Just before Christmas, a leading evangelical minister wrote on his blog about a Tesco executive who had reportedly backed gay marriage, also commenting on the supermarket chain’s sponsorship of the London gay pride festival.
The article prompted some fine, heartfelt, Christian spleen venting! “Shame on Tesco” said one person. Another said “we have made a decision as a family that our £10,000 per annum spend at Tesco will be spent elsewhere, probably Sainsbury.” A further response was along the lines of ‘good for you, but you need to write and complain as well.’
As I read this, I couldn’t help but think: are there not way bigger issues, when it comes to multiple supermarkets, about which Christians should be getting exercised? Advocating Biblical truth about human sexuality matters, but are there other wrongs, which affect many more people, that Christians are ignoring?
I worked both in and with the food sector for many years, so I know at first-hand how multiple supermarkets behave. They make eye-watering profits (Tesco, for example, made £3.7bn on £68bn of sales in the last year), while aggressively squeezing the margins of suppliers to wafer-thin levels. When you read of supermarkets ‘rolling back prices’ or ‘delivering better value’ always be clear in your mind that it’s a supplier who’s funding reductions, not the retailer.
It often strikes me as incongruous that we are so – rightly – concerned about ‘fair trade’ for overseas growers of bananas, cocoa, or tea, but are disinterested in the fact that there may be nothing at all fair about how a local baker, dairy, or farmer is treated. There is nowhere in Scripture where God says that fairness is the right of some, but not of others. If you do your business with proper values, everything should be fair.
And that’s just food: what about non-food? Our supermarkets are lined with ‘value’ jeans and t-shirts that are so cheap, it is surely impossible to make them without someone, somewhere being exploited. As Lucy Siegle, who writes on ethical issues for The Observer has pointed out, every item of clothing sold should have on it a label that reads: “An actual, living, breathing human used their own hands to help make this product.”
Another issue is the impact of supermarkets on our high streets, and the homogeneity that now defines so many places, all distinctiveness lost and gone. A few years ago I saw a wonderful cartoon, where a policeman was giving directions to a lost lady. His advice to her was to go “left At Tesco, go past two Tescos, right at the Tesco and it’s opposite Tesco.”
A few years ago a large Tesco opened in the town where I live, and it has sucked further trade and life from the traditional shopping area. What has the cost been in terms of jobs and community? Jeremiah told the exiles to seek the peace and prosperity of the place where they live. If it prospered, so would they. What impact does it have on communities, if those who are prospering most in our provincial towns are large corporations?
Don’t get me wrong: I am a realist. I know the genie is out of the bottle, and we’re not going to get back to High Street ideals of butchers and bakers and candlestick makers. But we’ve got to at least start thinking about the issues. How does our Christian faith inform our response to these matters?
God, who made the mother buying cheap school uniforms in Ireland, also formed in a womb the child in the sweatshop who is packing the cheap shirts and trousers. God’s image is seen in the man throwing loaves of bread into his basket on buy one, get one free, and it is also seen in the baker who made the bread whose pay has been frozen for years. God needs no Google Earth when he watches from afar and sees the huge footprint of a supermarket, and nearby a third-generation greengrocer whose two neighbouring shops are boarded up, with his takings ever diminishing. God joins up the dots.
Profits matter. Convenience matters. But people matter much, much more.
Colin Neill is a member of Waringstown Presbyterian Church and the author of ‘Turas – a story of strangers in a strange land.’