The Judge RANTS!
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.
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
"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
"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
"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:
- Enough information
- Enough time to make sense of that information
- Enough energy, time and money to be able to devote to being very
pushy about it
- Enough intelligence to be able to see that you are being offered
a 'choice', but not quite enough intelligence to see that it doesn't
make a shred of difference.
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