Sunday, 14 October 2007

Greenwashing their hands

by Roz Paterson, SSP

The ecology of shopping...
This article was originally published here:

Apparently, you can shop til you drop and still save the planet.

Tesco, a company growing at such an exponential rate it will soon have its own currency, is to hand over a £25million chunk of its gargantuan profits to Manchester University to fund an Institute of Sustainable Consumption.
And this on top of offering customers a whole extra point on their loyalty cards for re-using old Tesco carrier bags!
Meanwhile, Marks and Spencer are busy pursuing Plan A, a five year bid to see the company edge towards carbon neutrality, zero waste, fair trade and healthy eating.
Not that this seems to have stayed their appetite for wrapping up fruit in seemingly bombproof packaging.
In fact, all the big supermarkets are at it, pronouncing their commitment to penguins and butterflies all along the aisles of their overlit, over-heated cathedrals to over-consumption.
Which is the basic problem, really.
Supermarkets need us to buy stuff, far more than we need, so much so that we chuck two thirds of it away, uneaten, often unopened. They pour millions, far more than Tesco boss Terry Leahy has pledged to Manchester University, into persuading us to consume like our lives depended on it.
We are bombarded with urgent promptings to shop for stuff, from the minute we step out our homes, or switch on the TV, or even look out the window. Americans are advertised at some 6000 times a day - we’re not far behind.
And once we enter a supermarket, we’re lobbied relentlessly, through two-for-ones, BOGOFs and the practise of running ‘loss leaders’, where key items, the ones we know the price of, at rock bottom prices, so we assume everything else is dirt cheap too and go madder than a 1970s game show contestant who’s just won a three minute trolley dash round Lipton’s.
Without all this pressure, why else, in this age of 24/7, 365 days a year shopping opportunities, do we stock up for Christmas (when most shops are shut for, yes, one day) like the nuclear winter was approaching?
Or buy three tubs of margarine when we only wanted one, yet think we’ve saved money?
To save the planet, we actually need to consume much, much less and this, for a capitalist enterprise for whom profit is not only the bottom line but the raison d’etre, is unthinkable.
But let’s suppose for a minute, just a minute, that there is no global warming. That global warming is just a con trick dreamed up by a clique of evil ecologists who want us all to be miserable and cold and forced to jolly well ride bicycles to work.
If such were the case, could supermarkets ever be a force for good?
After all, they supply cheap food to the masses, don’t they?
Well, I guess, but the only cheap food is the fat-laden, chemically-enhanced, over-preserved, nutritionally-neutral stuff that food campaigners are desperately trying to drive out of school canteens and vending machines because of its propensity to nurture heart disease, cancer and diabetes.
All the good stuff costs, and not just monetarily.
Take the organic revolution.
Even were climate change on hold, it would still be a good idea to eat food that was sustainably produced, leaving the countryside in good shape for us to enjoy and in which rural workers can safely labour, and not laden with damaging pesticides that not only compromise our immune systems but wreck ecosystems and poison wildlife.
The problem is, supermarkets being what they are, they only buy organic produce from the cheapest suppliers. That is, in the world. Thus including countries where there are no labour laws. Hence, 75 per cent of organic produce is flown in from abroad, clocking up millions of air miles as it does so.
The same goes, of course, for non-organic produce.
And if you’ve ever wondered how they can sell it so cheap yet rack up such massive profits, remember there are people at the other end of this long food chain, and they’re the ones subsidising the UK’s cheap food industry.
People like the South African pear picker on 38 pence an hour who cannot afford to take her children to the doctor when they’re ill. And the female fruit pickers expected to pick apples while they are being sprayed with hazardous pesticides from above. And even here, people like the small farmers forced to sell crops for less than they cost to produce, driving them out of business and leaving seasonal workers high and dry.
Then there are the working conditions for those employed directly by the big supermarkets.
Wal-Mart, which now owns Asda, is a notoriously anti-trade union organisation, and in February 2006, was ordered to pay £850,000 for breaking new trade union laws by offering illegal inducements to workers to quit the GMB union.
Some 340 drivers and warehouse men at a Washington, Durham, distribution depot were offered a 10 per cent pay rise if they left the union
Our homegrown institutions are hardly better. Tesco, for instance, despite its staggering profits, has, report T&G shop stewards, put pressure on them to relinquish hard-won pay and working conditions if they want to join the company pension scheme.
A website established by disgruntled employees, of which there are many, dishes the daily dirt on Tesco, whose public image is dominated by whichever fading celebrities are hollow enough to take the cheque.
Bad for people, and the planet. There is little good to say about supermarkets, yet they thrive, mostly because the government is too in awe of big business to introduce any curbing legislation, and leaving us with a monoculture of big chainstores and precious little else.
Boycotts exist, particularly against Tesco, and any money directed away from the giants and into local economies is to the good. But consumer power cannot solve the problem by itself.
The campaigning charity Action Aid is calling for the government to introduce binding rules for supermarkets, and an independent watchdog to stamp on the abuse of power that currently helps ensure that people in developing countries stay poor, in order to provide a workforce desperate enough to work for virtually nothing.
We need legislation, not club card points and laughable research institutes that find the results their paymasters want them to find. Until then, watch out for the greenwash... and don’t buy more than you can chew.

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