‘Every Little Helps’: A critical analysis of the actions of Tesco on a geographical scale.
Tesco is Britain’s largest retailer and the world’s third largest grocery retailer with outlets across Europe, USA and Asia (Tesco PLC, 2004). The Tesco business was founded in the 1930s by Jack Cohen, in the East End markets of London (Simms, 2007). According to Seth and Randall (2011:22) ‘Tesco’s platform as British leader has been hard won, through organic growth and a controversial pursuit of the out-of-town superstore programme’. There are many criticisms surrounding the actions of supermarkets, as there are with most big and successful organizations such as Tesco. As the Competition Commission found, critics of supermarkets have raised a range of issues that they believe supermarkets are involved in such as ‘the social cohesion of urban and rural communities, the character of UK high streets, the impact of grocery retailing on the nation’s health, the environmental impacts of the groceries supply chain, working conditions both in the UK and abroad, and the sustainability of the supply base’ (Competition Commission, 2008:22). It is clear to see that the criticisms and controversy surrounding the supermarket encompass a broad range of social, economic and environmental factors. In order to understand the extent to which Tesco itself has impacted on society therefore requires a consideration of these factors and the scale at which society is affected. One major discipline in the world of academia that encompasses the spatial aspects of interactions between humans and their social and natural environment is Geography. Therefore, as a Geographer this analysis will critically assess the issues and impacts associated with Tesco by drawing on both human and physical thinking within the discipline.
In order to situate Tesco in geographic thinking the first section of the essay will briefly summarise the origins of the organization and the scale at which it acts. Having started out in the East End markets of London in the 1930s, Cohen expanded south of the River Thames to Tooting. However, it wasn’t until 1956 that he opened a larger store that was recognizable as a supermarket (Simms, 2007). After a gradual expansion around the UK and into Ireland followed by a relatively unsuccessful expansion into France in the 1990s, Tesco began a rapid expansion in the late 1990s into emerging markets focusing on Eastern Europe and Southeast Asia. These areas of the world have relatively undeveloped grocery retail markets but ones that are rapidly changing, giving the Tesco organization some major opportunities (Tescopoly, 2013). Tesco is now currently operative in 13 countries worldwide (See figure 1 below). For many years the Tesco brand has been represented by its well-
known advertising slogan ‘Every Little Helps’. According to Seth and Randall (2011) this slogan has allowed Tesco to develop wide and regular improvements in different sectors, and has therefore allowed the diversification out of food into new markets such as banking, clothing and electrical goods. It is clear to see that Tesco is operative on a global scale and present within a range of markets. As mentioned at the beginning there are many controversies surrounding the impacts that supermarkets, and in this case that Tesco have been criticised for. Critics range from NGOs to unions such as, Banana Link, Friends of the Earth, GMB London, Labour Behind the Label, nef and War on Want. A broad range of literature assessing these impacts exists, and has been used to understand the actions of Tesco on a geographical scale from the concept of ‘Food deserts’ to their role in ‘Climate change’. With this in mind, the following sections aim to critically examine the geographic impacts of Tesco on a local, national and global scale by drawing on relevant literature and themes.
The most visible change in the landscape of food retailing has been the large growth of the out-of-town supermarket (White, 2006). According to Blythman (2004) few British towns have a distinctive sense of place anymore in which she states that ‘most have become ‘trolley towns’ shaped by the grocery chains that dominate them’ (Blythman, 2004:10). One significant example of how Tesco can be seen as contributing to this concept of the ‘trolley town’ can be seen in the local town of Dundee. Dundee is a typical trolley town, once known as an important port at the mouth of the River Tay during the industrial revolution. In the 1990s the town was home to William Low, a Scottish supermarket with a small chain of stores throughout the country. However, it was acquired by Tesco as a way to penetrate into the Scottish retail market and compete with the then dominant supermarket chain Safeway. This penetration of Tesco into Dundee sparked a radical change in the geographic landscape of the town. Now most routes through and past Dundee appear to lead to the vast array of supermarkets, which have also succeeded in penetrating the landscape. In the 1960s, before large UK- wide supermarket chains entered the town, the area was a thriving centre for food shopping from bakers to butchers to fishmongers and green grocers. Now few of these independent shops remain and the town is filled with the multiple supermarket outlets that define the boundaries of the town (Blythman, 2004). An important aspect of the concept of ‘trolley towns’ is the idea that the development of superstores- such as Tesco in Dundee- on the outskirts of British towns centres has led to the closures of many local independent shops and thus reduced the availability of food in many local neighbourhoods. It was in this climate that concerns about the lack of food retail provision in some urban and rural areas emerged and the term ‘food deserts’ was coined (Smith and Cummins, 2009).
The term ‘food deserts’ is usually used to describe urban areas where it is difficult to buy a range of food necessary to eat healthily and at an affordable price, and where access to transport is needed (White, 2006). Diet-related illness is costing the NHS increasing amounts through illnesses such as diabetes, obesity and coronary heart disease. The reason for this is not just a question of personal choice but of social circumstances with low-income communities far more likely to suffer from disease and illness related to their diet due to lack of access. An estimated four million people in the UK are unable to obtain access to a healthy diet (Tescopoly, 2013). Despite the efforts by supermarkets of providing affordable food for those of lower-income- such as the ‘Tesco Everyday Value’ range of food that is said to ‘offer you great quality and variety at consistently low prices’ (Tesco, 2014) – it has been suggested that they play a large part in the problem of diet-related ill-health. Drawing on the geographic theory of ‘food deserts’ and the ideas of diet-related illness this next section will aim to highlight the ways in which an integrated approach to geographic thinking can be used to assess the impacts that Tesco itself has had on the diets of the UK nation, and the ways in which the issue can be improved.
Since the early 1990s there has been a considerable expansion of theoretical work investigating the role of neighbourhood environmental factors in the production and maintenance of health and inequalities such as obesity (Smith and Cummins, 2009). The main cause suggested by scholars and social geographers such as Longhurst (2005), Smith and Cummins (2009) and Blythman (2004) is that the environment plays an important role in the increase in obesity in the UK. Socialist geographers are well positioned to tease out issues of production, consumption, class, capita and employment in relation to obesity. Egger and Swinburn (1997) produced a framework that categorises these environmental influences into macro and micro. This framework is known as ANGELO- Analysis Grid for Environments Leading to Obesity. Physical proximity to fast food outlets is one of the most commonly identified elements of an ‘obesogenic environment’ as cited in this framework and in White (2006) ‘Food access and obesity’. As well as this, access to food for preparation and consumption in the home, usually defined by the distance to a supermarket or store is another factor often included in models of the obesogenic environment. Here it is clear that the concept of ‘food deserts’ can be identified.
In the case of Tesco, several claims by academic scholars, researchers and Parliamentary critics have accused it of creating ‘food deserts’ through its actions such as those outlined in Dundee. Despite this claim the supermarket has rejected the allegation. A spokesman for Tesco states ‘When we first opened our convenience stores we moved into run-down and poor areas of the country, allowing many people to access fresh food for the first time’ (Telegraph, 2006). The story of Tesco’s role in the creation of food deserts it is not entirely a negative one. One project that caught media attention was the ??20 million Seacroft Partnership which involved collaboration between Tesco and a variety of public and private bodies in Leeds. Seacroft has been the focus of several government regeneration initiatives and neighbourhood renewal strategies designed to tackle social exclusion, unemployment, health, and many problems that characteristically associated with the ten per cent most deprived areas in Britain. The Tesco Extra store opened in November 2000 (see figure 2) (Baker, 2002). A before and after study of the impact of the store on the Seacroft community was undertaken in 2006 in which qualitative and quantitative material was collected. The study showed that there were some particular groups of consumers whose diets improved as a result of the increase in shopping provision (Findlay and Sparks, 2006). It is clear to see from this project that Tesco is clearly mindful of issues such as food poverty and access, and has also taken action in various locations around the UK of opening new stores in deprived areas in order to stimulate social and economic change.
It is also interesting to highlight that in more recent research physical food access may not always be lower in deprived areas and that such patterns may vary by neighbourhoods and nations. For example, studies have suggested that food deserts appear to be more common in urban North America (Smith and Cummins, 2009). The development of food deserts is suggested by Cummins and Macintyre (2006) to be a by-product of a complex interaction between local planning, regulatory and economic factors and the national policies of large supermarket companies. By focusing on this idea of geographic proximity to a supermarket there is a suggestion that residents who are classified as living in a deprived neighbourhood could benefit from policies aimed at low-mobility groups, by increasing their access to better shopping facilities and healthier food alternatives (Foresight, 2007). Therefore, with this in mind it can be said that the growth of Tesco and its actions within local neighbourhoods (such as Dundee and Seacroft) has appeared in geographic literature to be a question of access, and how a change in the geographic landscape of food retailing has had both positive and negative socio-economic impacts on local neighbourhoods. This raises questions of whether or not Tesco and stores alike should focus on opening up more stores in those areas considered to be deprived; but also questions of how this increase in new stores will further impact independent stores such as those mentioned in the case of Dundee, and whether or not this expansion is sustainable in the future. These questions will be addressed further on in the essay. The next section aims to consider the actions of Tesco on a global scale and the ways in which these actions can be related to geographic thinking.
With one in eight UK purchases now being made at Tesco and a staggering 1.5 million customers ordering online, it is starting to leave its food supermarket heritage behind. The Tesco brand can now be found in places as diverse as electrical goods, games, entertainments, gardening and pharmacy. For example, in 2009 the company built a meaningful share of the market for television sets in which its own-brand Technika was set up. In conjunction with this, the non-food staples such as clothing now play a significant role in Tesco’s worldwide portfolio appearing in a number of Eastern European and Asian markets (Seth and Randall, 2011). Moving away from the ideas of how Tesco has shaped the geographic landscape of retailing in terms of the social impacts on consumers, this next section aims to draw on the actions of Tesco globally by focusing on the business behind the organization and geographic thinking within economic geography such as globalisation and Asian labour. ‘Labour Geographies’ appeared in the early 1990s with the prime focus being on trade unions, and manufacturing sectors in developed economies. Labour geography is associated with both human and economic geography that deals with the spatial relationships and geographic trends with labour (Coe and Jordhus-Lier, 2010). The term ‘Global’ is 400 years old, the common usage of words such as ‘Globalization’ did not being until about the 1960s.
– Globalization of Tesco
Given that supermarkets control nearly 80% of the UK grocery market if producers overseas want to expand their sales into the UK market, they have to deal with supermarkets. Supermarkets have therefore been criticised for using their enormous buying power to put pressure on farms and factories in poorer countries to lower their prices and deliver goods on a shorter time scale. This pressure on suppliers has therefore resulted in the low wage worker, job insecurity and poor working conditions, in factories often referred to as ‘Sweatshops’ (Gilbert, 2005). ‘ Literature on Supermarkets and power’. Regarding Tesco operations worldwide, it buys and sells around 20 million boxes of bananas a year from Latin America, the Caribbean and West Africa. Most of the locations from which these bananas are sourced from workers do not earn a living wage. In countries like Costa Rica, Tesco’s most important source of bananas, it has started to work on tackling some of the issues affecting workers on the plantations from which it buys. For example, it has made efforts to get the Costa Rican industry to resolve problems of systematic violations of the right for workers to join trade unions (Tescopoly, 2013). In conjunction with this, Tesco are big players in not just food retail but also garment retail. A quarter of all clothing in the UK is bought from supermarkets such as Tesco and Asda. This gives them immense power over global markets and garment economies (Gilbert, 2005).