Saturday, February 16, 2008
The Christian Duty to Boycott Tesco
And if you want cheap food well here's the deal:
Family farms are brought to heel
by the hammer blows of size and scale,
Foot and mouth the final nail
in the coffin of our English dream
that lies out on the village green;
While agri-barons, CAP in hand
Strip this green and pleasant land
Of meadow, woodland, hedgerow, pond
What remains gets built upon
No trains, no jobs
No shops, no pubs
What went wrong?
What went wrong?
(from the song 'Country Life' by Show of Hands)
It would surely be impossible to argue that God is uninterested in the way that humanity engages in economic activity, and we can see this in two Scriptural forms: specific injunctions against particular practices and more general injunctions in favour of social justice, obedience to God and, as Jesus put it, "You cannot serve both God and Mammon". Examples of the former are found in Deuteronomy 25.13 ("Do not have two differing weights...") and Isaiah 5.8 ("Woe to you who add house to house and join field to field till no space is left and you live alone in the land."); examples of the latter are the repeated prophetic calls to look after the widows and orphans, with the promise of divine chastisement if these calls are ignored.
This is the context in which I read "Tescopoly" by Andrew Simms, a very thorough overview of the way in which Tesco functions as a monopolist: one who has joined all the fields together until it is left alone in the land. In many ways Tesco is simply a highly efficient corporation, a (rare) example of world-class management in a British company. Yet it is precisely the fact that it is so efficient, so effective in accomplishing its aims, that it has had such dispiriting and impoverishing effects on our communities.
Simms details the ways in which, through the use and abuse of its dominant market position, Tesco actively harms those who supply it with goods, those who work within its walls, and the communities within which it finds itself operating. For example, Tesco consistently pays its suppliers less than the industry average, it is consistently late in paying invoices presented to it, especially by the smallest suppliers, and, through the exercise of essentially bullying tactics, it is able to 'borrow' more than £2bn a year from its suppliers for free. Internationally it suppresses wages in the third world and strips communities of their dignity (I was astonished to read that in a farm in Zimbabwe children are taught to sing "Tesco is our dear friend" in order to impress the visiting potentates.)
My own concern is primarily with the impact on local communities in England, and here Simms marshalls fascinating evidence. For every £1 spent in a supermarket more than 90p leaves a local community; whereas the impact of a 'local box scheme' (ie locally produced and delivered vegetables) is quite the reverse - for every £1 spent, £2.50 is generated in local wealth. In terms of jobs, supermarkets undermine a community further: it takes £95,000 worth of sales in a supermarket to sustain a single job, the figure for smaller stores is £42,000. Beyond this, the supermarkets, especially Tesco, support the use of casual and unlicensed labour leading to what is effectively a modern form of serfdom. Put simply the arrival of a supermarket chain in a town sucks money and livelihoods away from the local area in order to agglomerate capital for shareholders. Supermarkets impoverish communities in terms of income, social life and common civility.
At this point a common defence is to claim that this is the operation of 'the free market', and that if the market chooses to support Tesco, and people benefit from its cheap prices, then we shouldn't interfere. Such a response is either naively ill-informed or else the expression of an understanding already corrupted by an anti-Christian value system. No sane person advocates a wholly unrestrained free market, or else bin Laden would have been able to purchase nuclear weapons long ago, and so the question becomes: is it right for the free market to operate here, in these circumstances? Is the operation of a free market in this context something that will foster and support our social values or will those values and goods be undermined by the free market? In other words, higher values are applied. Yet, of course, particularly with regard to Tesco: what does it mean to talk about a free market when we have at best an oligopoly and at worst, in so many areas, a monopolistic environment? Simms points out that in 81 of the 121 British postcode areas Tesco is the dominant grocer, and is the number 2 in a further 24 areas. The operation of the free market is considered by the government to be inhibited whenever one trader gets more than 8% of the market - and Tesco has vastly more than that, in some areas going beyond 50%. In such a situation invoking 'the free market' functions as a ritualistic response in which all other considerations are subordinated to the one dominant value of Mammon. In other words, it is simply the expression of idolatry.
As such it is not something that the living God will allow to endure in perpetuity, and indeed, the ways in which this system will collapse can already be discerned. The operation of the supermarkets are dependent upon the ready supply of cheap and abundant fossil fuels, especially oil, which allow for the worldwide transport of food and the complicated logistics and processing undertaken by the corporations in this country. As a result of the worldwide peaking of oil supplies such energy is becoming increasingly scarce and expensive, and we will all be required to change our patterns of life and consumption with, most particularly, a return to the patterns of local food production that obtained before the last half of the twentieth century. This will come as a shock to the economic system and an ecological truth will then be applicable: the most efficient organisms, which are most finely tuned to a particular environment, are the most vulnerable when that environment changes. There is a trade-off between efficiency and resilience, and the 'just-in-time' model of food distribution which works well in our present context will be insupportable in the world we are moving into.
We live today in a society which has abandoned the Scriptural concern with social justice, and which has given itself over to the worship of Mammon. Consequently we have left ourselves open to the judgement proclaimed by the prophets. We must repent of such choices and turn once again to the living God: it is the duty of all Christians to boycott Tesco.
(A version of this article has appeared in the journal 'Gospel and our Culture')
UPDATE: I must be right, because Simon Heffer disagrees with me.