Not So Super…Markets
With roots in the local community, and strong ties to local growers and producers, The New Leaf Co-op aims to build and promote a strong local economy as an alternative to the global economy of mono-cultural chain stores and supermarkets. In this article we shine a spotlight onto those ‘super’markets and take a look at why we think our alternative is really needed.
Edinburgh is a city famous all over the world; renowned for its breathtaking views, beautiful architecture, it’s winding windy hills and cobbled stone streets. Each alcove of the city is sought after for its uniqueness, and invites discovery. From farmers markets and local delis to craft corners, community centres, theatres and libraries, and from cafés and pubs to gardens and a plethora of thrift shops – it is the history, originality, quirkiness and energy found in these small, independent and local projects within the city that enrich the colourful mosaic that is Edinburgh.
Change in a city is constant yet subtle. The way we experience the city we live in is influenced by the people we know that come and go, the changing seasons, the work we do, where we spend time, the streets we walk down and and the parks we wander through. An experience of a city is always evolving. Over the past five years however, these constant yet subtle changes have become dominated by the fast paced and ever changing aesthetic and content of the local high streets. With mounting competitive pressure, numerous independent, local projects have closed their doors and shut up shop in the past few years in the face of the prolific monopolization of the Edinburgh boroughs by coffee shop and supermarket chains under the inauspicious guise of local.
In the eighteen months we have been trading we have seen a local green grocers, Black Medicine Coffee shop, Margiotta and Haddows Deli all close. This month Sainsbury’s Local opened in Marchmont. Less then a ten minute walk away from the New Leaf Co-op, the development has made us weary of the ever increasing presence of Sainsbury’s stores setting up in the surrounding thriving, local and independent high-streets. These businesses work hard to preserve a strong and historic market culture of green grocers, café’s, deli’s, butchers, bakers, fishmongers and independent food shops. There are now over twenty-five Sainsbury’s Local and Sainsbury’s superstores in Edinburgh. With the Sainsbury’s on Middle Meadow Walk just over a five minute stroll from the New Leaf Co-op, one in Bruntsfield that opened last year, the new arrival on Marchmont road and rumour of a premise being considered in Causeway Side – the great Sainsbury’s takeover, persistent and unsubtle, is all systems go and full speed ahead.
Is there a demand for a Sainsbury’s Local on every street corner? There is little indication of a drought of local, independent traders unable to meet the desires and curiosity of the community, customers and passers-by. However there soon could be. The benefits of supermarkets are valuable to many but ongoing supermarket proliferation benefits neither communities nor the environment. They now hold a massive market share by taking trade from local retailers. The common trend is that the persistent expansion of supermarket chains directly effects independent retailers and traders and threatens to put them out of businesses. This threat directly undermines community investment and support for the local economy, which is what supermarkets themselves claim to foster, and puts in jeopardy the vitality and individuality of the Edinburgh boroughs and the livelihood of the independent local high street.1
When The New Leaf came up for sale two years ago, the then current owners Linda and Derek were adamant that the business be taken over by a group of people who were willing and passionate to maintain, invest in and develop The New Leaf. Once we expressed interest they generously gave us the time (six months) to get our act together. It took us that time, working flat out, to put together a prospectus, business plan, development strategy, stock research, formally register as a workers co-operative, work out our ethical policy, set up crowd-funding and loan stock and then design and re-fit the shop … to name but a few challenges and obstacles! Two years later, we are still very much settling in and figuring things out. Setting up and maintaining a local business is hard work. If the opportunity arises to set up shop (as did on Marchmont Road for Sainsbury’s) it can take from six months to a year, if not longer, for a new business to establish and ready itself for such a challenge. Sainsbury’s has a whole infrastructure, financial system and shop template to open up one store after the next, after the next. And there are currently no obstacles, challenges or tangible resistance in their way.
A few members of the New Leaf Co-op went to the Marchmont Community Council last year to enquire about the murmurs of a Sainsbury’s opening up on Marchmont road. The rumours were confirmed and members of the council stated that is was well beyond their power to have prevented it and it would be customer loyalty we will have to rely on. But the fight against supermarket expansion and support of the local retailer lies far beyond solely the purchasing power of the consumer. Sainsbury’s could set up so easily in Marchmont because they were simply putting in a planning application to change features and aspects of the premise. Permission and involvement of the local/city council is not required for the change of ownership from one business to another if there is no change of use. Currently there is no distinction in planning applications between supermarket chains and local, independent business. Planning laws have no mandate to regulate or monitor ownership – only use. The council cannot currently refuse a planning application on the grounds of the applicant being a supermarket chain as there is there is no law that differentiates between these different business models. And until something changes on a legal, political level – the trend and expansion of big businesses in local areas will go from strength to strength.
Supermarketization of both rural towns and urban high streets have far reaching detrimental effects on suppliers, workers and consumers. Farmers and growers are consistently exploited, with thousands of farmers and farmworkers forced to leave agriculture each year because of the low prices they receive for their produce. Supermarkets control almost 80% of the British grocery market and are able to dictate terms, conditions and prices to suppliers; farmers’ organisations contend that a major contributory factor to the crisis in British farming is the increasing buying power of supermarkets and their ability to squeeze suppliers2. The purchasing power of these multinational corporations is such that they have the power to out compete and undercut any independent retailer by securing huge contracts directly with suppliers and farmers – who are also exploited. The terms and conditions of these contracts are largely dictated by supermarkets – forcing both UK and international suppliers to lower their prices, providing more for less at a very low cost and paying workers very low wages.3 This in turns skews the real cost of food for the consumer and sees supermarkets setting huge mark-ups on the products they sell.
With the ever encroaching omnipresence of supermarket conglomerates the impact on small businesses in the past fifteen years has been paramount. In the early 2000’s there was on average fifty independent retailers closing a week nationwide4 It has also resulted in the loss of jobs through a decline in local trading and supplier contracts set up by independent retailers – debunking the myth of a boost for the local job market.5 Equally, supermarkets do no invest the profit made from their business back into locally based projects and so act as a drain of potential local community based income, investment and trading.6 Further, the environmental impacts of supermarkets are wide-ranging. These include excessive packaging, the huge volume of air-freighted imports sourced from all over the world in favour to the abundance of food grown locally in the UK, to the extra distances people have to travel to get to a large out of town supermarkets once local retailers have closed.7 The impact of supermarkets is truly global – they undermine food sovereignty in countries all over the world, exploit workers, create detrimental environment impacts, adversely effect health and nutrition, and erode community resilience.8
Supermarket expansion needs to be curtailed and support for local, independent retailers and traders needs to be invested in. Planning laws should be to amended to favour the independent retailer and the number of premises per supermarket chain needs to be capped. A more comprehensive local retailers impact assessment should be introduced to cover cases where the use of a premise will remain the same but ownership will change. There also needs to be greater transparency in the planning application process to provide properly adequate opportunity for community engagement and dialogue about resisting what is often seen as the disheartening inevitable. In conjunction with active, tangible changes preventing and curtailing the actions of supermarkets – planning laws and city council planning permissions need to be re-conceptualised, re-focused and re-written in favour of sustaining and investing in the local business community through planning, financial and business support.
There is no need for yet another Sainsbury’s in Edinburgh making it even more difficult for local independent traders who work round the clock and fight tooth and nail to keep their businesses going. Without the support and enthusiasm of customer and community, local businesses and small traders would cease to exist – but it is not solely up to the purchasing power of consumers. This shift blame on to the consumer, placing them under an unfair weight of responsibility. There are avenues to actively participate in the complex world of what we all eat – through engaging in local, sustainable alternatives, engendering community empowerment and supporting co-operatively run systems that advocate for fair food. We need to keep our curiosity for the city alive, and resist the monopolization of our city-spaces by supermarket chains. Each trader and business has a story to tell, a history, a vision, a struggle, and an ethos – when small businesses close down we lose part of the social and cultural fabric of the streets of this city.