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Goodbye Supermarkets!

A few years ago, when Transition Town Lewes was just starting up, I had tea with a local historian, Colin Brent. Colin told me that, in Victorian times, almost everything was owned by, and for, Lewes people. As well as the printing presses, bus companies, prisons and cobblers, virtually all the food eaten in Lewes was grown locally.

Documents from that time show that, with a population half the current size, we had fifteen bakers, twenty butchers, a couple of dozen greengrocers and a plethora of corner shops. Far from the meagre diet we imagine, photographs show an abundance of fresh food in season. The fields were well cultivated with a wide range of local grains and vegetables, and the weekly markets and even back gardens heaved with livestock and weekly markets, while fish were brought up from the fishing boats at Newhaven.

Such a rich food economy meant that many people made a living from food, from the farmers, butchers, millers, shopkeepers, cheese makers, delivery boys and brewers (20 in Lewes alone!).

I'm not saying that life was necessarily easy, just that it was based on a complex web of relationships between people and the land they inhabited locally.

A century on, and all that web has gone. Today, in Lewes, we spend about fifty million pounds a year on food and drink and most of that – at least forty million – is spent in our three supermarkets: Tesco, Waitrose and Aldi. In those hundred years - and especially the last fifty years since I was born - we've managed to let all this natural capital be diverted into the hands of a few multinational corporations. Our local food economies have dried up; local money no longer circulates around and about the town, building wealth and relationships as it goes. A tenner spent locally multiplies many times over as it circulates. Spent in a supermarket, that tenner goes straight out of town and into the hands of Tesco and co, and its shareholders.

As a direct result, the local economy in Lewes is struggling. There are no more bakers in Lewes. We have one greengrocer, at the top of town where the rents are affordable, and only two butchers are left. Just in the last five years, according to the new economics foundation, Lewes has gone from being a 'home town' with a wide mix of independent shops supporting a strong local economy, to a borderline clone town. The independent shops we once were so proud of are now either chains or strange chi-chi shops selling expensive string, as the joke goes round here.

My sense is that most people don't realise, or don't want to realise, that shopping in their local supermarket could wreak such havoc on their community. They would rather believe it's more convenient, and cheaper. But that's just one of the myths perpetuated by supermarkets in their relentless marketing. While individual items are often cheaper in supermarkets than in local shops, once you add in to the shopping basket the convenience food, comfort food and other items we think we need – including cleaning and beauty products – you end up spending far more in supermarkets than elsewhere. I was shocked recently to discover that the average weekly supermarket spend is about £60 a head; I spend half that shopping locally, and we eat only organically.

Additionally, those people who don't much like shopping can design easy ways of avoiding the supermarkets, thus busting the convenience myth. For instance, in our household, we get wholefoods and minimal toiletries delivered in bulk four times a year, then either buy the fresh stuff in the weekly market, or grow it. Simple!

It's hard to imagine how we can stop supermarkets becoming ever more powerful. A couple of years ago my friend Marina and I tried to prevent our local Tesco from expanding by 50% in size. Despite our planning committee's desire to block the expansion, knowing well that such a move would kill off more local shops, despite a petition of 1,000 people, and several days sifting through papers in the planning department, the committee gave in to Tesco, probably clearly realising it would never be able to stand up against Tesco's lawyers. Supermarkets up and down the country simply landbank when faced with opposition, only to wear down their opponents with fresh waves of documented arguments. Our planning laws, concluded government advisor Mary Portas recently, are simply unable to protect our high streets from such opportunism.

My biggest gripe about supermarkets is that they monetarise our natural resources and externalise the problems caused by that act. Corporations by their nature seek to maximise profits above all other concerns, even Waitrose, who just make it seem cleaner. That's their job. They seek to extract as much of our commons as they can get away with – undermining healthy soil with chemical farming methods; eroding the biodiversity that allows our honeybees to live in good health to pollinate our food; blasting our quiet countryside with their noisy machines. We can no longer bank on a healthy gene pool for our vegetables, fresh river water and full aquifers, or even fresh air for our children to breathe. To add insult, we even have to pay for that loss of health and wellbeing through our taxes. It's a complex argument made beautifully in an extraordinary new book called Sacred Economics by American philosopher Charles Eisenstein.

Due to this outrageous lack of caretaking by these corporations - our politicians standing by, impotently - a food crisis seems both inevitable and imminent. At the same time, there are some small, glimmering signs that we are slowly coming to our senses. Food projects are springing up all over the country, often in transition towns. Here in Transition Town Lewes, we started a food market nearly two years ago, with the help of the District Council. Our weekly market now has 20 regular stallholders, each of them earning a modest living; some of them only exist because of the market.

And alongside the 'parallel public infrastructure' that transition towns do so well, there are a growing number of people who are just leaving supermarkets behind. I'm in my sixth month of not walking into a supermarket and I'm not alone - a recent survey in Transition Town Lewes shows a number of others doing the same.

Some people say that as fossil fuels become more expensive, the globalised food system will less affordable, and localisation of food inevitable. In the meantime, we each have it in our power to hasten the demise of the supermarkets; we have created them through consumer choice, and we can all of us, one meal at a time – simply and joyfully – choose to eat differently!

 Lewes food shops, 100 years ago by kind permission of Sussex Archeological Society and Dr Colin Brent


Jay Tompt's picture

oh no, tesco!

Great post. Very interesting to learn that folks spend £60 per head per week at supermarkets.  And dissapointing that your planners have no backbone to stand up to Tescos.  We may soon be facing similar issues, here.  Totnes is a little smaller than Lewes, with fewer supermarkets, but there's a constant threat that another might move in.  Already, we have a very large Morrison's which by itself takes over two thirds of the town's food and drink spending.  We are also developing local food options with markets and a new food hub, as well as hatching other plans, too.  But it's a struggle to simultaneously build the alternative, shift "consumer" behaviour, and remain vigilant against new supermarket development.  Because there are a couple of new housing projects poised to be built, the rumours are swirling that Tesco or Sainsbury's Waitrose are waiting for their moment to pounce. Good luck!  (Also, yours is the second reference to Charles Eisenstein's Sacred I've heard within 24 hours - I must read that book!)




Adrienne Campbell's picture

supermarkets - worth opposing

Thanks, Jay. I do think supermarkets are worth opposting if only to continue to raise awareness in the public of the reasons why. At the moment, it's almost impossible to oppose individual supermarkets outright but Tescopoly has a good website and for a longer list of reasons why to oppose supermarkets, read Andrew Simm's book of the same name.

My secret desire is that we will all eventually wake up and lose the appetite for supermarkets all together.

skintnick's picture

Supermarkets feed wage slaves

Hand-in-hand with the notion of convenience at the supermarket is the shortage of time which prevails in our 100mph society. New Economics Foundation is among the proponents of sharing work (and income) more widely, with shorter working weeks for more people. A beneficial side-effect would be that people would have time available for a leisurely stroll round the local shops, meeting and socialising with the people they meet, they way it must have been in the Lewes of 100 years ago which you describe. Win-win, but the problem of wage-slavery (caused by debt-slavery) needs to be addressed... (defaults all round, cheers!)

Mandy Meikle's picture

Hastening the demise of supermarkets

Just read your post - good stuff! As you'll see in my post (due out Friday) despite being against them, I'm actually working in a supermarket at the moment (not Tesco but not the Coop either!). However, I'm not against their demise, despite being the main income earner now since my husband lost his job. One problem we have as Transitioners is realising others' financial situations, as well as their ecological awareness (or lack of!). When I earned a descent wage, I too stocked up a few times a year from green catalogs or whole food shops. But if you're scrimping and scraping to pay the bills, you'll buy one bottle of Ecover, not a 5 litre container. Neither can I afford £12.50 for a local veg box which contains a lot of potatoes, some onions and carrots and little else.

I have heard of food cooperatives selling small amounts of, say, washing up liquid to people who bring bottles to be refilled. Local food schemes need to attract those on minimum wage and that's no easy task. But, as you say, the localisation of food is inevitable and every food group in the land is doing a brilliant job by starting this process of localisation now, before the chaos hits. It really is groundbreaking work.

dazdread's picture

A supermarket, not in my community please

A great blog and a very interesting read.

As I understand it the current planning law allows the Supermarkets leave to appeal each time they are declined permission. I saw a documentary about a small town desperate to resist but the Supermarket got its way as in the end the Council ran out of funds and could not defend its decision any longer allowing the permission to go to the one with the deepest pockets.

There are currently more planning applications for Supermarkets than ever as the market is now at saturtion point and they are basically making their final land/market segment grabs. Our small town of Market Harborough has currently five Tesco (fairly small in a 1970's high street unit), Sainsburys (apparently the most profitable per square foot in the Country, probably due to postcode pricing), CoOperative (Nearly always empty) , Aldi and Lidel and with a Waitrose about to commence building inbetween the Sainsburys and Aldi. We have a thriving Farm Shop but it is more of a boutique high value store.

Well come the collapse of the supply chains we will have some great buildings to turn into large green houses!

Paul Mackay's picture

What are the numbers?

Has anyone come across any numbers related to food from supermarkets? I'm curious to know what oil price would cause local food to be significantly more cost effective? And if transportation is a small part of the energy required to produce food, then how are the other costs of food affected by being more local?

I'm working with Sustaination on mapping local food webs so these questions are relevant to how much impact following a local food web might have. I'm fully behind everything above about favouring local food and businesses over supermarkets of course!

Josiah Meldrum's picture

Hi Paul, I have a few things

Hi Paul, I have a few things that might be of interest - as I think you've already worked out the oil price / local food question is complex and made more so by the way the state and civil society might respond to the kind of oil price rise you're talking about.

Email me:



lisamcloughlin's picture

local food costs

Might be some interesting figures in this document, although 2001. It may give leads to information you require.

Woops, it's a long link!

Martin Grimshaw's picture

Blimey, thanks Adrienne, that

Blimey, thanks Adrienne, that was really informative.

I had an epiphany in front of the milk cartons in my local supermarket in 1997, walked out and never went back. I thought it would be difficult, and it did take a few weeks to adjust, but  I was shocked at how much my life improved and how much money I saved.

Now I can't imagine going to fill up at the supermarket, I don't know how people find the time! My diet improved dramatically, and I got to know my local shopkeepers. I made a new habit of just getting bits and pieces as I go about my daily business, just a few minutes here and there, on my way to work and at lunch times, and shopping became enjoyable again. These days I'm fortunate to have an amazing local veg box delivered to my door. I don't think of the time I take to make meals from fresh ingredients every day; I just do it without thinking, it seems easy and I can't imagine opening a packet of processed food to warm up (or having a freezer to store them). Perhaps we just need to relearn the art of making 15 minute meals from delicious fresh ingredients. I now view a trip to the supermarket with the same sinking feeling I would to the airport or the DIY mega warehouse. Friends with children like to heckle me, as I don't have children to buy for. I'd be interested in hearing success stories of parents of young kids who don't use supermarkets.

Supermarkets are designed by people with PhD's in behavioural psychology, and exist to extract as much money as they can from our wallets, while making us feel grateful for it. Supermarkets are not our friends and are a burden to the environment and economy that we can no longer afford.

For me, I just knew I has to draw a line in the sand, that I would not cross, at least for a while. For others I would say, try it as an experiment for 3 months. It might take some adjustment, as any shift in habits does, and for some it might be very difficult depending on your local landscape. It might be an adventure, you'll probably learn a lot even if you go back after your experiment. It might be surprisingly fun.

Anna Lappe - "Every time you spend money, you're casting a vote for the kind of world you want."

Martin Grimshaw's picture

For Jay - Sacred Economics

Short film

You can read the book for free, or for a gift donation (as well as buying a copy)


FromeTV's picture

New developer hidden in audience at local debate

Interesting movements happening here in Frome (population 25,000 with 6 main supermarkets) re a big supermarket coming to the heart of town. Rumours abound of TESCO coming. Two main groups 'Frome For All' who state 'anything smaller than 35,000 sq ft of supermarket will not revive the town center and 'Keep Frome Local' who state anything over 15,000 sq ft will destroy our independent shop culture. Frome for all are denying requests and kicking anyone out of their Facebook campaign page who has an alternate opinion to theirs. We were thrown out for making this film Their active members using guise identites are using our documentation to re-edit and assasinate key speakers for 'Keep Frome Local" This could be a humourous parody but they are not allowing any grassroots data or surveys or media that they do not agree on into their group. 500+ are contained in this group under the guise of it being for everyone in the town. This group is backed by The Mayor of the town. 

Jo Homan's picture

What an excellent piece of

What an excellent piece of writing - hugely passionate and well informed. I think the supermarket success is also tied in with our car culture. Both lifestyle choices are equally vulnerable.

We're trying to work out how to do a bulk buy scheme and market here in N4 that would sell at competitive prices, as part of the Communities Living Sustainably bid. Actually, I wonder if online ordering and delivery would be a better offering (and easier to set up)? I know Stroud Food Co has set a precedent along these lines but without the delivery. I quite like the idea of a bike delivery fleet for my area. I would use the local veg box (Growing Communities) if they delivered, instead of Riverford. Like you, I am fortunate to have the storage and upfront capital to do quarterly bulk buys.

marizK's picture

I have learned a lot from

I have learned a lot from this article and I find it interesting. I realize now that indeed with today's growing supermarkets, less agricultural space is around for our farmers and local food workers. We tend to export goods to sell in our markets and they are not anymore the fresh goods we used to have in wet markets years ago. This is one reason why expenses are sky-rocketing and our income almost less than they're worth compared to the money we need to spend for our daily needs. Many people have become workaholic in the hope of sustaining that demand for more money thus becoming a slave to income. But it's awesome that some people have started not going to supermarkets and become loyal buyers at local markets. It's a way on how to avoid the stagnation of wage slavery and get more from hard-earned money and maybe bring back those good old days where there are more local market with reasonably low prices.

Puck Watson's picture

It's not like Brighton out here ...

I moved from Brighton to rural Essex in December 2011 and my (food) shopping has been seriously affected.

Apart from things I really could not find anywhere else, I hadn't shopped in a supermarket for over 10 years because in Brighton there are so many readily available alternatives and organic food was easy to come by.

Here, my little village has lost all its shops (it used to have a grocer and a post office, both now gone) and we have a church and two pubs! Luckily we have a farm shop down the road with chickens and geese running not only in the yard but in the shop too (!) and though not organic it's often from just down the road. We love it. But, elsewhere, if you want anything other than Tiptree products (which I love and it's now only 6 miles from here ... joy!!), flour or pasta it seems really hard to find except at a supermarket. There is a Teco here the size of an aircraft hanger and I'm horrified to find that my partner and I are in there on a regular basis - a day I really thought I would never see.

I plan to investigate the viability of an Infinity Foods delivery scheme for the village which I'm hoping could take off and that in itself could kill our trips to Tesco in one fell swoop but it will do nothing to help local shops around here. It's early days yet but I'd like to create some community shop or at least create a web site to let people know what's alternatives there are so that we can support them.

In Brighton and many other large towns and cities it can be easy to avoid the hideous domination by supermarkets, but out here in the countryside it's nowhere near as easy. Yet. ;)

Bob Hodgson's picture

Sacred economics

Yes - Sacred Economics is a must read book - it covers all the main issues and spends at least half the book going through solutions. So may crictics list the problems, but don't seem to have practical solutions. Charles Eisenstein has done a great job.