Despite its explosive opening publicity business is slow for Tesco in Stokes Croft. Eight months on from the riots the local population continue to shun it. I admit to having used it once in a moment of desperation, but the combination of periodically upheld values and peer-pressure exert a welcome influence on my convenience-loving mind. At the end of the day, though, what does this embargo against the supermarket(s) achieve? And why is it deemed so important in the first place?
Claire Milne, driving force behind the No Tesco in Stokes Croft campaign, outlines the argument for saying No to Tesco.
To begin with, Claire, can you explain why multinational corporations are seen as “bad”?
The best place to start is probably looking at the purpose of corporations and that speaks for itself in terms of what the problem with large multinational companies is. The explicit purpose of corporations is to make profit – that is written into their legal constitution – so as a corporation you have a legal obligation to return the highest dividends to your shareholders. Therefore any corporation’s bottom line decisions are made around the question of what will determine the highest profit. Success is therefore defined entirely in terms of profit.
I would argue that you would be hard pressed to find anyone in the world who doesn’t believe that it’s important for our decisions to take into consideration the impact that they have on other human beings and on nature. When you step back and look at it, it is clear that if we destroy nature we are not going to be able to continue to live ourselves. But the legal constitution of corporations, which have gained so much influence over our lives, by necessity excludes environmental and social issues from being given equal consideration. Thus we promote social enterprise. We suggest that a triple bottom-line that includes positive social and environmental impact as well as profit be written into the legal constitution of corporations to enable them to act in the interest of the larger whole.
The Occupy movement has seemingly increasingly become about the power the corporations have; that they have created such an unequal world driven by the shareholder model in which the shareholders are receiving the profits but have already had money to invest in the first place, whereas the people who are buying the products are at the mercy of this model.
If we take the example of food and supermarkets: because supermarkets are reliant on cheap oil for their success (oil is a finite resource the price of which is now increasing significantly and will only continue to do so) so food production is going to increase in cost as well. For supermarkets, their overheads will increase drastically but they’re still going to have to return the highest dividends to their shareholders and to remain competitive in the financial market supermarkets will still have to offer competitive share prices against other industries that perhaps aren’t so directly affected by oil prices. So we’re going to see supermarkets passing on these cost increases to us, the consumers. If we are entirely reliant on supermarkets because we have allowed other shops to go out of business then what we’re going to see is that we’ve got no choice but to pay these seriously increased prices that supermarkets have suddenly brought in. What we’ll then see is that people on low income simply can’t afford anything because the supermarkets they used to shop at that were cheap have suddenly become extortionately expensive.
Meanwhile that money is being drained from the local economy. Whereas when you’ve got independent shops that aren’t corporations, that are more locally focused and that don’t rely on these centralized distribution networks and economies of scale, they are able to source locally. This means the money is being circulated in the local economy rather than being drained out to these remote shareholders. This is really important in terms of us being able to shape our own communities. For people to want to play a part in building their own community they need to see the tangible way that it works. And again multinationals remove us from that, they prevent us from being able to see because they are kind of imposed on us and it’s all so complex being part of this big globalised system, whereas when you’ve local independent businesses it’s so much more obvious how the world works. Then there’s that incentive to be involved because you can see how it benefits you and the people in your community.
The other big problem of multinationals is that they really remove us from the implications of the impacts of the decisions that we make. Basically, if we were buying more locally produced goods we’d become so much more aware of the implications of this decision. So for instance, if you buy a pair of jeans that are on sale for a fiver – because they’ve been made by somebody working in a sweatshop in China – you’re not aware of the inhumane conditions that they have been subjected to. Whereas if it was made on our doorstep and we knew it was our neighbour’s son who was being subjected to such inhumane conditions I doubt we’d be making those same decisions. It’s only because you don’t have to face the consequences. And that for me is how globalization has gleaned its financial successes and that’s what multinationals do.
Why was the Tesco store allowed to be opened despite such active disapproval within the community?
Local council do not have the power to prevent a shop opening on the basis of local community preference. Even if the whole community – every single person – said they did not want it there is nothing local council would be able to do, which points to a flaw in the planning policies. One tool that is available to councils is the impact assessment which determines whether a store is dangerous or not to a local community. In this case 42 deliveries per week happen on the bus and cycling route part of the notoriously busy Gloucester Road. But when the planning permission application was granted it was done so on the assumption that there’d only be two deliveries a week because it was not known that Tesco was applying. Our council claimed it would be illegal for them to carry out an impact assessment in this case because it would have been a form of supermarket discrimination. However, on the basis of the store contravening safety issues there is the possibility of proving that the council neglected to do an impact assessment. We are going for a judicial review to decide whether it would have been illegal for the council to conduct that impact assessment. If the judge decides yes then it confirms that our planning system does not have the power to protect communities. If on the other hand it is ruled against it will show that the council was perhaps reluctant to use this process because of the pressure applied by large supermarkets.
There are around 300 communities resisting these sorts of developments in this country – to be exact 288 about a year ago! We’ve been in close communication with the Cambridge campaigners – and it has emerged that the same tricks are being pulled by Tesco in different communities (to push through council permission for store openings) and local councils are making the same mistakes. For example, we employed an independent noise assessor and his findings were that Tesco’s noise assessment was fudged by its own professional noise consultants.
What about short term / mid term implications of no longer operating on a profit basis? What will happen to the economy, jobs and, for this country, our capital’s international status that many argue generates the wealth that we enjoy?
The hierarchical model will be around for a while – it will be a slow transition. I don’t think we need to worry about the implications because even if big businesses went elsewhere that would afford the opportunity for more social enterprises, which ultimately is the only sustainable and indeed competitive way forward. Ultimately once oil prices rocket social enterprises will be more competitive than companies operating under the shareholder model because they won’t have the same profit obligation as corporations and will be more locally sourced, so they will be able to reinvest into the business, making prices lower, and therefore more competitive. Market forces will support the different models in time. Better to do it now and be prepared than wait till last moment and panic.
What can people do?
For starters minimize the amount you buy from big corporations and chain stores. Buy more from locally-owned stores. This will probably mean you buy less, which is good anyway! This is not about trying to change your life overnight because that is unsustainable. Start small, focus on one aspect of your consuming pattern you want to change, whether that’s food, or clothes or electronics, and give yourself that challenge for the next couple of months. Once you’ve integrated that into your lifestyle you can move onto the next thing. Do it slowly. If you try and do it overnight your life will become miserable and then you’ll resent it and you won’t want to do it. Find out what community owned initiatives are happening in your community and support them in whatever way you can. Again don’t over commit, choose one. A few hours a week. The more everyone can chip in just a little bit the more we’re going to be able to create these community owned solutions that will create a really beautiful future for ourselves. Based on a connection between ourselves and each other and the moment rather than a focus on linear growth. If you do choose to step a little bit off the treadmill of working all week you find that if you have more time you often can have more contentment and don’t need to buy so much. So you don’t need so much money…
Claire’s passion for supporting local economy and healthy locally sourced food has lead her to take part in the formation of a “People’s Supermarket” in Bristol, due to open this summer, which aims to offer a community run alternative to supermarkets with competitively priced locally sourced food.
To find out more or get involved visit: