I’ve always read a lot, apart from gardening books and suchlike, I’m a great science fiction fan. Last time I counted, I’d over 5,000 sci-fi books and a few hundred magazines.

One recurring theme in science fiction is the future dystopian society. Perhaps the most famous is George Orwell’s 1984. There Britain has become Airstrip One, run by the party epitomised by Big Brother who knows all, sees all and controls every aspect of life.

Another theme that crops up is a future where governments have been replaced by corporations or groups of corporations. You might recall the 1975 film Rollerball starring James Caan which was set in a corporate controlled future.

Anyway, I’ve just read a really scary book that shows how those two futures can combine. A corporate controlled state that knows everything about you. What is so frightening about this book is that it is not science fiction. In fact it is a well argued almost academic work.

The book charts the rise of Tesco from a market operation in 1925 to one of the top ten global operators in the food business. How it ruthlessly clawed its way to dominance in the UK is a revelation and how it now wields more power than the average local council is terrifying.

Worse than this, they’ve vertically integrated their global supply chain. Farmers in Africa depend on the good will of a new colonial master, their children sing the praises of the new bwana when Tesco’s managers fly in business class to reduce their wages and improve profitability for Tesco.

Back at home they hold hundreds of land sites where eventually they can build yet more Tescos or at least stop their rivals from building. Their attitude to planning laws seems, from what I read, to be based on cost benefit analysis, In other words, if there is more profit in flouting the law than the fine then go ahead.

The book discusses the effect of Tesco opening in a town, although the same could be said for any one of the big chains like Wal Mart or Morrisons. In effect, it’s the death of the independents. You might say ‘so what?’, after all people must like shopping there and the prices are better. Well, as Joni Mitchell sang – “You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.”

Big supermarkets reduce choice. There’s something called the 80:20 rule in business. 80% of the profit comes from 20% of the lines. So, reduce the lines. Get rid of the things that aren’t so popular and maximise your profit. We lose 80% of our choice and they gain 100% of the profit.

Since their relentless growth in grocery is held back by the fact it’s harder and harder to build new stores, they’ve reacted by expanding sideways. I don’t just mean the non-foods in the store like clothes, hardware and electrical goods. They’re moving into banking, credit cards, insurance, pharmacy, legal services, funeral services and more.

Thanks to the club card, they know what you buy and when. Imagine the power of knowing what you spend your money on, how much your house is worth, what car you drive, how your health is, what pets you have. Scared yet? You should be terrified.

I don’t want an elected government knowing that much about me, never mind a company whose only loyalty is to the shareholders and directors.  Every little helps and every little bit of  you belongs to  us.

This is not a sensationalist scare mongering book, it’s a serious work where their sources are cited. There are some things against the book. It is hard work to read and I’d have been tempted to edit about a third out of it. The author is a bit London middle-class orientated but that doesn’t devalue the arguments and information in there.

I’d have liked to have seen more suggestions about what can be done to right these wrongs. I think the current credit crunch recession has highlighted some of the fundamental faults with our capitalist system where the primary loyalty of companies is to financial gain. Perhaps making the directors of companies personally liable for the company’s actions would be a start.

However, if you have any interest in the way our society is developing, the threat to your freedom and the potential for evil large corporations are developing, read this book.

Tescopoly: How One Shop Came Out on Top and Why It Matters

Posted in Rants and Raves
9 comments on “Tescopoly
  1. Carrie says:

    Brilliant article, I have to agree, they are taking over the world. However, apart from trying to grow as much of my own fruit and veg I do seem to be in there a few times a week. Shame on me I know. I have even witnessed the end of all greengrocers in my own town in the past few years – it’s all rather sad 🙁

  2. Carol Dukes says:

    Thanks for this John. Personally I can’t bear to go into a Tesco because of what they represent. It’s not just about the appalling pressure they apply to their suppliers and the frightening amount of information they hold about customers but it’s also what they have done to the face of our towns and cities. All towns look the same now. It’s not just Tesco of course, it’s the Starbucks and Costas as much as anything. But Tesco are the single worst offender and their arrogance is truly galling too.
    For a related subject try “Not on the Label” by Felicity Lawrence.

  3. Lee Griffiths says:

    Great article John, not read that particular book but people might want to read some of these in a similar and very scary vein:

    Captive State by George Monbiot
    No Logo by Naomi Klein
    The Best Democracy Money Can Buy by Greg Palast

    I don’t do Tesco personally, but have to confess to using both Sainsburys and Asda, and neither of those are saints.

  4. Eric Dobson says:

    The trouble I have is that of being on minimum state pension. (Pension Credit). This results in me having to hate myself in using their lower prices in conflict with moral issues. Sorry but survival comes first.

  5. John says:

    Eric, I’m not say don’t use Tesco – they’re just the most successful of them all. I’m saying that there is something wrong with the whole system of massive corporations with tremendous power and little or no moral restraint.
    I’m a big believer in free enterprise but just look at the bankers pension and tell me all is well with the system.

  6. David says:

    The supermarket model is cause for concern. It’s part of the problem with the bigger picture, globalisation. This huge lumbering global economy takes massive amounts of oil to keep it running. The supermarkets are a huge part of that problem. Buying in food from around the world, out of town shopping centres etc. It cannot be sustainable.

    Need local food production, local jobs, and a local economy. This reduces fuel use, pollution and food miles. All things the supermarkets seem incapable of doing !

  7. John says:

    The only pressure on any of the large companies to consider the environment comes from laws that are more expensive to obey than flaunt and the PR department.
    Companies exist to make money. Directors who don’t seek to maximise return are in breach of their duty to the shareholders.
    Perhaps it is time to reconsider the basis of our economy and systems. Maybe to change the emphasis on getting ‘stuff’ to doing things of real value.

  8. James says:

    Good article and as a supermarket worker and allotment holder I baulk when every time I see a plastic box labelled ‘Baby Leeks from Egypt’ or ‘Parsley grown in Israel’.
    But supermarkets are so convenient. You just drive in and everything is there, or they’ll deliver it to you for a small fee. Plus they do take on small food producers as this adds variety to their shelves even though the 80/20 principle probably means these specialist items are not profit earners. Food retail is highly competitive and as consumers we have the power to pass on the home grown/ green message with our buying patterns. Supermarkets will adapt to that message. See milk in bags instead of plastic bottles as an example.

    So in this day and age they make life easier for so many of us.

    What we need to do is ensure that their activity is sustainable and ecological. Regulate planning, make certain they ARE as green as they would have us believe and that they adopt fair supplier practises.


  9. David says:

    There is no escaping the supermarkets are big employers and a big influence on what we buy and ultimately eat.
    Because the price wars continue to drive suppliers prices down, the suppliers can only respond by using cheaper ingredients or even using less of them. This drives down the quality and nutritional benefits of foods, particularly the ready made ones.
    Fine if you grow your own but there are many people who are completely dependant on the supermarkets and the factory made foods within them. This does give me the shudders.
    To allow a factory to look after your nutritional health when all they are interested in is profits does make you very vulnerable.

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