Transition Culture

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4 Sep 2014

Can supermarkets ever be sustainable?

Photo credit: Mark Simmons

Here is another piece I wrote recently for the Guardian Live Better Challenge:

Can supermarkets ever be sustainable?  Walmart’s new boss is on a mission. Will his drive for renewable energy and waste reduction transform the supermarket model?

In his recent appearance on Desert Island Discs, former Tesco CEO Sir Terry Leahy, described small independent shops as “medieval”. A recentEconomic Evaluation for Herefordshire – carried out by the Transition Network and REconomy Herefordshire – found that between 70 and 83% of all food and drink sold in Herefordshire was sold through just five supermarkets in the county. In Brixton, London, 93% of food is sold through supermarkets.  They dominate our retail landscape but is the supermarket model inherently incapable of ever being sustainable? What might a different approach look like?

New Walmart CEO Doug McMillon is on a mission to make Walmart sustainable. He recently said: “We’ve got all the pieces of the puzzle,” and committed Walmart to “creating a system that will create a sustainable planet together”. The organisation, the world’s largest retailer, is committed to being supplied by 100% renewable energy, creating no waste, and to “selling products that sustain people and the environment”. They also have ambitious plans to cut carbon emissions.

Bristol, the city set to be next year’s European Green Capital, is seeing its local currency the Bristol Pound, launched in September 2012, go from strength to strength. CEO Ciaran Mundy told me the currency is now so established it is accepted by 700 businesses (not including Walmart/ASDA), and is even taken by the City Council for business rates and bus fares. “While it’s not yet ‘commonplace’, it is normalised. It’s part of the fabric of the city,” he told me.

The Bristol Pound represents a different approach to how the economy of a city like Bristol could work; what Localise West Midlands calls ‘community economic development’ (CED), which they describe as “a virtuous circle of local empowerment, thriving local business and wellbeing”. They argue that it can lead to greater social inclusion, more jobs, stronger local governance, more civic engagement and better health outcomes.

How could a currency like the Bristol Pound, a model set to be replicated in several other towns and cities over the next couple of years, be part of a push towards a CED approach and to more sustainable sourcing in the city? Beyond the more obvious aspects, such as more support for local traders, one potential game changer is the fact that Bristol City Council – which spends £500m a year on procuring goods and services – is considering writing acceptance of the Bristol Pound into its tendering contracts. The 2013 Social Value Act now makes it possible to do this. For Mundy, giving use of Bristol Pounds a weighting around 20% would see the majority of businesses in the region using Bristol Pounds, and would therefore transform supply chains. Then there’s the city’s two universities, with similar-sized budgets which could, through the Bristol Pound, become a key driver in shifting how the local economy works.

The Bristol Pound can drive the move towards more resilient local economies and truly sustainable sourcing in ways Walmart is not designed to do. As Joanna Blythman, food writer and author of Shopped: the shocking power of Britain’s supermarkets, told me: “Supermarkets are structurally incapable of embracing the concept of local food. It’s usually something like a few pots of jam that’s the extent of their interest.” But let’s say McMillon is successful and Walmart’s shelves become filled with products with radically lower carbon and environmental impacts. Does that really lead us to the “sustainable planet” to which he aspires?

At the crux of the matter is that equality and sustainability cannot be separated from each other. “Localising economies is a better way of making an economy more transparent and giving people more control,” Mundy told me. “The Bristol Pound facilitates a broader ownership of the economy. It is better at spreading wealth. For example, we know small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) tend to pay better wages than supermarkets.”

The 2012 Portas Review stated that 97% of all fresh groceries now sold in the UK are sold through just 8,000 supermarket outlets. In 1960 it was more like 10%. The spread of Walmart, however sustainable their products, reduces local ownership of and control over local economies and undermines those that give communities their resilience. Andrew Simms of Global Witness and author of Tescopoly: how one shop came out on top and why it matters, told me: “Supermarkets are interested in one thing; sucking in consumer spending to be extracted from the local economy, shuffled off to head office to pay for centralised logistics, and the expectations of remote, disinterested investors in the City. It is an extractive industry.” Just as Walmart put it on their website: “We’re committed to delivering growth, leverage and returns for our shareholders.” But what about a model that delivers those things for the community in which their stores are based?

Where might we end up, if we follow the Bristol Pound to its logical conclusion? I asked Mundy how he imagines the economy of Bristol in five years time.

“We will have turned around the long-term trend of a loss of diversity of businesses, with more, not less, people employed by SMEs every year. We’ll have better jobs and more jobs. We will also be starting to see shorter supply chains, especially in terms of food and energy. It has huge potential for enabling the recirculation of the wealth generated by community energy companies. It can prove a powerful tool to generate more demand for local producers.”

As the movement to encourage large institutions to divest from fossil fuels gains pace, and the World Council of Churches, among others, pull their money out of fossil fuels, let us not forget that we have the power to divest every time we go shopping. What kind of local economy do we want to see? Walmart’s vision of ‘saving people money so they can live better’ leads to the question of what we really mean by being able to live better.

The question, ultimately, is if Walmart achieve their ambitious sustainability targets, is that enough? Is having a ‘sustainable future’ that’s dominated by a small number of hugely powerful corporations an acceptable price to pay? Or should we now be getting behind social innovations such as the Bristol Pound that point the way to a different approach?