Don't believe the hypermarket

If you believe the hype, supermarkets the world over are going all green and cuddly. The British giant Tesco has announced that it is bolting renewable electricity generation on to its stores and rewarding customers for re-using plastic bags. French supermarket transnational Carrefour is advertising its reduction of toxic chemicals in cleaning products. The Real Canadian Superstore chain is giving a high profile to its range of ‘environmentally friendly’ household goods. Most dramatically of all, Lee Scott, CEO of the much-criticized Wal-Mart, has announced a whole raft of environmental initiatives, including selling certified ‘sustainable’ seafood and a massive commitment to organic food and clothing. What’s more, he has pledged that such products will only cost 10 per cent more than their less sustainable alternatives.

‘It is clearly good for our business,’ says Scott. ‘We are taking costs out and finding we are doing things we just do not need to do, whether it be in packaging, or energy usage... there are a number of decisions we can make that are great for sustainability and great for bottom-line profit.’^1^

But is the ‘pile ’em high, sell ’em cheap’ business model really compatible with sustainable development? Or are supermarkets projecting friendly images to divert attention from accusations that they are causing great harm to our society, health and environment?

A small number of supermarkets control what much of the world eats. In Australia two companies, Woolworths and Coles, sell a third of all food consumed. In Britain the ‘big four’^2^ sell 75 per cent of the country’s groceries, with Tesco alone controlling 30 per cent of the market. In the US Wal-Mart, the largest retailer in the world, controls 20 per cent of a $450 billion market.

These trends are rapidly embedding themselves in Majority World countries too, with a third of Mexico’s food expenditure going to Wal-Mart alone, and Brazil’s domination by supermarkets going from 30 per cent to 75 per cent in just 10 years. This power means that supermarkets are effectively deciding what we eat and how much suppliers will get paid for it.

And they’re not planning to stop there. The ultimate dream is to dominate all so-called ‘non-food’ sectors as well: clothes, insurance, pharmaceuticals, electrical goods, you name it. Tesco’s deputy chair, announcing record profits in 2003, complained: ‘It’s not good enough. We have got only 5 per cent of the non-food market. We have 18 per cent of the grocery market and there’s 90 per cent of the non-food market to go for.’^3^

Corporate organics

Providing supermarkets with organic produce is now big business, and the world’s agro-industrial behemoths are muscling in on a sector which once belonged to a fringe movement of small-scale farmers seeking out ways of producing food more sustainably.

What you are buying when you choose an organic product from a supermarket is probably not the crop of a local farmer. Despite being infamous for pollution, land rights abuses and genetically engineered crops, the corporations which already control much of the globe’s food supply, such as Cargill and Archer Daniels Midland, are increasingly buying up organic companies. Many organic brands marketed as if they are small, independent, benevolent firms are actually owned by transnationals. They include Seeds of Change, bought by Mars in 1997, Green & Black’s, snapped up by Cadbury Schweppes in 2005 and Back to Nature, held since 2003 by Kraft (a subsidiary of Altria, which owns tobacco giant Phillip Morris).

In Britain, supermarkets are quite unashamedly appropriating the methods used by small organic farmers to sell their produce. Tesco and Sainsbury’s both recently announced that they were starting ‘veg box’ delivery schemes, which have long been one of the most effective means of directly linking organic producers and consumers while cutting out the supermarket intermediaries.

Watering down standards

The concentration of leading organic brands in the hands of transnationals is steadily turning organics from a progressive movement into a label supermarkets can charge higher prices for. Sadly the hiked prices do not necessarily feed back into more ecological practices or better conditions for workers. Quite the opposite. According to Mike Green of the UK Soil Association: ‘Small and medium producers are being squeezed out because it becomes financially unviable for them to sell to supermarkets that are pushing down prices and cutting margins.’

Meanwhile corporate interference has been compounding the problems. In 2002, the US Department of Agriculture relaxed organic regulations, allowing supermarkets to increase the availability of produce labelled ‘organic’ without the expense of genuinely improving standards.^4^ Conscious consumers have been fighting a rearguard action ever since. The US Organic Consumers Association has launched a boycott of several supermarkets’ own-brand ‘organic’ milk because, it says, the companies are buying it from producers who keep cows under factory farming conditions.

In another attack on organic standards, in 2005 the EU announced plans, currently being fiercely opposed, to allow food labelled ‘organic’ to contain up to 0.9 per cent contamination with genetically modified materials. In Britain, Marshall’s, one of the largest suppliers of vegetables to supermarkets, is rapidly moving into large-scale organic provision as demand grows. The company has been fined over £30,000 for pollution incidents between 2004 and 2005.^5^

‘Permanent global summertime’

For many people, the term ‘organic’ evokes images of small producers, farming in tune with nature. But the standard range offered in supermarkets means chasing the seasons around the world, to give us a ‘permanent global summertime’ where anyone can buy summer fruit and vegetables in the depths of winter.

In Northern supermarkets this means importing fresh produce from countries like Argentina, Chile and South Africa, where costs and labour standards are lower, and regardless of the massive contribution these ‘food miles’ make to climate change.

The eternal availability of unseasonal food is also a concern raised by critics who see people increasingly disconnected from nature and lacking basic awareness of where their food comes from. A 2005 survey of 8-14 year olds by the British Heart Foundation found that 37 per cent did not know that cheese was made from milk, and 36 per cent weren’t aware that chips come from potatoes.

Unreformed characters

The negative impacts of supermarkets provide fodder for campaigns across the globe. Aggressive pricing which drives small local businesses into bankruptcy, encouragement of car culture, the environmental implications of building large superstores on out-of-town sites, squeezing small supplier firms, using wasteful packaging, and poor treatment of workers on the shop floor and in Majority World sweatshops are just some of the criticisms levelled against the big players.

Despite claims of reform, the evidence suggests that supermarket business continues very much as usual. A report by the National Labour Committee on Jordanian garment factories supplying Wal-Mart stores in 2005 and 2006 found horrific practices, including sexual and physical abuse of female workers.6 In April 2006, Hong Kong environmental groups staged protests at supermarket packaging waste and plastic bags clogging up the cramped environment of the island.

In August 2006 the BBC accused Tesco of ‘dragging out the planning process, challenging enforcement orders, manipulating the planning laws, and breaking them on occasion’ after the supermarket built massive out-of-town stores which exceeded planning permissions, and dumped 27,000 tonnes of rubble on an official Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.^7^ The UK’s independent Competition Commission is currently conducting a wide-ranging investigation into the big supermarkets, taking into account planning, pricing and supplier relationships.

Supermarket PR departments are working hard on improving their image – and let’s hope we are seeing a genuine move to minimize some environmental impacts. But their interest in organics is far from altruistic. The ‘green dollar’ has become very lucrative, and the need to win back consumers’ approval is pressing.

The danger is that supermarkets, far from being reformed by their exposure to organics, are transforming an environmental movement striving to provide a sustainable alternative into a meaningless brand. Wal-Mart, which boasts in its 2006 annual report that its marketplace is ‘clearly the world,’ has its sights not only on aggressive global expansion, but also the meaningless commodification of sustainable values.

  1. Amanda Griscom Little, ‘Don’t Discount Him’, 12 April 2006,
  2. Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Asda/Wal-Mart and Morrisons.
  3. Joanna Blythman, ‘Shopped: The Shocking Power of British Supermarkets’, 2004, p 305.
  4. Cornucopia Institute, ‘Maintaining the integrity of organic milk’, April 2006,
  5. ENDS Report 378, ‘Vegetable supplier fined’, July 2006.
  6. National Labor Committee, ‘US Jordan Free Trade Agreement Descends into Human Trafficking,’ May 2006,
  7. BBC, ‘Tesco breaches planning laws’, 18 August 2006,

*Sarah Irving* is a researcher and writer at _Ethical Consumer_ magazine and a freelance writer specializing in issues of social and environmental justice.

Beneath the gloss...

Company: Toyota

*2005 advertising spend: $735 million
2005 sales: $173 billion
2005 profits: $11 billion
Product: Prius hybrid car*

The image

TV and cinema adverts proclaim: ‘good news for planet earth… low emissions, high mileage... One small step on the accelerator, one giant leap for mankind.’

The reality

Toyota may be the world’s most profitable car company and the second largest, but it still doesn’t observe *labour rights*.
* 2005: workers at a supplier factory in Nicaragua revealed they were paid at below-subsistence levels, working 16 hours per day to earn a living wage.^1^
* Spring 2006: workers at the company’s factory in the Philippines asked for international support after 233 were sacked, including the entire union committee, after a ballot electing it as the workers’ representative body.^2^

*War machines*: manufactures light vehicles for military clients^3^, and Fuji Heavy Industries (with which it has cross-shareholdings) has joint ventures with the US Department of Defence to develop fighter aircraft.^4^

*A funny shade of green*: Prius may be touted as a planet-saving vehicle, but some of Toyota’s other activities are less favourable.
* Has lobbied against clean air and energy conservation legislation in the US – lobbying has stalled such legislation for a decade.^5^
* Accused by environmental campaigners of opposing smog and climate change rules in California, where the cars it sold in 2005 had worse average fuel efficiency than those in 1990 because of the impact of high-emission SUVs on overall fleet figures.^6^

Company: Unilever

*2005 advertising spend: $6,296 million
2005 turnover: $49,967 million
2005 pre-tax profits: $5,984 million^7^
Product: Dove (body wash, soap, deodorant, lotions and facial cleanser)*

The image

2004: Dove’s worldwide ‘Real Women’ advertising campaign launched.
2005: ‘Campaign for Real Beauty’ launched. National websites in 39 countries across the Asia Pacific region, Latin America, Europe, the Middle East and North America and ongoing ads. Slogans include ‘celebrate those curves’ and ‘free our girls from beauty stereotypes’ and feature images of older women and a range of body shapes.

The reality

One of the ingredients in Dove products is *palm oil*.
* 2005: British NGO ActionAid reported on conditions for small palm oil producers in Ghana. Produce was graded at the lowest possible level, and farmers complained that they simply received a slip at the end of the month once their crops had been taken away, heaped on mixed lorries. This lack of transparency was used to pay below market rates.^8^
* In Indonesia large monoculture plantations, on land once occupied by rainforest, are associated with *workers’ rights abuses*. In spring 2006 Unilever was challenged by its own European Works Councils to dissociate itself from Musim Mas, a major Indonesian palm oil supplier accused of ‘the mass firing of union members, eviction from their homes, the expulsion of children from their schools and the use of the police and judicial system to criminalize legitimate trade union activity.’^9^

Unilever’s troubles don’t end with palm oil.
* ActionAid’s concern included the *eviction and harassment* of adivasis (indigenous people) living in the area of tea plantations run by Hindustan Lever, the company’s Indian wing.^8^
* Farms supplying cotton seed to Hindustan Lever were also accused of using *child labourers* as young as 10 to work in fields doused in pesticides, which caused nausea and convulsions.^8^

Company: Starbucks

*2005 revenues: $6.4 billion
2005 advertising spend: $87.7million
Product: coffee shops*

The image

Starbucks shops have prominent window displays promoting the sale of fair trade coffee and describing the benefits for Majority World farmers.

The reality

*Fair trade fractions*: Starbucks makes much of fair trade coffee. But the company’s 2005 figures reveal that only 3.7% of the coffee it sold was from fair trade certified sources, with a further 24.6% coming via the company’s own ‘coffee and farmer equity’ scheme, which does not guarantee farmers a living wage when world coffee prices are low. Starbucks claims the scheme responds to the fact that fair trade certifiers will only work with small producer co-operatives and therefore can only supply a small proportion of world coffee production. But it has been criticized for not offering the stability of income in a volatile market which fair trade premiums guarantee.^10^
* Organizations like the US Organic Consumers’ Association (OCA) have called for a boycott of Starbucks for what they perceive as deceptive marketing, pointing out that the onus is on the customer to ask for fair trade coffee which is often not clearly marked, and that fair trade lines are rarely on the ‘coffee of the day’ promotional list.^11^

Some of Starbucks’ other suppliers also work under less than ideal conditions.
* 2001: the company admitted that some of its Christmas items were packaged by *prison labourers*.^12^

*Cruel milk*: The OCA boycotts Starbucks over its use of milk from cows injected with Bovine Growth Hormone (rBGH). Critics state that: ‘Virtually every industrial country, except for the US, has banned the sale of rBGH milk. Milk produced from cows injected with rBGH poses serious dangers to human health and the general welfare of dairy cows.’ The cattle suffer inflamed udders and produce milk containing high levels of pus.^11^

*Fat cat*: Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz has astronomical pay levels ($2.5 million in 2005).^13^ He made speeches condemning Palestinian policy, praising the state of Israel during the Israeli re-invasion of the West Bank in 2002, and accepted awards from organizations which dispute any Palestinian right of residence in the West Bank and Gaza.^14^

Company: Tommy Hilfiger

*2005 turnover: $1,781 million
Advertising expenditure not released.
Products: fashion items, perfume*

The image

Hilfiger ads show a world of carefree, tanned young people often on beaches or in the countryside. The company sponsors sports events. Its children’s website offers games and celebrity features and its perfumes are represented by big names such as Beyonce Knowles and Enrique Iglesias.

The reality

*Conduct unbecoming*: Tommy Hilfiger has a Code of Conduct for conditions at its supplier factories which claims to protect workers’ rights. However, its record has been consistently poor.
* In the late 1990s it was one of many US clothes companies caught up in a class action lawsuit on behalf of thousands of workers in Saipan (Pacific territories under US influence). A $20 million fund was eventually set up by the companies to recompense workers who had suffered forced labour conditions, 18-hour days and rat-infested housing.^15^
* In 2004 an Oxfam report recorded women in Chinese supplier factories working over 100 hours per week, with three women suffering injuries after passing out from exhaustion.^16^
* In 2003, workers at a Hilfiger supplier in Mexico were denied the right to unionize, and when human rights activists tried to investigate the situation they were beaten up.^17^ In 2003, another Hilfiger supplier in Thailand closed down a unionized factory, leaving workers without severance pay, and transferred contracts to new union-free plants.^18^

*Sold!*: In spring 2006 Hilfiger was bought out by investment funds managed by Apax Partners. Other Apax companies include military satellite providers Intelsat and UK supermarket Somerfield (criticized for stocking endangered species of fish and factory farmed meat).^19^
* Hilfiger’s perfume products (produced under license by Estée Lauder) have been criticized by Greenpeace and animal rights organization Naturewatch for containing potentially damaging chemicals and animal by-products.^20,21^

Company: BP

*2005 turnover: $262 billion
Advertising expenditure not released.*

The image

BP’s advertising campaigns of recent years have re-branded the old British Petroleum as ‘Beyond Petroleum’. Their website trumpets the company’s ‘plans to invest $8 billion over 10 years to develop low carbon energy solutions.’^22^

The reality

‘$8 billion over 10 years’ may sound like a lot, but pales in comparison to the profits of over $19 billion made by BP in 2005.^22^ BP has admitted that despite its ‘green’ claims the total climate change emissions from its products totalled 1,376 million tonnes, double that of the whole of Britain.^22^
*Beyond belief*: Despite its slogan of ‘beyond petroleum,’ oil is still BP’s biggest concern.
* March 2006: a badly corroded pipeline at BP’s Arctic operations burst, spilling thousands of litres of oil.^23^
* British Treasury calculations stated that if environmental damage were taken into account, BP’s 2005 profits of $19bn would show a loss of £18bn.^24^
* 2006: it was revealed that BP’s Amoco subsidiary was one of a number of oil companies which had allowed a working-class New York community to live on land contaminated with thousands of gallons of polluted water, causing high rates of cancer and respiratory illness.^25^

*Strong arm*: BP’s workers fare little better than the environment.
* March 2005: 15 workers killed and 170 injured in an explosion at the company’s Texas refinery; campaigners reported BP had the worst safety record of any oil company in the US.^26^ Fined the largest ever US health and safety penalty – $21 million – for the incident.
* 2005: Subject of a campaign urging investors to sell shares in the company over its continued operations in Sudan, where the Government has been involved in brutal human rights abuses.^27^
* Attracted controversy after proceeding with the Tangguh gas project in West Papua. The occupying Indonesian police and army have been involved in human rights abuses and appropriation of land in West Papua, and social problems such as alcohol abuse were said to be increasing in the area of the project.^28^

These case studies were researched and written by *Sarah Irving* of Ethical Consumer magazine (, ).

  1. National Labor Committee, July 2005, ‘Arnecom auto parts workers in Nicaragua under attack’.
  2. _CSR Asia Weekly_, 1 March 2006.
  3. _International Defence Directory_ 2004.
  4. Defence Data Ltd, June 2005.
  5. _Greenpeace Business_, November 2005.
  6. _What On Earth_, Winter 2005 (Friends of the Earth Scotland).
  7. June 2006.
  8. ActionAid, _Power Hungry: Six Reasons to Regulate Agrifood Corporations_, 2005.
  9. _CSR Asia Weekly_, 3 May 2006.
  10. _The Guardian_, 9 February 2006.
  11. June 2006.
  12. _Seattle Weekly_, 27 December 2001.
  13. _Forbes Rich List 2005_.
  14. William McDougall, ‘Starbucks: the cup that cheers’, ZNet, 11 July 2002.
  15. _Multinational Monitor_, January 1999.
  16. Oxfam, ‘Trading Away Our Rights: Women Working in Global Supply Chains’, 2004.
  17. _Labour Behind the Label_ newsletter, March 2004.
  18. Clean Clothes Campaign, ‘“Runaway” employer at Thailand’s Par Garments; Gap CSR report raises transparency bar’, October 2003.
  19. _Ethical Consumer_, Nov/Dec 2005.
  20. September 2005
  21. _Naturewatch Compassionate Shopping Guide 2005_.
  22. _The Independent_, ‘Oil gushes into Arctic Ocean’, 29 March 2006.
  23. _The Guardian_, ‘Revealed: the real cost of BP profits’, 12 February 2006.
  24. _Earth Island Journal_, Summer 2006.
  25. _Financial Times_, ‘Workers put pressure on BP over safety’, 19 August 2005.
  26. 12 July 2005.
  27. _Down to Earth_ (publication of the International Campaign for Ecological Justice in Indonesia), May 2005.

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