Skip to Main Content

A Loyal Customer

We're here, we're queer and we don't shop at Sainsbury's (Graffitti in Oxford City Centre)

This is a post about shopping and a conversation we've been having for three years now in my Transition initiatives about relocalising food culture in East Anglia. Because when you're discussing supermarkets you are really discussing the industrialised food system and the producerist society we live in. It's a massive topic and one we will return to in our Diet and Environment Week in April, when I'm hoping to write about disentangling ourselves from Big Ag on the micro-level. Right now I'm looking at the macro-level and how there is life after supermarkets. Really.

carrying millet outside my cottage doorFacing reality

So why haven't I shopped at supermarkets for four years? Because when you see and feel the system that supplies the store you don't want anything to do with them. Mostly we don't consider the food we buy or put in our bodies, or follow its track back to the field and the workers the way Mandy looked at bananas yesterday. We look at the show on the shelves, think in terms of convenience and price. However, if you look behind the scenes, at the machine that provides this endless array of convenient, cheap, stylised, fossil-fuelled food you come to different conclusions.

The facts are easy to find. Starting up the Low Carbon Cookbook in 2010 we draw up a list of books and documentaries, and all the issues appear on the table, from supply chains (Caroline Steel's Hungry City) and the cruelty and madness behind commerical meat production (Food Inc) to depletion of the world's fisheries (Charles Clovers' The End of Line). We discuss everything from waste to water to land rights. How come the world isn't having a rethink about everything? we wonder.

Because we are persuaded on all sides by marketing, and by our erroneous belief that we can change a system from within. We are grateful for justifications. I could say that the local Rainbow Supermarket has helped us raise funds for Bungay Community Bees, and provided a bus to The Wave in 2008, but this won't alter the fact it is still a supermarket, using the same buy-and-sell tactics as everyone else, that the "ethical" Co-op hastily backed down from the now notorious Workfare scheme and has contracts with equally notorious Texaco. All supermarkets are dependant on global supply chains, distribution hubs, tankers, mass abbatoirs, factories and refineries, chemical laboratories, tactics that grind down small farmers everywhere, in favour of corporate control. Invisibly, this machine grinds everyone and everything down in its relentless pursuit of profit. We have all the evidence we need to change our allegiance. How come most of us don't?


One thing I've learned: inner transition does not mean bringing to share our wibbly-wobbly "What About Me" emotions and pretending this is the earth speaking through us. The real inner challenge is to shift our inner governance towards our hearts, to break down the barriers in our minds that deftly separate one action from another. Our minds persuade us that having an idea is the same as making a move, allow us feel right on buying veg in the local organic market, and be in denial when we walk into Waitrose. Some of this shift work we can do on our own, but to be effective we have to hold our own in groups.

In the Strangers's Circle we are looking at our shopping lists and Naomi is wringing her hands. If her son doesn't have his frozen ready-made pizza with shrimp and pineapple he will be ostrasized by his peers and life won't be worth living.

Get a grip girl!

No one dies if you don't eat pizza! I like Naomi, I like sitting in her kitchen and the discussion we have around the table. I am not singling her out. She could be any number of women (and men) who have come towards me, holding their children before them, wailing and gnashing their teeth, as they assert their Right to Buy Turkey Twizzlers, or white sliced bread, or whatever goes into the trolley. It's Cheaper in Supermarkets, they chant like a mantra. There is no alternative. We are powerless to change. You vegan, you elitist, you communist!

Lucky for me we are not living in times when heretics come to a bad end.

The Circles are an alchemical space. All things are allowed here in the spirit of carbon reduction. We don't judge each other, but we don't pussyfoot either. Some things get realised in that space and acted on later. Tully will write about the disconnect in a blog a few days later and drop his "Tesco habit". Elena will write about palm oil and I will give up margarine. Norwich FarmShare will happen thanks to both of them and now dozens of people can connect with the land that grows their vegetables on the outskirts of the city. It's a process. Transition is a process. It demands that we face reality and make decisions. Those are not mind decisions though, they are heart decisions.

On the mind/body axis these kinds of move are almost impossible. Your body is addicted to that supermarket food, your mind can runs loops around your good intentions, you have been brainwashed by the Empire all your life. You engage in bouts of self-calming and duplicity, worthy of the Coalition. Your heart however can weigh up many factors at once, connect you with the feeling and spirit of things, break those separating walls down. It doesn't excuse itself and argue. It sees and it acts. One day the affair is over. I have been sleeping with Sainbury's and Waitrose, and Tesco's and Safeway. I realise I don't love them, or my time spent between their cold and heartless aisles.

That's the real subject of my blog today. What shopping with heart means, what can happen in a post-supermarket world.

Finding the pattern

Viens, ma petite, says a quavery voice and puts a sweet roll in my hands. I am four years old, shopping with my mother. Bayswater, London. 1960. M Pechon founded this bakery/patisserie in Queensway. Now blind and old, he spends most of his day by the door and when small children come through he gives them a roll. My early life is spent among shopkeepers, being given small gifts, feeling the physical world that nourishes me from the land outside the city, the sawdust of the butchers, the ice of the fishmongers, all manner of temperature and smell. When my friend Christine's father, Oscar Montanari, brings us a tray of peaches he imports from his native Italy I think I am in heaven. One day Stephanie Morgan gives me something green and crunchy to taste. Wow! I say what's that? It's a green pepper, she says. From Sainbury's. It's 1967. My mother is about to change her allegiance and get in the car to go shopping. I do not go with her.

Somewhere a pattern remains in our memory that makes sense of the world. In a time of unravelling that's a pattern that comes to me about local food and shops: home grown veg, home-made marmelade, conversations with shopkeepers, picnics, orchards, foraging for blackberries. It's not a nostalgia thing, or a question of privilege. Like everyone else, I have eaten a mountain of salt and vinegar crisps and can remember the jingles for breakast cereal, better than most of my lessons. When Mark and I compare our childhoods of bourgeios house and council estate, we share Twiglets and Custard Creams and Bird's Eye Fish Fngers, every variety of industrialied food, drenched in pesticides (from oil) and fertilizers (from natural gas). I wish I had like my friend Polly been brought up on hippy, socailist food. But I wasn't.

When I grow up however I find myself loyal to markets and delicatessens. I spend fifteen years working as a lifestyle journalist, documenting the skills of the shopkeepers, cooks, artisans, hatmakers and chair makers of London. I could tell you stories about the grocers from Samarkand, Bangladesh, Cyprus, Portugal, shops that specialise in wine or cheese or herbs from my city years, I could sing the praises of the Arizona co-op and the markets of Guatemala and Mexico from my travelling years. What I couldn't tell you is the name or remember the faces of anyone at the checkout in the numerous supermarkets I also went to. I can't remember any good times I had in these places. All I recall is how chilly and brightly lit and alien they were, the way the food was covered in plastic, how everything looked dead.

mark and charlote shopping in food hubIn another life, in Suffolk, in Transition. I find myself in market towns, battling against the encroachment of supermarkets, bullying corporations that are co-ercing local planners to change roads and housing estates to serve their interest, where small businesses are dropping like flies. I find myself reading Felicity Lawrence's account of the immigrant workers among the greenhouses of Spain and the packing houses in Thetford and can't buy that stuff anymore. I go to parties where prepackaged, factory food is laid out, and see how humble home-made dishes are left uneaten (except by myself). I start researching a book with my fellow Transitioner Josiah called Roots, Shoots and Seeds, about the arable fields that surround us and yet no-one sees, even though, like all civilisations, we depend on them in every aspect of our lives: sugar beet, rape, potatoes, flax and barley. Asking questions about pesticides, about soil, the effects of peak oil and climate change on agriculture. Looking at the future and making small moves.

What is life without a supermarket? It means a weekly trip to Juan's organic grocers, Jack's farm shop and Malcolm's smallholding where we have had a veg box for nine years. It means roadside stalls, produce swaps, freegan gifts, a montlhy shared Suma order and occasional visits to Norwich market, cycling down to our local ex-post office which sells organic milk and produce from Norman's market garden down the end of my lane. It would be harder to do some of this without a car, especially now so many rural buses have been cut. When we didn't have a car for months, I hitched and cycled. An inconvenient truth for sure.

wholefood circleAs Shane Hughes wrote last week, once you engage in something with your heart and soul, other opportunities and riches come your way. Supermarkets cater for our engineered individualistic, bargain-basement emotions, but they don't bring happiness or fellowship, the kinds of relationships I have with Malcolm or Juan or Vanessa, or the joy I feel at noticing the fresh eggs and daffodils on Sarah's stall, as I go by.

The range of food we eat is much smaller for sure. Seasonal veg, pulses and grains mostly. I don't buy bananas, shrimps, tuna, greenhouse tomatoes, ice cream, or anything with palm oil, a diet that most people from all income streams consider ordinary. Most of my money is happily spent on food and distributed in the neighbourhood. If I buy a jar of honey it comes from the beehives in the local churchyard. It's twice as expensive as supermarket honey from overseas, and so I eat a lot less of it as a result. I eat a lot less of everything as a result. But I then don't miss or long for anything either.

Supermarkets are our materialistic churches of desire, catering to our addictions for sugar, fat and salt, to our weakness for novelty. To get out of them you need to drop the desire. It's not a decision you make rationally. No one persuades you to "change your behaviour". One day you see the pattern and are shocked to find blood on your hands.

You walk out the door because you no longer want to keep destroying the ocean bed and the forest, the eco-systems of the earth, exploiting your fellow human beings, throwing them off their land, condemning your fellow creatures, chickens, pigs and dairy cows to a life of hell. This is not a Me-Only decision. It's one we are having together. No hard feelings. No blame. We have all been asleep and now some of us are waking up and finding out what to do. Growing oats and beans, storing apples. Moving as David Korten would call it, from Empire to Earth Community.

Transition provides the platform on which these conversations can take place. We have this conversation at the Transition Norwich Low Carbon Cookbook meetings, at Carbon Conversations, at Sustainable Bungay's Happy Mondays at the Community Kitchen, at our Abundance produce swaps. If we don't have the conversation we don't learn anything, explore new ways of sharing and nourishing ourselves. We will just keep wandering the supermarket aisles, alone, disconnected, confused by false choices, lost in a bad dream, far from each other, far from home.

Time to link up.

With a sack of Suma millet; Felicity Lawrence' Eat Your Heart Out; with Malcolm at Swallow Organics, Darsham; with Naomi outside Focus Organic, Halesworth; with Mark at Middleton Farm Shop; wholefood co-op circle; Occupy the Oil Aisle protest poster; Occupy the Food Supplyl


lisamcloughlin's picture

lovely post

A great post and I am sure all Transitioners resonate with what you are saying. I still come back to the general population and how we can influence them to make the biggest changes in behaviour when it comes to Supermarket shopping. I have hashed together really quickly - from the internet - the 6 stages of behaviour change model -a complex process. Thankfully, many transitioners are at number 3 or higher. My question is, how do we attract/engage the general population particularly at number 1 and 2 and support number 3 with the shift and changes away from supermarket shopping? What strategies can we have in place that targets people who are at different stages or relapsing without judging them as lazy or not connected. Change is a very complex and difficult thing to do. If we can understand them better, perhaps we can attract a larger following of people to vote with their feet and stop relying on supermarkets:

  1. Pre-contemplative/unaware: In this stage, people are not interested in change, can’t see the need to change and have no intention of doing anything differently. They defend their current behaviour and are not aware that their life could be better. This group does not see supermarket shopping as a real issue for them. This group tends to avoid information, discussion or even thought about change and the need for it. Some observers would characterise this group as ‘resistant’, ‘unmotivated’, or ‘in denial’ and not focussed on the need to change or the actual change itself.

  2. Contemplative: In this stage, people start to think about the issue and the possible need to make some changes. They recognise that there is a problem and that they can and should do something to make their lives better. There may have been a trigger event like simply no longer having their favourite organic item stocked at the supermarket, or there may be some other form of prompt that starts the process of considering change. This group is now beginning to see that their behaviour needs changing. People in this group are often seen as procrastinators and ambivalent, however what they are actually doing is weighing up the pro’s and con’s (including the costs and benefits) of any possible behaviour change. Giving up an enjoyed or suitable behaviour causes them to feel a sense of loss despite the perceived gain. At this stage, people are very open to information and scour sources for options and strategies.

  3. Preparing: change is about to happen. The person concerned has realised how serious their situation is, has made a decision or a commitment to change and is currently completing any ‘pre-change’ steps with a view to making the required change within the next month. An example would be finding out details of local food traders. This stage is also an information gathering period. This stage is typified by determination, making plans, introspection about the decision to change as well as a reaffirmation of the need and desire to change. This is typically a period of transition. It is not seen as a stable time and is usually quite short.

  4. Action/trying: This stage applies to those people who have made real and overt changes or modifications to their lives and are starting to live their ‘new’ life. While the chances of relapse and temptation are very strong, there is also openness to receiving help and support. This stage is the ‘willpower’ stage and short-term rewards to sustain motivation are commonly used. This group is also prone to analyse any behaviour changes to enhance their self confidence and to help make better plans to deal with either personal or external pressures. Usually, after about six months, the person moves from the action stage to the maintenance stage.

  5. Maintaining: By this stage, people are working to consolidate any changes in their behaviour, to maintain the ‘new’ status quo and to prevent relapse or temptation. The former behaviour is now seen as no longer desirable and a number of coping strategies have been put in place and are working. This group needs to be patient and avoid personal and environmental temptations. There is a need for them to remind themselves of the progress that has been made already and to stay on the course of change. The risk of lapsing is substantially less than in earlier stage.

  1. Termination/advocacy/transcendence : This stage was added to the model by researchers seeking to build on the initial work of Prochaska and DiClemente. This ‘new’ stage is the continuing part of any behaviour change and includes the understanding that going back to old habits or behaviours would ‘feel weird’ and that former problem behaviours are no longer perceived as desirable. This stage can also have an element of advocacy about it with some people committed to spreading the word to their neighbours, family members or the public at large. This sort of advocacy plays an important part in helping move other people along the behaviour change path and needs to be encouraged and supported. During this stage, relapse can occur, but it is not seen as a failure but rather as a learning opportunity to help strengthen coping strategies and support mechanisms.

Anyway, I am aware I have been adding quite a few posts lately, so will stop for a bit. When it comes to engaging your local communities, I just feel the points I am making need to be considered, as you cannot change peoples' Supermarket shopping habits just by criticising Supermarkets and describing how wonderful and liberating it is if you stop using them.


Ann Owen's picture

So Suma are the good guys, are they!?

Great article Charlotte,

and what an amazing week, such passions were aroused, tricky business where we shop, how we choose to eat...It's back to what goes down in one's kitchen, goes down in the world. But we can be sure of one thing: however hard we try to be as ethical as possible in the way we sustain ourselves, in the end we're always the takers, the users, consuming some form of life in order that we may live. There was a time where I felt a bit funny about just picking a strawberry, a lettuce, a tomato and eating it, like; what right did I have? Suffice to say, I'm still here, so I did get over that "guilt", just translated it into deep delicious warming gratitude. Now that we grow most of our own food, I can give a little back by sharing with others and by growing flowers for the bees and other buzzers, who then get eaten by the birds and chickens, who then give us eggs and the circle turns...

But we never know for sure, even when we are trying so hard, what consequences our shopping/eating choices have. Quite a few years back now, when SUMA went national, it caused a lot of smaller, more local wholefoods wholesalers to go bust. They just couldn't compete with this "cooperative" giant...Isn't it ironic?

with love

Charlotte Du Cann's picture


Many thanks Ann! You're right it has been a terrific week, where all these tricky negotiations have been brought into the light for our shared council. Didn't know that about Suma, though I know I have to strike a balance between ordering big sacks of stuff (to cut packaging and cost) and using local shops.

I think the shift you talk about from seeing ourselves as takers/consumers/aliens to understanding ourselves participants/givers/belongers is a big key. We are taught to be seperate and control, rather than be part of everything on earth. We are not taught how to honour the plants, insects, soil, water, air, animals, fish to which we owe our lives, let alone what our gift is to them in return. That's another big subject (no doubt coming up in our Reconnection with Living Systems week!).

Hope all is springing up in your market garden.

Love to you and John,



Anni Kelsey's picture

(super)markets and food supply

This has been a week of extraordinary, honest, thought provoking and engaging posts and judging from the comments and replies they have provoked a great deal of thought and self examination. 

For many, many reasons it is imperative that as much of the food chain as possible is radically localised, decentralised, diversified, removed from the clutches of multi nationals and returned to the mud covered hands of ordinary people.  I applaud everyone's efforts.  There is so much going on, both inside transition and outside it, so much passion and commitment, I know as you all do that transitioning to a sustainable food supply is an unspeakably enormous mountain to climb but have hope that the commitment and passion evidenced this week will continue to effect changes both large and small which will become an unstoppable movement for sustainable, local food.  I wish us all well in our efforts and thank you all.

Kerry Lane's picture

Wonderful post but it makes me sad

I find it sad at the moment to look back at what we were/are creating Norwich and the lovely diet I was carving for myself. Moving to Glasgow I have definitely moved back several behaviour change steps. I have not had the time and there are not as many facilities to allow me to have a resilient diet. 

There is nowhere in Glasgow that sells fresh local veg - apart from at fortnightly farmers markets. I have overcome this by getting a veg box but its not necesarily local still and I dont get the connection with knowing where it has come from.

I do not have the time or facilities to prepare all of my food from scratch. To often I end up eating out or eating something processed as I have made the choice to actually do something that evening and havent had the time to prepare something for dinner as well as lunch the day before.

I am not here long enough. It takes times to build up connections, learn where things are, to get yourself an allotment and to get involved with local activities. I've just arrived and I'm off again soon. 

And the choice I do have is often between local and organic and local normally means meat and dairy. 

It is by no means impossible to have a low carbon, resilient diet while living in Glasgow, but having a 9-5 temporary job and not owning a car get in the way of this. And if I find it difficult then I am in no way surprised that those on the second stage of the behaviour change cycle often get stuck there. I think 4 day working weeks would be a great place to start a change...

Alex Loh's picture

I have to confess that in

I have to confess that in spite of being the "web/techie" contact for Transition Ipswich my active involvement other than what i can do via a pair of copper wires or a wireless broadband link has virtually ceased.

Charlottes opening comment made me think of two chaps (+ 1 straight one!) whom I consider to be friends and who have inspired me to keep involved in Transition (I have come very close to walking away and just "getting on with life") which is really busy with work and not completely unfulfilling either. Did they inspire your headline by any chance? ;)

Sadly I had so little time to get to know them properly before market forces forced them out of their communal house nearer me, a place in hindsight I wish I'd got more involved with - though now they might almost be on Charlottes doorstep.

I managed to capture on my camera some of the memories of their final house party but by Sunday afternoon, though the danger was incomparable, I felt sadness and apprehension photographing and picking over the debris of the party - like a war reporter! Not the comedown I got from raves, but something deeper, a realisation my friends had fought a good battle, but this one, had been lost to the "free market".

If they have had a chance to go through that disk and seen my pictures maybe they may notice this - there are deeper reasons (other than my interest in industrial archeology) why jerry cans, the long locked off oil tap and even the CH thermostat were included amongst the photos of the party.

Also why it took me so long to select the pics, I was stood out there with the "harmless, necessary cat" which came to visit and was beset with a great feeling of bleakness, a feeling that a stage in everyones lives was now over, and things would get tougher from now on - not insurvivable, but definitely tough. it was a few days before I could even look at them pictures.

back here at Ipswich, not having a car and working long hours means that IP2 (where I live) and IP4/5 (where the remaining Transition linked project, the Oak Tree Low Carbon Farm) is are much further away - by Saturday after a 60 hour week I really would not be much use to the CSA!

I am belatedly and almost reluctantly getting my full driving license, albeit only for getting to work in bad weather. (I appreciate the gratittude of my employers in supporting me doing this and also allowing me to work remotely for many years), its actually a fairly right on and eco aware company though not promoting itself specifically as such but business pressures are now dictating that I finally start driving at some point. lso a lot of our planned Transition projects have stalled due to lack of resources and time - those who have time are (quite rightly) at the Oak Tree but unfortunately I'm back to the big Asda!


Charlotte Du Cann's picture

keeping the connection

Dear Alex,

Thank you for your heart-felt comment. These experiences you write about are keenly felt by many people in Transition I think but not always expressed. But I would say this in spite of everthing that happens, there are other connections that make sense of things. And you never know who you might meet, on the street or via the web.

For example: the night before I wrote this piece I met the two people you are talking about here! Mark and I swung round to their house to discuss Mark's Plants for Life series (Adopt-A-Herb at Bungay Library tomorrow) and then he, Dan and I went to the Sustainable Bungay film night to see (and dance to) What About Me?

Sometimes I think that Transition is as much about a creating a network, as it is community, and communications are key to our resilience.

Keep in touch.

Wishing you the best,


Jo Homan's picture

this is really interesting

I haven't seen a scale like this before and it's a good illustration of the journey. I do think there's a few assumptions there. It looks like there's an almost evangelical angle to the last stage, though some people in this stage aren't really interested in 'selling' their decision. Also the ideas about giving into 'temptation' puts a kind of moral angle on it - as if going backwards is what they really want to do, and will always secretly want to do. Surely just making an informed decision to change behaviour can feel like common sense, especially if there isn't a cost implication. A lot of it is to do with changing habits and once you've done that you don't really think about it any more.