Sheffield is buzzing with brilliant independent cafes, farmers markets, and organic veg shops, with regular pop-ups and new arrivals. I get excited every Wednesday evening when I get a veg box delivered from New Roots, and I can never quite explain why I feel a bit sad to see yet another supermarket opening up – there are currently more than 20 Sainsburys in Sheffield.
In the global North our food is largely controlled by enormous international companies. Supermarket shelves are stocked full of packets and packets of the same product – a technique that is deliberate to give the shopper the illusion of plenty. We are easily fooled into thinking produce is good just by its abundance. However, most tomatoes sold in UK supermarkets, for example, are imported so they have to be picked before they are fully ripe, resulting in a bland product low in nutrients.
In this huge multipart system we are not simply buying a product, we are paying for the systems and processes that produce it. It is easy for the consumer to feel powerless, the effects of any one person’s choices are very insignficant.
Cadieux and Slocum explain that the supermarkets themselves are trying to play the game right by the rules of their shareholders: they are being pushed to prioritise profits, not food quality, to maximise the benefits for their interested parties. In Susan George’s moving book ‘How the other half dies’, she discusses how corporate agriculture is largely controlled by tech companies whose profits are made in selling farm machinery – the actual food produced could almost be seen as a byproduct of their farming business. The system favours wasteful mass consumption, where more is better. This discussion on food waste by John Oliver explains why the producers are not incentivised to cut down on waste.
By smart psychological tactics and marketing ploys bordering on mind-control, supermarkets influence our spending choices – we’re all familiar with the quick impulse to buy-one-get-one-free – ‘maybe I do need two after all’. Raj Patel asserts that acting impulsively is the opposite of exercising free choice. Impulsiveness is removed from rational decision-making, and is based on external influences that nudge us towards a ‘choice’ that we would not have made had we had a chance to consider it properly.
Jackson et al portrays the moral economies of food shopping as an ethical minefield, with each product being laden with complex narratives of good and bad. Of course not all products in a non-supermarket provider are automatically a ‘good’ choice: buying ‘independent’ is by no means a get-out-of-jail-free card, and it can be hard to know if what it says on the label is true. Kevin Morgan (2009) contrasts the choice between shopping ‘ethically’, by buying Fairtrade goods from distant countries, or buying ‘green’ – local organic produce. The choice is not that simple though. Human equality and environmental quality are intrinsically linked, one doesn’t improve without the other, as Agyeman, Bullard and Evans explain in this article. Pollution and environmental degradation has a disproportionately negative impact on the poor, wherever it takes place in the world. Purchasing choices that are green and ethical both require careful use of resources over wastefulness, and demand changes of our high-energy high-lifestyle.
Miller (1998) presents shopping as an act of care, as the shopper demonstrates thrift and sacrifice to provide for their family. Through choosing where to shop, can this ‘care’ be extended to the local community and businesses who are supported and legitimised through the shoppers choices? Concern for the provenance of food is often seen as a middle-class privilege, because it implies the ability to make distinct choices that are not based on price and convenience (See Meah and Watson’s paper for more discussion on this). This is often true: the merits of shopping in the supermarket – reliable open hours, well-stocked, predictable prices – are evident. But this doesn’t have to mean that the less well-off are excluded from independent food providers. Sivasti implies that the corporate food industries actually benefit when their customers are caught in poverty (see more discussion on this topic here).
Often independent food providers are much cheaper than the ‘big four’ supermarkets, such as open markets and small greengrocers. The veg box I subscribe to costs £10 a week and is easily enough for two hungry people. Tucker and Farrelly explain that while people often would choose to make more sustainable choices if they could, they are not aware of the options to do so. This is partly due to assumptions that we already know what is available, and so do not look further afield for other options. With the immense clout in advertising and marketing that the supermarkets have, it is no wonder that people will think of them as a default option. It is up to the individual consumer to actively seek out alternatives to the supermarket model, to make it a priority to support local businesses and give agency to food producers who do not fit the corporate agriculture mould.