just Markets!
I’m no fan of supermarkets but if I’m willing to shop in one, I should be willing to work in it too. Now, I also use coal but I wouldn’t work for an opencast coal company, so I accept that my logic is a bit flawed. But my husband’s job was on the line and my other part time job as a Student Support Assistant provided too few hours, so I got me a supermarket job! Less travelling, at least, and some income during those long University holidays but far from ideal.
I started with shelf stacking, which forced me to look at whole aisles, let alone items, I wouldn’t normally have looked at. I’m not sure which was the most depressing: the junk food training for babies or the co-branding, (not just ice cream/confectionary combos but all kinds of brands mingling together within crisps, cereals or frozen ready meals, attempting to increase the premium we are willing to pay). Or was it the unnecessary choice? I mean, how many shades of blond or fragrances of fabric conditioner can there be and why do we want our clothes to smell of pomegranate anyway? But what really surprised me (and I’m going out on a limb here as maybe not everyone does this!) was that I started seeing things and thinking, “oh, that sounds nice”. Before supermarkets invaded my psyche, I just ignored all of these unnecessary products. Now that I was confronted with them 4 times a week, I found myself wanting some of them. People don’t tend to want things they haven’t thought about, so the whole point of supermarkets is to show you a whole bunch of stuff, all nicely laid out just waiting for you to buy it. You either can’t live without it or you’re due a treat - go one, just buy one!
Then came the tills - now I was forced to see the prices of things I don’t normally buy. Oh no, the sweet smelling fabric conditioners were reduced. I could have fragrance wafting from my clothing for a mere pound. Don’t worry, it’s easy to resist. After a shift I really can’t be bothered shopping and by the time we do our regular shopping, I’ll have forgotten what passed before my eyes during my last shift on the check-outs, or at least regained the moral strength to resist. But I noticed how cheap bananas seemed to be. All the bananas sold were ‘fair trade’, a term which probably has as much to do with cash crop farmers getting a fair wage and descent living conditions as ‘free range’ does with chickens roaming contentedly around the farm yard. It’s all about appearances and manipulated perceptions, whether of what you ‘need’ or how it was produced (should you care).
The secret world of bananas
Bananas are one of many things I haven’t bought for years. While I don’t grow much of my own food, I do try to source it from as locally as possible, even if that is via a supermarket. I don’t choose what I buy because I think it will make any difference to the state of world; I do so because I think it’s the right thing to do. I dislike intensely the notion that we are all ‘consumers’ now - not even customers, consumers. Obviously, all life has to consume something to survive but the difference between all other life and western consumer culture is that all other life puts something back. Western consumer culture just takes, and takes. If we put anything back, it’s waste, pollution, the stuff we don’t want.
Anyway, back to those bananas. In 2004, Glasgow-based artist, Jan Nimmo made a film about Bonita, in Ecuador. Despite being the world’s largest exporter of bananas, plantation workers in Ecuador receive the worst pay and conditions in the whole of Latin America. Jan’s film tells of the Los Alamos plantation workers’ struggle to get fairer pay and conditions, such as having protection from the many chemicals required to coax these monocrops into life and profit. Their fight continues.
Did you know that bananas were grown in blue plastic bags coated with organophosphates or that the whole global trade is in just a single variety. More recently, Jan visited Costa Rica to document the conditions of people living and working in the banana and pineapple plantations. Again, export dollars come way above any rights the people may have, not to mention all the other species living there. Apart from the food miles, another benefit from avoiding tropical fruit is that, hopefully, one avoids supporting such practices. I don’t think we aerial spray unprotected farm workers with chemicals in the UK. That said, the only reason we don’t clear virgin forest to grow food is that we’ve none left!
One reason for the lower price of bananas could be that in February 2011, the EU finally ratified reduced trade tariffs on South American imports. After 15 years of dispute, the EU agreed to cut its import tariff on South American bananas from €176/tonne to €114/tonne in 2017. Figure 1 shows how little the growers actually earn yet, according to Banana Link, bananas are the single biggest profit making item sold on UK supermarket shelves. Over the last few years banana prices have been pushed down to ridiculously low levels - sometimes two thirds less than they were in 2002. In general, the cuts are simply passed on to suppliers until they reach plantation workers, who can least afford the cuts but are the easiest to exploit. Squeezing more out of each acre of land also enables prices to be reduced but at what cost? It takes tens of thousands of years to make 15 centimetres of topsoil and the world is losing soil 10 to 20 times faster than it is replenishing it, so our current farming methods are approaching limits.
So how could supermarkets change? They’d have to start by dropping the ‘super’ bit, with its associations of size and superior quality. So that would make them just markets. I’d be happy, I love ‘just markets’ with their independent, brand-free, freeform nature. ‘Just markets’ also suggests ethics, fairness, justice but if such a thing could work in our globalised economy, wouldn’t we be doing it already? By their very nature, supermarkets are not localised although many are responding to customers’ desires for more local fresh produce but in times of economic decline, more and more people will be primarily worried about how much food costs and wider global concerns may fall off of their agendas.
As Adrienne says in ‘Goodbye Supermarkets’, that essential and complex web of relationships between people and the land they inhabit has gone. So will we see a rise in independent local food producers trading in local markets as the rising cost of oil scuppers supermarket economics? We have to because it’s obvious to anyone who cares to look that supermarkets won’t have a long term future - we have to rebuild that complex web. So goodbye supermarkets....hello just markets? I hope so!
Mandy Meikle lives near Edinburgh and has been speaking on peak oil issues since 2004. She believes that humanity’s future lies not in technology but psychology. Mandy writes an occasional blog as the Cheery Pessimist and gives talks on energy issues. Mandy is a Transitioner-without-community but is working to set up a Community Development Trust in her locality.