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Date: 13/07/06

Myths Of Consumer Capitalism #456: 'Consumer Choice'

Towards the end of last year, I commented about how difficult it is to behave ethically and shop at the same time.

(I reached one of those pathetic self-serving 'compromises' on that one, by the way: I still shop at Sainsbury's, but I've reduced the number of their own-brand products in my trolley. That way, I delude myself that I'm decreasing their profit margins: who the hell am I kidding with this?).

My current problem is going to be thornier to resolve.

Iceland is a frozen food company which was founded in the early 1970s, and quickly spread its stores through North-East Wales and the North-West of England, and then beyond. Its head office is on Deeside (a short train ride from here).

After the usual 1990s takeover idiocy, the company hit a crisis at the turn of the century. The end result was the return of one of the founders, Malcolm Walker.

I've shopped at the Wrexham branch of Iceland for years. They have provided me with good food and good prices. The company's policy on GM foods has also been attractive. It's also in the town centre, which means I can get there during my lunch break (all the major supermarkets - Sainsbury's excepted - are on the opposite side of town).

Now comes the announcement that the company intends to close its distribution centre on Deeside in September, and take the 350 jobs to Warrington.

The company seems to have acted in ill faith in all this. They have insisted on £2million of savings at the site, or else. The unions say they have identified where such savings could be made to keep the depot open. Management (if you'll excuse the obscenity) appear to have rejected the proposals out-of-hand. Moreover, they appear even to be refusing to discuss redundancy terms for those who will be kicked out because they are unable to move to Warrington.

I had expected better, especially with the founder back in charge. But it seems the spirit of Samurai management (of the sort which brought the company to its knees a few short years ago) lives on with its old persistence and virulence.

The following is the text of an e-mail I am about to send to Mr Walker:

"Dear Mr Walker

"I view with concern your company's stated intention to close your Flintshire distribution centre in September.

"I had hoped for better from a company which has been based locally for a quarter of a century or more, and from a company now back under the management of one of its founders who, I would have hoped, would have had a better feel for the importance of loyalty than the corporate asset-strippers who nearly destroyed Iceland just a few years ago.

"As someone who does a large proportion of his weekly shopping in one of your stores, it saddens me that local people will be losing their jobs as a consequence of your decision.

"As a result I'm afraid that, should your company go through with this plan, I will no longer feel able to shop at Iceland.

"After all, if Iceland is intent on reducing its contribution to the local economy, I see no reason why I (as a member of that local community) should not in turn reduce my contribution to your company as a consequence.

"Yours, with regret."

(If I get a reply worth passing on, I'll try to do so).

I'm under no illusions about this, of course. One of the frauds which modern consumerism perpetrates upon us is the fairy story that we, the 'consumer' (and a more degrading term for people can scarcely be found in general use), have all this power that will make the corporate oligarchs sit up and take notice.

That is what the late and much-missed Ian Dury would have called "rampant bollo". We have no power of any consequence in the relationship. Take supermarkets, for example. Oh sure, there are a number to choose from, but all of them operate from the basic premise of screwing as much out of us as possible, and using trickery to gain our loyalty. The store cards, the 'special offers' (i.e. buy twice as much as you need, then throw two-thirds of it away), the gimcrack gimmickry. Even down to the basics: if, as part of my hissy fit with Sainsbury's, for example, I decide that, rather than buy their own-brand Canadian salmon, I'll buy John West's instead; and if they then stop stocking John West's Canadian salmon (only the Alaskan - which I won't buy 'cos I'm pissed off with Dubya), and stock only their own-brand Canadian salmon; then I'm up the St. Lawrence without a barge. Unless, of course, I go to a different supermarket, who will then go and do something remarkably similar.

And that is where they've really got us. Round and round we go, as if on a mad carousel, and always ending up in much the same place as we started from, only feeling more sick to the stomach than we were when we got on.

And as for the notion of 'ethical consumerism', well, that's much like the much-vaunted choice which, it is claimed, we all have in deciding which particular certificate-factory we want to send our offspring to, or precisely which hospital we choose to have our boils lanced in. For you can only properly exercise choice if you have most or all of the following:

This is why 'ethical shopping' will never catch on as it should. Most of us don't have enough of these resources to be able to make a real choice, preferring instead simply to grit our teeth and carry on doing as we have been.

If we think it matters at all, of course: which it does. Otherwise, we will dwell in Shopping-Cart Hell forever, and corporations will know this, and much shall be the rejoicing in the boardroom, and in the wallets thereof. An arrow to click on to take you to a follow-up item