Supermarkets offer an accessible and efficient one-stop shop for a wide variety of affordable, diverse and tasty goods. 75% of UK consumers say they visit supermarkets twice or more a week to do their food shopping. But how many aisles away are they from being ethical?
What is wrong with supermarkets?
Just eight supermarkets dominate 93% of the UK food retail market.
As of 2020, over a third of the UK grocery market share is commanded by Tesco (21%), Sainsbury’s (11%) and Asda (10%) combined. In 2019, the once prolific independent retailers made up just 5% of the entire food sector: in 1950 there were 43,000 greengrocers and in 2018 there were just 2,500.
“Supermarket chains play the role of gatekeeper, deciding how food is produced, the (low) prices paid to farmers and what fills the shelves,” as authors of the People’s Food Policy put it.
Based on convenience and the suggestion of low prices, supermarkets maximise profit margins often at the expense of people and the environment. Over time, this system has become synonymous with waste. Additionally, the disproportionate power in the hands of supermarkets means less power held by food producers.
In 2020, ethical consumer spending hit record levels in the UK with ethical food and drink leading the way. This indicates a demand for doing food shopping differently. While this guide is very critical of supermarkets as a whole, we recognise that, in a world where people are often overworked and underpaid, for some, convenience can be a bit of lifeline.
This guide will therefore lead you through the ways that supermarkets have, or haven’t, been addressing pressing ethical problems, and point to the best of the bunch. We’ve included several smaller, independent companies that are existing alternatives to the giant food retailers, as an example of what else is possible. We also provide recommendations on how to shop outside of the systemically problematic supermarket model.
The age of cheapened food
Since their beginnings, supermarkets have pioneered convenience and offered cheap food. Or, rather, they have promoted the image of cheap food.
Many farmers are forced to sell produce like milk and eggs at unfair prices, which can leave them at a loss. On average, UK farmers receive less than 10% of the value of their produce sold in supermarkets. Smaller UK farmers have been increasingly squeezed out due to competition with larger farms, and their numbers are in decline, pushing food production into fewer and fewer hands.
The environment is sacrificed too: an ongoing campaign led by RiverAction revealed Tesco to be sourcing chicken and eggs from farms polluting the River Wye (our forthcoming eggs guide will have more about this).
Globally, meanwhile, supermarkets have been criticised for exacerbating poverty along supply chains where, despite being food growers, farmers and land workers struggle to feed themselves. The reality is that food has been cheapened but something somewhere has had to pay.
Meanwhile, some supermarket directors are paid obscene amounts of money. Tesco for example paid its chief executive £1,525,000 in remuneration last year, whilst the highest paid executive of The Co-op Group received £2,220,000.