HOME-PAGE           SITE-MAP          EMAIL

Supermarkets: criticisms
Small shops: criticisms (to right)

Supermarkets: criticisms

The material in this column is for archive purposes. It no longer reflects my opinion, or my practice. For quite a long time, I've shopped in supermarkets as well as small shops.

'The big power-hungry forces, from ideologies to big business, have got where they are without any help from me.' (The writer John Wain).

There are many, many schools in this country which can't make the same claim. The Open University in this country can't make the same claim.

To be more exact, some decision-makers in these organizations can't make the same claim. They have given help to forces which can damage local communities and small businesses. People are often forced to shop in supermarkets because the power of supermarkets has  deprived whole communities of real choice: vast numbers of communities, not a few. 

My view: No matter what may be good, enlightened, exceptional about the education provided by these schools, this is hidden from view, to some extent. The public face of these schools is very different: as advertising hoardings. These are just a few of these 'advertising hoardings with a good school behind them.'

Peak Forest Church of England Primary School, Derbyshire. Headteacher: Mr David Gordon.

Peak Forest Primary Schooltion here.

Hope Primary School, Derbyshire. Headteacher: Ms Samantha Fisher.

Hope Primary School

Compare this advertisement for Sainsbury's, kindly provided by Hope Primary School, with the writer Julie Burchill's devastating if over-stated comment about the cook Jamie Oliver: "Oliver basically passed on any right to be taken seriously the day he took the Sainsbury’s shilling; it sounds puritanical, but I’m of the same opinion as Bill Hicks that the day you are first paid to advertise something, you lose the right to be believed on anything, ever again."

This is an urban school which promoted Sainsbury's, Rivelin Primary School, Sheffield. Headteacher: Mrs Yvonne Twelvetree.
Click on the thumbnail for a larger image. (I'm glad to report that the school hasn't promoted supermarkets for a long time. Whether my letter to the Headteacher about the matter had any influence I've no evidence.)

Rivelin Primary School

The motto or 'mission statement' of the school on a nearby board is "Sowing the seeds for a lifetime's love of learning." True, very true, I'm sure - but promoting too a lifetime of supermarket shopping.

This school is situated next to an extensive allotment site. Jane Grigson wrote, in the introduction to 'Jane Grigson's Vegetable Book,' "In my most optimistic moments, I see every town ringed again with small gardens, nurseries, allotments, greenhouses, orchards, as it was in the past, an assertion of delight and human scale." The 'vision' of so many schools, or their decision-makers, is very different: "every town ringed with massive supermarkets, an assertion of alienation and inhuman scale."

In my pessimistic (and perhaps unfair) moments, I think of Tesco could as  the Japanese knot-weed of British retailing. Richard Mabey writes in 'Flora Britannica' of "its rampaging spread across Britain...advancing...aggressively...the most pernicious weed in Britain..."

Here is a school in Sheffield which advertises Tesco, Lydgate Junior School, Sheffield. Headteacher: Mrs Susan Havenhand.
Click on the thumbnail for a larger image.

Although it's the unhealthy relationship between supermarkets and schools and a university which concerns me here, this is part of a wider problem, of course. For example, in many schools, it's the Coca-Cola logo which appears on the school litter bins. One example from many is Tapton School, Sheffield. Headteacher: Mr David Bowes.   When he was questioned at a meeting about the school's advertizing of Coca-cola, he replied that the school gained money from Coca-cola. That much we know. A mention of 'the money' isn't the conclusive answer to any query about dubious practices. The products of child labour will be cheaper than ones produced by workers who are properly paid, but there should be limits to saving money.

When the Coca-Cola corporation tried to advertise in schools in Seattle, the campaigner Ralph Nader, of Commercial Alert, wrote a letter to the President of the Seattle school board which began "It is not the function of the public schools to deliver a captive audience of ... impressionable children to multinational corporations. The public schools are supposed to be a refuge, a sanctuary from commercial hucksters - not yet another place for corporations to peddle their products." Commercial Alert describes its objective as "to keep the commercial culture within its proper sphere, and to prevent it from exploiting children and subverting the higher values of family, community, environmental integrity and democracy."

John Alm, President and Chief Operating Officer, Coca-Cola Enterprises: 'The school system is where you build brand loyalty.' (Quoted in the Atlanta Journal Constitution, April 6, 2003.)

Some supermarkets, like the Coca-Cola corporation and so many other large commercial concerns, are insatiable. Not content with TV advertising, radio advertising, advertising on hoardings, in newspapers and magazines, some of them want to advertise outside schools - and a large number of schools allow it. Let schools at least be a refuge, a sanctuary, from this commercial bombardment.

I hope that supermarket shoppers won't support the practice of schools advertising supermarkets or a university advertising a supermarket or will actively oppose it. There are institutions which should be as far as possible free from bias. An independent judiciary, a planning system which decides the merits of a case not on economic power but by considering fair-mindedly the merits of an application using criteria such as congestion, social need, existing provision, the preservation of the character or beauty of a place. And an educational system which isn't open to the highest bidder, which recognizes that in a case like this, where there are serious, principled objections to some facets of these businesses, based on evidence, it's completely wrong to give them this uncritical support.

I oppose the promotion of supermarkets by schools in general, schools in big cities,  villages and  hamlets, such as Peak Forest. A concern for the preservation of the visual environment, the built environment and the natural environment, is important everywhere, of course, but even more so in a National Park. Both of the Derbyshire schools above are in the Peak District National Park. If you're making the journey towards Castleton, after passing the tawdry advertisement for Tesco outside Peak Forest Primary School, you'll be confronted by the stark beauty of Winnats Pass:

Winnats Pass

If you're making the journey from Hope to Edale, where the Pennine Way begins, to end in Scotland, after passing the demeaning advertisement for Sainsbury outside Hope Primary School, you'll travel past a beautiful skyline to your left, of real grandeur, but intimate rather than intimidating.

But the advertisements provided by these schools amount to a reduction of contrast, of the distinctiveness of the Peak District. If you go to the Cotswolds or rural Devon or Suffolk or Northumbria - the length and breadth of the country, in fact - you'll no doubt find schools imposing on us exactly the same jarring and completely unnecessary intrusions. An organization which has made an outstanding contribution to the appreciation of local distinctiveness and its active defence is Common Ground. Their Web sites are at http://www.commonground.org.uk and http://www.england-in-particular.info See also their valuable book 'England in Particular,' in which the village of Hope is mentioned.

The objections to supermarkets go well beyond their  environmental record. Here, very belatedly, they are taking steps to improve, although many of the improvements are cosmetic rather than real. Very important to me, and others, are a range of other objections. The blandness, the uniformity, the cloning that result when the supermarkets get their stranglehold on retailing.

I visited Poland not so long ago, and because I don't fly when I can go overland I went by coach. The journey to Poland took over a day, but it was no hardship. Journeys of this length are nothing.

The journey to Poland allowed me to see something of the countries on the way. Travelling from Wroclaw through Silesia to Krakow, I saw huge Tesco stores at intervals - a graphic demonstration of the way in which the interesting differences between countries become lessened: a 'reduction in contrast.' I've never travelled on the Trans-Siberian Railway, but perhaps even now, as the train passes settlements in the birch forest, the traveller sees one Tesco store after another - and later, in the permafrost, beneath the Northern Lights, yet another Tesco...

Wherever the school may be, in an inner city, the suburbs, a village or a remote hamlet, a school has absolutely no right to promote very powerful businesses at the expense of small businesses. Parents of children at the school may well own a shop: a baker's, a fruit and vegetable shop, a hardware shop, a newsagent's, or whatever it may be. These businesses can't possibly afford to give out vouchers to customers for school equipment. A school has no right to undermine the livelihood of these people. Pupils who look for work in a business at the end of secondary education, further education or higher education should be able to choose from various possibilities, which include going into a family business and starting up a business themselves. They should not be faced with one alternative only, being hired by some massive corporation, or only one realistic alternative, since so many of the small businesses have gone out of business.

And now, some supermarkets are selling books. Independent booksellers have disappeared from large parts of the country. Independent booksellers are a vital part of any healthy 'ecology of thought.' The trend towards a monoculture of thought has to be opposed, and opposed strenuously. The threat is to independent thought as well as independent retailing.

The staff of outdoor equipment retailers, in my experience, are generally excellent. They are interested in what they sell, they have a good knowledge of what they sell, they are walkers and climbers themselves. It's not a luxury, it's very important, that books should be sold by people with an interest in what they sell, who have a good knowledge of what they sell, who are readers themselves - readers, that is, of things other than ephemeral rubbish - not simply money-takers, till-operators and 'product' shifters.

Of course, far more than an intense interest in books is needed to run a successful bookshop, but if someone has the range of skills needed, or is willing to make a great effort to acquire them, then it should be feasible, practicable for someone to open a bookshop and, given enormous hard work, for it to succeed. Any society in which this becomes impossible, in which a person with an interest in books has no alternative but to apply for a job at Asda's or Tesco's book department or the book department of another massive retailer with no culture but a 'corporate culture'' is a culturally impoverished society. (I don't include in this criticism booksellers in this country such as Blackwell's, or, even Waterstone's.) Similarly for those with an interest in real bread who would like to open a bakery, and those with an interest in real beer who would like to open a shop.

A school should be concerned with teaching the subjects of the curriculum and encouraging values which deserve to be encouraged, not in acting as the agents of supermarkets. Schools should teach critical thinking to older pupils - should put no unnecessary obstacles in the way of critical thinking. They should encourage a fair-mindedness that will welcome any arguments in favour of supermarkets as well as the arguments against them. What they should never do is try to give the impression that supermarkets are beyond scrutiny, beyond criticism, obviously the place where shopping has to be done. There is no responsibility at all to further the corporate well-being of such powerful organizations as Tesco, Netto, Morrison's, Asda, Lidl, the Co-op and the rest.

This page is intended as a contribution to activism, to ending abuses, but I also apply to supermarkets some of the ideas I use in other parts of the site. Most important of all to me is the recognition of complexity, which involves fair-mindedness but also criticism which goes beyond the criticism of activists - and this includes criticism of teachers in some cases.

Ted Wragg, who used to oppose some of the idiocies of the educational system in the pages of 'The Times Educational Supplement.' The idiocies of the educational system in this country are a very rich field and Ted Wragg, although prolific, hardly scratched the surface. In pointing out the harmful and grotesque effects of political meddling in education he was accurate and very often devastating. But he completely - almost systematically - neglected the harm brought about by the passivity of some teachers, their complicity in their own burdens and difficulties, their complicity in the harm to society and to human values. He never, so far as I know, criticized the dangers to thought, freedom and human values posed by 'the corporate takeover of Britain.' (the sub-title of George Monbiot's 'Captive State.') Many teachers, and even more Head-teachers, dread the inspectors, dread the visitations of Ofsted. But the criticisms of Ofsted - often, but not always - unfair, routine, predictable ("a failure to implement ICT in food technology lessons") don't address such matters as these. Actors and actresses, directors and producers, poets and novelists, instrumentalists and conductors, are used to facing the judgments of critics. There's no reason at all why teachers shouldn't face legitimate and reasonable criticism. They can't claim, in the term I use, 'exemption.'

Teachers may face enormous pressures and levels of stress, but they often overlook the pressures faced by people in very different occupations, such as the pressures faced by farmers and other suppliers, and by small traders. Teachers at least are well paid and have long holidays. They don't expect to spend a demanding day at work and come away with very little. Can they enter into the world of a dairy farmer, who is paid about as much for the milk as it costs him or her to produce it? Or less. Can they imagine their bitterness? Suppliers often live in a climate of fear. The supermarkets have such power over them that they feel they can't speak to the media.

Other criticisms of the harmful effects of supermarkets and calls for action. (None of the writers or organizations or Web sites I quote from and refer to on this page would necessarily endorse the approach I take on this page). All of these criticisms are common knowledge to anti-supermarket campaigners, to anyone, in fact, reasonably in touch with modern life.

Web sites



'Tescopoly' is an on-line alliance of more than 200 local anti-supermarket campaigns.

The National Federation of Women's Institutes (NFWI)

'The NFWI has been concerned for some time about the market dominance of the big supermarkets, and the impact of that dominance on consumers, suppliers and small independent shops. The NFWI is not convinced that price cuts in the big supermarkets are in the best interest of consumers in the long run. Destroying farming in this country will not serve consumers' long term interests, neither will pushing small independent stores out of business, often the life blood of local communities.

The National Federation of Women's Institutes does not want to see the demise of our vibrant communities. It strongly supports local independent shops and a sustainable British farming industry.

Change your shopping habits

If you are concerned about the power the major supermarkets are having over small independent businesses and farmers both at home and abroad then take action! Support non-supermarket shopping alternatives wherever you can: buy your newspapers at the newsagents, your meat from the butchers and use your local pharmacy for prescriptions. Every sale diverted from the supermarkets will help independent stores flourish.

A study by the New Economics Foundation found that £10 spent on a local organic box scheme can generate £25 for the local economy (a radius of 24km from the farm), compared with £14, if the same initial amount is spent in a supermarket

Think twice about going to the supermarket; if you're jumping in the car every time you need a loaf of bread, ask yourself if the trip is really necessary - is there a local shop you could walk to instead?

Try cutting the number of trips that you make to the supermarket; if you go once a week, try going once a fortnight, if you go once a fortnight, try making if every three weeks instead. You'll often find cheaper, better quality local produce elsewhere.

Get informed about alternative shopping possibilities. Are there farmers' markets or box and mail order schemes in your area? Some independent shops also offer home delivery schemes.'

From the Web-site of the activist and writer George Monbiot:



The pages include such topics as these:

"The superstores are on the verge of cornering the news market, with disastrous implications for democracy

The superstores are mopping up the last pockets of resistance

The supermarkets could kill organic farming’s potential to revolutionize the foodchain

The Competition Commission has given the superstores permission to destroy the rest of Britain’s food economy

The Office of Fair Trading is giving Britain’s superstores exactly what they want

Why do we believe what the superstores tell us?

The superstores are dumping their costs on all of us

Superstores are destroying the local economy

The superstores are changing the world to suit themselves"

George Monbiot is right about these issues, as I see it, but wrong about many others. See my page Green objections.

Joanna Blythman's book 'Shopped: the shocking power of British Supermarkets'

Some of the main themes in the book (listed on the cover):

High Streets killed by megastores
Bullied suppliers
Fake choice
Pesticide-covered fruit and veg
Third world producers exploited
Local jobs destroyed
Cult-like staff indoctrination
Massive profits and rock-bottom pay

From the review in The Guardian:

'Shocking and galvanising...it is still possible to avert a future in which Tesco provides for all our needs from womb to tomb.'

Francis Beckett, writing in the New Statesman

The most insidious propaganda of all is that which makes a linkage between buying in a supermarket and 'helping the children.' (Compare the raising of money for children's charities and other causes by means of bullfights in France and Spain. Who could possibly oppose bullfighting when it helps the children? Well, I and many other people certainly can.) This is an extract from Francis Beckett's piece:

'The companies naturally like to pretend that these schemes are something to do with corporate generosity. Ring Tesco's PR consultants and they will send you a feelgood factsheet - how many computers they have "given away", the value of this largesse, how many balloons were released to launch the scheme, how many MPs (135) have been dragged in to present certificates, that sort of thing.

Here's what it doesn't tell you. Tesco will "give" your local school an Apple iMac in return for 9,250 vouchers. Each voucher represents £10 that the parents have to spend in Tesco. So the iMac represents parental expenditure of £92,500. Tesco does not reveal its profit margin, but it cannot be far from the average food retailers' margin of 5.9 per cent. On that basis, each iMac brings in a profit to Tesco of £5,457.

At PC World, you can buy the iMac 333 - newer and better than the one Tesco offers - for just £915, including VAT. Tesco is unlikely to be paying the full retail price. But assume that it is: then Tesco is making nearly six times the value of the computer in profit. And the scheme enables the company to use children as stage props in shabby local PR exercises and to talk sanctimonious rubbish about "putting something back into the community". No wonder companies are queueing up to "give" things to schools.

Tesco's great rival, Sainsbury's, asks its customers to register the name of their children's schools. A point is awarded to the school for every £10 the parents spend, and the school can purchase necessary items, such as a Canon colour printer for 2,200 points. So parents have to spend £22,000, and the profit, calculated on the same basis as for Tesco, is £1,298. That's not bad for a £99 printer. But Sainsbury's is marginally better value than Tesco, where the same printer costs 2,500 vouchers.

Tesco argues that these figures are unfair, because the profits would have been made anyway. It isn't true. My local Tesco is packed with anxious parents adding up their weekly shopping and then putting something else into their trolley to bring it up to £60, or £70, or whatever the next multiple of ten is. Sainsbury's is more honest. "Customers do increase their basket spend during the promotional period," says a spokeswoman."

John Wain on money - or lack of it - and human values

John Wain was quoted at the beginning of this page. More of his article deserves to be quoted. It comes from 'Not a profession but a condition,' published in 'Author! Author!' edited by Richard Findlater. John Wain wasn't a major writer, but he was someone of real moral stature.

'I have a fair-sized family to support, my health is no great shakes, I haven't a penny of private income of any kind, I own no property. I have saved no money, I have made no provision for my old age. By the standards of ordinary middle-class life I am, at forty-seven, a failure. Imagine a bank manager or doctor who, at my time of life, had such a record! Yet the fact is that I don't feel like a failure. I think, amazingly enough, that I haven't done so badly. In those twenty years, I may have been forced to overproduce; I may have written hundreds of articles and general odds and ends, as well as the shelf-full of books that represent my 'real' work, and some of them have been pretty thin. But then I think, on the other hand, of the things I haven't done. I haven't written any pornography, or crime thrillers, or scripted any trashy films or television series, and as a critic I've never printed an opinion that I didn't whole-heartedly believe was true. All of which makes me holy? Certainly not. But I feel a solid satisfaction at the fact that, whether or not I've made any money, I have at least spent the last twenty years in activity that has done no one any harm and may conceivably have done a few people some good (interested them, opened their eyes to things they hadn't noticed, enriched their thinking and feeling a little bit.) And without ministering to any of the tendencies that cheapen and darken our world. The big power-hungry forces, from ideologies to big businesses, have got where they are without any help from me.' To repeat what I wrote earlier, there are many, many schools which can't make the same claim.

Animal rights/animal welfare is a very important issue to me. I live in an area where I have no difficulty in buying free range eggs. I'm a vegetarian, but if I did eat meat, I'd be able to buy meat produced to very high welfare standards at another small shop not too far away, a branch of the 'Real Meat Company.' Some small shops sell nothing but battery chicken eggs.

If, hypothetically, the only choice in a locality is to buy battery chicken eggs at a small shop or free-range eggs at a supermarket, then the choice should be obvious: use the supermarket. If possible, buy at a supermarket that only sells free-range eggs, such as Waitrose, not from Tesco, which still sells battery eggs. (Not so long ago, I demonstrated outside various Tesco supermarkets against Tesco's support for factory farming with other members of Compassion in World Farming.) But so often, the issue doesn't arise. There are small shops selling high quality cheese, eggs, meat, beer, wine and the rest. Why buy a newspaper or magazine in a supermarket when there are innumerable small newsagents? (for the time being.) There are small shops, many, many small shops, with an outstanding stock, which are usually not busy at all. They deserve the support of the public, but the public is so often buying elsewhere, because the mechanical response of well-drilled consumers is to shop at a supermarket.

Marks and Spencer claims not to be a supermarket, and I accept the claim. Its record on animal welfare is outstanding. It sells no battery chicken eggs at all, for example. (When it did sell battery chicken eggs, a long time ago, I went and put leaflets amongst the egg packs in one store, to point out the cruelty involved.) It took the decision to phase out all products that contain battery chicken eggs. Its record for welfare meat is outstanding too. Even though I respect the policies of Marks and Spencer very much, I would still urge that eggs and other products should be bought at a small shop, wherever feasible. For example, a small shop may well have an arrangement with a local producer. In rural areas and even in parts of towns and cities, the eggs may come from a small farm which is nearby. Large-scale free range egg farms which supply Marks and Spencer and the supermarkets are obviously infinitely preferable to the disgusting sheds that supply battery chicken eggs (to schools, for example, which generally support factory farming by their purchasing - in hideous contradiction with any claim to be places of such enlightenment and sensitivity), but small egg farms are even better. Someone who keeps a small number of chickens, free to run around, in magnificent condition, can sell surplus eggs to a small shop, but not to a supermarket. And so for small-scale producers of many other products, who have done everything to deserve our support.

Campaigning techniques

In campaigning, I think it's essential to distinguish two things: (1) The most effective techniques to win. This will often demand short, vivid messages, simple slogans, and arguments presented very briefly -and action which is concentrated rather than diffuse, ruthless in spirit rather than genteel. In the case of this issue, I deliberately rename the Headteacher to include the supermarket chain which they are helping to promote. If the Headteacher considers that this is demeaning and undignified, then I would answer that this is simply to draw attention to the demeaning and undignified position which has been adapted by the school of which they are the Head. If the supermarket chain is determined to use schools for promotion, and to expect educationalists to forfeit dignity, why not use the name of the Headteacher too? This is simply a form of poetic justice. The renaming is similar to the Welsh naming which reflects the job or some other characteristic of the person, such as the baker 'Dai the bread,' or the man with just a single tooth in the middle of his mouth humorously named 'Dai Central Eating.' Renaming is to use and reshape language as a tactic. Drop the supermarket promotion and 'Tesco-Smith' becomes simply 'Smith.'
(2) The reasoning which underlies the action. This should not be simple. It should be comprehensive (covering all relevant aspects of the subject rather than a few), fair-minded (taking every care to avoid distortions of reality, taking note of possible objections), sophisticated in moral argument, and, also, factually correct.

Supermarkets and {themes}

This page, like other pages in this section of the site, is intended to discuss issues in terms of a distinctive system of thought, which includes the 'themes:' a technical term. To see the page in which I discuss {restriction}, a theme with particular relevance to this page, click here. (The page is a fairly recent one and will be extended.) I make the point there that the industrial revolution was beneficial to a great extent, that modern industrial society, quite legitimately, has to make use of massive factories and warehouses, modern transportation systems, computer-controlled stock systems - but that it's essential to practise limitation, an aspect of {restriction}, to be more exact, a sub-theme of {restriction}. Industrial methods have been applied indiscriminately, irrationally, to areas where their disadvantages far exceed their advantages, where they involve cruelty to animals, very severe losses to people and communities and a range of other problems. Massive supermarkets and factory farming of animals represent an uncritical, a disastrously misguided application of industrial methods. They represent a wrong-turning, which it's essential to correct. Although obviously it's possible to extend these disastrous systems and to support them as consumers, limitation should be applied: boycott them. A boycott of factory-farmed produce should be absolute, as I see it and a boycott of supermarkets should be as extensive as possible.

People may feel uneasy about the powerful forces I and others oppose, they may even have a healthy contempt for these forces, but feel that they are too powerful to be resisted: all that can be done, with regret, is to go along with them. I think this is very much mistaken. There are encouraging signs that resistance is growing. To be alive, or fully alive, is to resist, to some extent, not to be completely passive. An analogy: a person who has drowned is necessarily completely passive and can't resist, is carried by the current wherever the current may go. To be alive is to do everything possible to resist currents, to swim against currents, to refuse to be passive. The currents of modern life are very powerful, but not so powerful as to make resistance futile. There are choices which are stark and dramatic: amongst them, the easy life or self-respect.

To look at these matters from the perspective of linkage, or lack of linkage, can transform our outlook, I think. Is there a linkage between massive financial power, such as the power of a company beginning to monopolize the market, on the one hand, and massive social benefits and moral authority on the other? Surely not. There's no linkage between the two things. No advertisements or public relations consultants or any amount of money or popular support can alter this lack of linkage. By the concept I call diversification, success isn't of one kind, deserved success, or success which is beneficial. There's also undeserved success, success which has disastrous consequences.

Any adequate analysis of power has to employ {resolution}, in the course of which uncomfortable truths, paradoxes and complexities will almost always emerge. Power, including massive power, isn't something to be wished away or eliminated, even if it could be eliminated. The opening quotation in fact oversimplifies and distorts. The harmful effects of ideology are beyond doubt, the harmful effects of big business are accompanied by massive benefits.

Modern transportation would be inconceivable without the internal combustion engine and manufacturing the engines and supplying the engines with fuel necessarily demands massive industrial output and massive financial commitment - it demands, in fact, 'big business.'

Green ideologists who smile at this defence of something they might describe as a polluting monstrosity, to be got rid should try to imagine a world without them. They can imagine a world in which transportation of people is by non-polluting bicycle and transportation of goods is by bicycles pulling trailers, but would be vague about the difficulties, which are insuperable. How are bicyles to be manufactured without heavy machinery and electric power? After an earthquake, how is heavy lifting equipment to be transported to the disaster area to rescue survivors? If the bicycle is a practical method of transport in some circumstances, it's completely unrealistic in others, such as areas with heavy snowfall in winter. A small-scale counterpart of the bicycle for use on water might be a small rowing boat, again, non-polluting and a practical method of transport in some circumstances but in most cases not. Although people have rowed across the Atlantic, trans-Atlantic transport will never depend upon rowing boats. Although small shops as well as massive stores can sell vehicle components such as lubricating oil and wiper blades, although small filling stations can sell petrol and diesel, only massive operations with massive financial power can manufacture and distribute the components and the fuels. Manufacturing lubricating oil, petrol or diesel from crude oil can never be turned into a 'human-scale' cottage industry, supplied by earnest cyclists pulling small trailers.

Small shops: criticisms

For a long time, the material in the column to the left stood alone, but I found that the faults of some small shops are impossible to ignore. There may be good reasons to continue buying from these shops despite their faults, but not always. As illustrative examples, I discuss some small shops near here. Their faults have much more than local significance.

Again and again I oppose the mechanical response. I don't  claim that all small businesses are better than all large businesses.

Owners of a shop may be clueless and incompetent - not in every way, perhaps clueless and incompetent only in one way.

A small shop may sell outright rubbish. To suppose that small shops invariably sell goods of better quality than very large shops is obviously ridiculous. Small shops may pose as ethical guides, but disastrously misguided ethical guides. Human interaction is part of shopping. Very often, the staff of supermarkets are friendly and approachable, and their friendliness is genuine, not fake friendliness - and the people working in small shops can make shopping there a dispiriting experience. These are some of the ways in which small shops may fall short.

A shop which boycotts Israeli products

The wholefood shop is a strong supporters of green views, criticized in my page on green ideology. It caters for vegetarians and vegans and the staff (who are paid) are either vegetarians and vegans. I'm a vegetarian with a dislike of vegan ideology, as my page on veganism makes clear. The vegan diet, of course, involves the import of great quantities of soya bean products from countries where soya beans grow well, to replace  foods which can be produced easily in this country. lt sells fresh produce which is more often than not magnificent in quality.

I'm self-sufficient in fruit and vegetables to a large extent. The land I rent for growing these fruit and vegetables (and for encouraging wildlife and, so far as I can, creating a place which has beauty) is featured in the page Gardening: photographic introduction. As for the fruit and vegetables I do buy, I only buy ones which are grown in this country and preferably locally produced ones. Similarly for most other products. For this reason, I overlooked for a long time the source of vegetables such as sweet potatoes, which are imported (although sweet potatoes can be grown in this country.) It occurred to me that the sweet potatoes sold in one of these two shops were never Israeli, I enquired and found that the shop has a policy of boycotting Israel products. It did sell, and may well sell now, products from Egypt, China and Vietnam. It obviously finds these ethically acceptable. It sold Egyptian products even when the country was under the dictatorial rule of Mubarak.

This shop had a policy of boycotting Israeli products but kept quiet about it. No other countries are boycotted.

The shop attaches great importance to animal welfare, but it doesn't boycott Spanish products. My page on bullfighting gives my reasons for opposing bullfighting.

Waitrose, Tesco and Asda don't boycott Israeli or Spanish products. They leave it to the shopper to decide which countries to boycott, if they want to. The decision is theirs. The staff at this shop takes a different approach, a disastrously misguided one. They are very busy people - some of them have to go to market to buy produce, and their are so many demands on their time. Somehow, they have found the time to investigate the human rights and animal welfare record of many countries, including Iran, which I criticize at length, and have decided that only in the case of one country, Israel, is a strong boycotting policy justified. Or have they taken the time? Is their decision based on hard evidence? Or have they taken the much easier way, the unethical way - of following uncritically only one view?

The staff have decided that Spanish bullfighting (and bullfighting in the other countries which inflict this disgusting cruelty on animals, such as France, Mexico and Colombia) isn't a sufficient reason to protect the public from their produce. Can they defend their decision? Do they know enough about Iran to decide that Israel, unlike Iran, should be boycotted? I give evidence on this site which should make them think again.

There will never be agreement on the relative merits of different countries and the relative weaknesses of different countries. The best policy is to leave it to the shopper to decide. If the staff think they have arguments and evidence which demolishes the arguments and evidence I've given, in detail, let them provide their own arguments and evidence. They could, of course, consult Sheffield Palestinian Solidarity Campaign about the best way of combatting people with views like my own.

I fully recognize that if the people at the shop ever came to the conclusion that to single out Israel, amongst all the countries of the world, for boycotting is grossly unfair, and decided to stock Israeli products, it would cause extraordinary difficulties for them. Most of their existing customers, or very many of them, haven't undertaken, I would think, a detailed examination of the issues, by examining the records of a wide range of countries. I think it's very unlikely, then, that there will be any change at any of these places. My message would be something along the lines of 'Whatever ethical strengths they may have, they are far less ethical than many of you suppose. As regards Israel, their 'ethical' policy is more than confused - drastically misguided,' I don't call for people to boycott the shop. I'd put it this way. There are other places to buy fair trade products and organic produce - buy them from places which don't boycott Israeli products. If you don't want to buy Israeli products at such places, nobody is forcing you to.

Asda, is a supermarket chain in this country which isn't one of the more sophisticated ones - it's a wholly owned subsidiary of Walmart). But change the perspective ({modification}: perspective) and it emerges in a far more favourable light, as compared with these shops. From Asda's Website, 'Your Asda:'

'We’re proud to be supporting the Royal British Legion once again this year with their poppy appeal.

'Members of the Royal British Legion will be visiting Asda stores over the next fortnight to sell poppies so look out for them if you haven’t bought one yet.'

You would never find a worker at these shops wearing a poppy, the emblem of remembrance in this country, remembrance of those who gave their lives in the armed services.

I discuss in detail in various places in this site the reasons why remembering the sacrifice made by these people is essential, for anyone with an appreciation for harsh realities, for anyone with common decency. People who regard the sacrifice as militarism have surely never given any serious thought, or any thought whatsoever, to these harsh realities.

To confine attention to the Second World War, when the Nazi invasions began, when one country after another in Europe found itself occupied, then the quiet life (including the quiet life of promoting organic farming, all the desirable objectives which the workers at support) became impossible. If the occupying forces decided that workers at workers' co-operatives should be deported for slave labour, tortured on executed, then they were deported, tortured or executed. This nightmare came to an end with no thanks to the Green Party mentality, one based on ignorance of defence issues,  but as a result of the sacrifices of the armed services in this and other countries, sacrifices which the gross, gigantic supermarket chain Asda recognizes, but evidently not the people who work at shops like this.

The workers at the shop could try asking representatives of 'Palestinian civil society' why homosexuality is illegal in Gaza (gay relationships are fully legal in Israel.) Or why sexual relations outside marriage are illegal in Gaza and the West Bank. To ask these representatives of Palestinian civic society why homosexuals and women who have babies outside marriage are subject to imprisonment wouldn't be welcome, it might well be regarded as tactless, but ethical seriousness and ethical commitment often require much, much greater sacrifices.

The workers at the shop could also ask about the place of animals in Palestinian civic society.

This video, on mistreatment of animals in Gaza, comes with a warning from 'Animals Australia:.' it's  very, very distressing:


Australian RSPCA makes this comment:

Footage uploaded onto YouTube during the Festival of Sacrifice in October 2013 revealed the horrific treatment of Australian cattle in the Gaza Strip in Palestine. It is some of the most shocking and distressing footage we have seen.

The footage documents Australian cattle:

The middle east is reliant on authoritarian rule and Israel is the exception. The middle east tends to be oblivious to issues of animal welfare. The only exceptions are isolated individuals in those countries - and the state of Israel. Israel hasn't taken the attitude that, faced by enormous threats, it can neglect every other consideration but survival and protection. It recognizes that civilization requires care for animals. Israel was one of the first countries in the world to ban the use of wild animals in circuses, in 1995. (Britain still has no national ban, although many local authorities do have bans.)

Israel used to be the fourth largest producer of foie gras in the world. Unlike, of course, France, it banned the production of foie gras, recognizing that the ethical objections were unanswerable.

There are many other developments: animal rights/animal welfare activity in Israel has developed enormously. Israel has even banned dissection of animals in primary and secondary schools. At Universities, dissection is optional. Vegans in the Israeli Defence Force are given vouchers to buy vegan food - and are not required to wear leather boots. Boots made with synthetic materials are provided. Israel has never had a whaling industry but it joined the International Whaling Commission so as to vote against any resumption of whaling. Opposition to the fur trade is intense in Israel. Legislation is being considered which would be the most far-reaching in the world, to prohibit the import, production and sale of all fur products. A survey of Israeli opinion carried out by the polling company Maagar-Mohot gave these results. In answer to the question, 'Do you find it moral to kill animals if they are killed only for their fur?' 86% of Israelis were opposed. On the question, 'Would you support a bill to ban the trade of fur in Israel?' 79% were in favour of a ban.

There's a time for meticulous examination of the arguments and evidence and a time for clear-cut decisions. Do you give your money to one shop or another?  Shops like this have their strengths and advantages, but they are outweighed by this dismal failure - an ethical failure - to recognize that their singling out of Israel for blame is completely unjustified. My page Ethics: theory and practice has a discussion of outweighing in ethics for people who have an interest in ethical discussion as well as ethical decisions.

I printed leaflets on some of the issues discussed in this section and had sessions in which I stood outside the wholefood shop and gave leaflets to any customers going into the shop who would accept one. I did the same outside another shop selling wholefoods, organic produce and vegan produce - but not Israeli produce. I did have very constructive conversations with staff at both shops. For this reason, I don't name either shop. For very different reasons, I don't name a cafe which makes it completely clear that it boycotts Israeli products - it has a sign on the door proudly proclaiming its ignorance. I started offering leaflets to customers going into the cafe. Very soon, a very angry employee came out. He picked up a container of water and threw it at me. I was able to avoid the water very easily. When I got back home, I received a phone call. The employee, doing his best to adopt a menacing tone, and succeeding to some extent, said down the phone, 'We know where you live.' He didn't succeed in intimidating me. When I took part in a protest against a circus which used animal acts, we, the protesters, were calm and never used threatening language, but we were confronted by circus employees who went berserk. One of them shouted at me, 'I'll break every bone in your body!' but it didn't cause me any concern. I think of that old saying, 'Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me.'

See also my page on animal welfare campaigning and activism.

A classical music shop

More often than not, the faults of a small shop have nothing to do with ideology, simply with incompetence.

I think of an independent shop selling classical CDs and DVDs in the city, run by a someone with an obvious love of classical music, but no particular  interest in some of the skills needed for his business to be a success. I ordered a CD of some Haydn String Quartets and, when he failed to contact me, decided to wait. After three months, I went back to the shop. He hadn't lost my contact details, but had simply no interest in doing anything about the order. I ordered the CD by using the internet, and it was delivered within two days.

A garden centre

I generally overlook lack of very much friendliness, an apparent coldness, when I encounter it in small shops. I recognize that there may well be good reasons to explain it. Living a financially precarious life, facing the real possibility of loss of livelihood or bankruptcy or the inability to pay bills is enough to explain lack of the carefree attitude. Quite different is outright stupidity in talking to customers.

When small shopkeepers talk to customers, some of them may well forget that what they say may alienate customers, may lose them customers. I used to buy plants and plant products often at a small garden centre, but the ignorance and  tactlessness of one of the owners  was so extreme, so off-putting on one occasion that I never went again, until the garden centre acquired new owners.

A home brew shop

Another instance of cluelessness, this time concerning a home brew shop near here which has now closed. The window display of any small shop gives so many advantages to bring in customers, or to deter them. A home brew shop can present information about how easy it is to brew beer at home or to make wine, and the huge cost advantages of doing that. Instead, for a long period, this shop had distillation apparatus, which would mostly be bought to make illegal spirits, in fact, with a prominent notice about the importance of using distilled water in brewing, something which is plainly ridiculous, since distilling gives completely tasteless water. It would only convince people that brewing was a very complicated matter.

A hardware shop

Small hardware shops are often excellent, often anything but - or their staff may be exceptionally pleasant, exceptionally helpful, but their stock anything but exceptional. Faced by the relentless competition from bigger operations, a hardware shop may offer low prices by selling shoddy products, such as tools which are closer to a kiddy's set of toy tools rather than to the tools which can be respected.

Sheffield is often called 'steel city,' and still produces many high quality tools. The fact that a massive operation may sell high-quality tools from Sheffield and other places and a small shop may sell toy-tools, the fact that a massive operation in Sheffield may be supporting Sheffield industry, to an extent, whilst a small shop may do little or nothing to support Sheffield industry and high standards of manufacture in general is one of those inconvenient facts neglected by simplifiers.

Buy a cheap set of drill bits which will last hardly any time and may snap in use from a local shop, or buy a set of very good drill bits manufactured in Sheffield from B&Q or another massive retailer. The second, surely. But high standards in one area are no guarantee of high standards in another. B&Q sells tools of high quality but many other things are shoddy rubbish. Anybody who wants to buy a door of real quality is far more likely to find it in a smaller shop.

   {} Big business and small businesses