Tesco Plc: Corporate Crimes

admin's picture





A Corporate Profile

By Corporate Watch UK
Completed October 2004

4. Corporate crimes




(For corporate crimes overseas, see section on 'International expansion (global domination) in www.corporatewatch.org/?lid=252">Overview)



Greenwash is one of the Corporation's most powerful weapons. Faced with increasing public concerns, appearing to be an ethical and thoughtful company taking heed of today's social and environmental issues has become more and more important for corporations whose public image is vital to their sales.

So is Tesco the environmentally friendly company it claims to be? The www.tesco.com/everyLittleHelps/">'Every Little Helps' section on the Tesco website illustrates some of its efforts.






Customer packaging Tesco says it has reduced packaging waste in its internal systems, but it still generates a huge amount of packaging waste which ends up in landfill sites via its customers’ bins. Tesco currently distributes 1.4bn plastic bags a year, which if not reused, end up in landfill or discarded in the environment.1 Grocery packaging is roughly a quarter of all household waste,2 much of it plastic of which only about 7% is recycled in this country. Yet Tesco says nothing about reducing packaging sold to consumers, and this may actually be increasing.

Less than cosmetic perfection A recent Consumers’ Association report on supermarket fruit and vegetables3 illustrates it isn't just EU marketing standards that insist on strict criteria for cosmetic appearance. The supermarkets all go one step further – Tesco has its own criteria that suppliers must meet for appearance and size. The Soil Association believes that supermarkets have similar tactics for organic produce: as a result up to 50% of a crop is likely to rejected. They sell flavourless fruit and veg that is picked un-ripe so that it will have a longer shelf life, only selling ripened fruit and veg at ainflated price in the Tesco Finest range.

Tesco's real carbon blueprint In the 'Every Little Helps' section on their website, Tesco list their attempts to reduce its CO2 emissions which include:

  • encouraging staff to have green travel plans – car sharing and walking buddies;
  • trialing Greenergy Global Diesel (with 5% biodiesel) at the Hatfield petrol station and Thurrock Distribution centre in early 2003. Tesco own 25% of Greenergy;
  • increasing the number of products delivered to stores per vehicle, resulting in a more efficient use of the distribution fleet (rail delivery was judged unreliable);
  • making an eight-year commitment to reduce energy consumption per square foot by 35% by 2006 and investigating wind and solar (photovoltaic cells) power in store.

Its wonderful that Tesco has made such a huge commitment to reduce its CO2 emissions. It helps that they receive payment for each tonne saved from the government Emissions Trading Scheme.4

It is also hard to see how Tesco will achieve it if it considers its entire carbon footprint. In pursuit of cheap food available all year round it still transports millions of tonnes of food and non-food products around the world by air freight, and supports industrial agriculture which is highly fossil-fuel intensive. Large supermarkets are also hugely energy inefficient. The reliance on car use to get to out of town superstores causes pollution and congestion, and so does the massive system of lorries transporting products to distribution centres and then out to the supermarkets. Tesco lorries travel 68 million miles each year, with rail transportation of goods only 1.2% of this.5 Even the occasional locally-made product will have travelled across the country to a distribution centre and back before reaching the shelves.

Back to top

Supporting Kyoto Tesco says that it 'fully supports the UK government’s commitment to the Kyoto protocol on climate change'. Which is a rather safe bet as it looks unlikely that the USA will ratify the treaty in the near future, and the treaty is non-binding without USA ratification.6 In a situation like this it is easy to say you support the government’s position, therefore looking as if you care, without actually having to do anything. As mentioned in the section on 'Lobby Groups', Tesco is represented in UNICE, which lobbies against binding targets for CO2 reductions, and as such it it part of the problem rather than part of the solution.

Tesco and Esso began a partnership in the 1970s. Tesco claims that Esso no longer supplies its own brand petrol stations,7 however the partnership includes around 115 forecourts which carry the Esso logo for the petrol, and have a Tesco Express mini-supermarket.8 Esso is part of the Exxon corporation, which has been heavily criticised for many environmental issues, including donating money to George W Bush's election campaign and influencing US denial of climate change.9

Embarrassing stupidity Tesco released a press statement in November 2000 about how global warming would make it easier to produce wine from English grapes10. This should have been a major scandal for Tesco. Climate change is not about a warm climate for Britain, it is about weather chaos for the whole world. The huge storms and droughts which may well plague us in the future will do nothing for grapes nor for any other agriculture.

Tesco and pesticide use Tesco sources its products 'according to its 'own-brand' Nature's Choice standard that requires the rational use of pesticides. According to Tesco, 80% of suppliers worldwide comply with this scheme.'

'Nature's Choice' supposedly encourages 'rational' pesticide use, but details of the scheme are not publicly available.11 Tesco says it works with suppliers to keep pesticide use to the minimum required, yet it refused to sign a Friends of the Earth (FoE) pledge to take action to deal with risky chemicals. In fact it didn't even bother to reply to a FoE questionnaire on this issue. Despite its claims, FoE's analysis of government data on Tesco for five years from 1998 to 2002 showed that Tesco had made no overall reduction in pesticide residues in its food. Over the five years, an average of 45% of Tesco fruit and vegetable samples contained pesticide residues.12

Back to top

The corporate takeover of organics Tesco are 'aiming to sell more organic products than any other supermarket, with 100% of organic milk, eggs and other dairy products, chicken, lamb and mushrooms from the UK.' According to Tesco, organic foods are beginning to appeal to a broader spectrum of customers and one Tesco shopper in four now buys at least one organic product. As a result they are broadening their newly designed organics range.13 Organic food has been identified as a large area of growth for supermarkets, with an increasing amount of processed organic food available. While Tesco claims to be sourcing many of its organic products in Britain, a recent survey by The Soil Association (19/04//2004) showed it imports half its organic pork and over half its organic beef. UK reared organic pork has to reach higher animal welfare standards than in other countries, which sometimes makes it more expensive.14

Many organic enthusiasts question whether the supermarkets' general policy of sourcing their organic products from large industrial-style farms, who are attracted to organics because of higher profit margins rather than ethics, as well as importing from poor countries who can barely feed themselvse such as Zimbabwe, is really true to the original social and environmental aims of the organic movement. Very few supermarket organic products are locally sourced.

Overpricing organics A study authored by Dr Anna Ross (University of the West of England) accuses UK supermarket chains of overpricing organic goods.15 Media reports suggest that the Soil Association has been trying to suppress the findings. Dr Ross found that the same basket of vegetables bought in a sample of farm shops were found to be 63% more expensive in market leader Tesco; 59% more expensive in Sainsbury's; and 38% more expensive in Waitrose. On average, she found the cost to be 64% more expensive in the multiples than local farmers' markets. Dr Ross accused the Soil Association of being too busy trying not to upset the supermarkets, and encouraged consumers to shop elsewhere for better value. The major chains currently control 80% of the organic food market in the UK, which grew by 33% last year to £802m.

An organic label doesn't necessarily mean that the product has been fairly traded or that the farmer has been paid a fair price by the supermarkets. An oversupply of organic milk in the UK has seen British organic farmers barely able to cover their production costs in sales to supermarkets. The fair trade and organic farming movements developed in part as a response to exploitation by supermarkets. It seems ironic that the supermarkets have now appropriated them. Selling some organic/fair trade ranges does not excuse the supermarkets for the way their rest of their food is produced.

Back to top

Importing staple British fruit unnecessarily and hiking the price In November 2003 Friends of the Earth published a survey16 of the apples, carrots and potatoes found in supermarkets, greengrocers and markets. Whilst most potatoes and carrots were thankfully UK-sourced, it was a different story for apples. 42% of Tesco's non-organic apples were from the UK, compared with 46% in greengrocers and 62% in markets including farmers' markets. None of the supermarkets surveyed were able to provide any local produce – hardly surprising when they operate through a few massive distribution centres. Out of over 2000 varieties of apples available in the UK, Tesco stocks only seven.17

Supermarkets generally did well in providing organic varieties, but only 23% of Tesco's organic apples were from the UK, and 56% were from outside the EU.

Despite repeated claims to the contrary, all the supermarkets and convenience stores surveyed were found to be more expensive for fruit and veg than greengrocers and markets.

Former Government pro-GM apologist is Tesco Director Tesco are 'committed to labeling all GM food. Fresh poultry, eggs and fish all come from animals fed on a non-GM feed diet.'

Tesco make it clear that their policy on genetically modified food is led by their consumers who 'continue to tell us that they are not yet convinced of the benefits of GM'. Unlike Tesco director of government affairs and Corporate Social Responsibility, David North, who helped run the Cabinet Office unit to support biotechnology at the height of the GM foods controversy in 1999.18

Back to top

Continuing to sell GM-fed dairy and meat products Over the last six years, the major UK supermarkets have caved into consumer pressure to remove GM ingredients from their own-brand products. The one area where they have been resistant is in continuing to sell dairy and meat products from animals fed on GM cattle feed (maize and soya). Tesco specifically persists in selling dairy, lamb, beef and pork from animals fed on GM cattle feed. This despite a recent ICM poll that highlighted that 77% of people did not want to eat products from animals fed on a diet of GM feed.19 Tesco lays their inability to move further on this issue at the feet of the farmers 'who tell us that to extend the range of meat we sell from animals fed on non-GM at this time would put immense pressure on them'. However, the Co-op and Marks & Spencer both sell meat and dairy products sourced from animals fed GM-free feed.

Farmers cannot move on this issue because Tesco pays them so little for their product. This means that farmers are forced to feed their cattle on low-cost high-protein imported soya and maize the growing of which is wreaking environmental havoc in Argentina and across the USA.20

Meat doctoring An investigation by Guardian journalist, Felicity Lawrence, revealed how the meat industry manufactures and 'doctors' the mountains of cheap chicken products we find on supermarket shelves. This includes pumping chicken breasts full of water.21 In September 2004, the Daily Mail alleged that Tesco's premium pork chops are supplemented with water, despite costing £2 more than conventional cutlets. The company claims the additional cost is due to rearing the pigs outside.22

Animal welfare 'Animal welfare is very important to Tesco and our customers, and we believe that awards such as this, which recognise research in this field, are important to improve standards throughout the industry'.

Michelle Waterman, Tesco Agriculture Manager, made this statement at the first Universities Federation for Animal Welfare (UFAW) 'Tesco' Award for promoting public understanding of animal welfare science.23 It was awarded to Dr Monica Winstanley of the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) at an evening reception organised by UFAW at The Royal Society, for her booklet entitled 'Science and Animal Welfare'. Tesco takes animal welfare very seriously, as we can also see from its funding of the 'Food Animal Initiative', based primarily at the University of Oxford, which develops new farming practices that are 'welfare friendly, food safe and environmentally sustainable'. It is suprising, therefore, that Viva!, the animal welfare charity, in an investigation of a farm which supplies pigs to Tesco in 2003, found animals kept in appalling conditions.

Seewww.viva.org.uk/campaigns/pigs/tesco_investig.html"> www.viva.org.uk/campaigns/pigs/tesco_investig.html for more information.24

Back to top

Tesco and the Environment Tesco is a ‘Corporate Sponsor’ of the Woodland Trust. In fact there is a special area on the Woodland Trust website just promoting Tesco's Christmas card recycling project.25 This is why it is even more hypocritical that Tesco is willing to destroy woodland and trees to increase store sizes. There is currently a campaign to save an 144 year-old Cedar of Lebanon in Slough, from Tesco expansion plans.26 In 2002, campaigners in Perth, Scotland also put out a call to protect a half-acre wood from the Tesco chop.

Tesco has also been named and shamed by the Environment Agency. In 2001, it was fined over £30,000 for dumped shopping trolleys.27 In 2002, it was fined £10,000 for a fuel leak into groundwater from underground storage tanks.28

Illegal timber sales In June 2003, Friends of the Earth revealed that Tesco has been selling garden furniture made from illegally sourced Indonesian timber. It has been illegal to export Indonesian logs since October 2001 when the Indonesian Government introduced a log export ban in a desperate attempt to control escalating levels of illegal logging. As a result of this exposure, Tesco has been expelled from the '95+Group', an influential ethical trading initiative run by the WWF, as the supermarket refused to give assurances that it would stop using illegally sourced rainforest timber, although it admitted there had been a failure of compliance. According to the Independent on Sunday, City sources suggest that Tesco could now be dropped from ethical share investment schemes.29

Back to top

Tesco 'Healthy Living' not very healthy

Tesco promotes its Healthy Living range of products and website to consumers who want to lead healthier lives.

A report by the Food Commission30 revealed that some of the foods in Tesco's Healthy Living range may need to be relabelled because of the amount of salt, sugar and fat they contain. This is especially interesting considering the 'traffic lights' labelling system that Tesco is trialling to highlight nutritional levels in products.31 Tesco announced its decision in the light of increasing concerns about poor diet and the obesity crisis, and presumably to pre-empt any legislative action on food retailers to provide this information along guidelines set by the Food Standards Agency (FSA). One of consumers' greatest worries is that they often simply do not know which products are genuinely healthy choices.

The trial uses different colours on the front of packs to highlight the levels of fat, saturated fat, salt and sugar in products. Research by the Food Commission suggests some products in Tesco's Healthy Living range will have to carry either 'amber' or 'red' lights.

The Commission, which promotes healthy eating, compared products with nutritional guidelines issued by the FSA. Tesco said it was using a different set of criteria based on dietary targets set by the Committee on Medical Aspects of Food and Nutrition Policy and the World Health Organisation.32 The FSA guidelines would mean that Tesco’s Healthy Living Sultana Bran Flakes would carry two red lights because they are high in salt and sugar. Equally, Sunflower Spread would display red lights for fat, saturated fat and salt.

A Which? Report from 2003 reinforces this. It claimed, for example, that Tesco 'healthy' custard creams contain less fat than the standard options but they contain more sugar and more salt – hardly a healthy choice. And Tesco’s 'Healthy Living' apple juice only contained 67% apple juice – the rest is made up with water and sweeteners. As Which? points out 'this reduces the sugar level, but it means that you are getting less apple juice than in the standard product. Is this really better for you?'33

In general we eat too much of the wrong types of food, and supermarkets such as Tesco, despite their labelling trials and Healthy Living schemes, have been, and still are, selling ready meals and other products full of fat, sugar and salt. Indeed, Tesco is opening a Krispy Kreme doughnut concession at its Watford Extra hypermarket in October 2004. The Consumers’ Association report 'Recipe for Disaster', May 2004, is a sobering reminder of the dangerous products on our supermarket shelves.

Tesco does encourage consumers to eat five portions a day of fresh fruit and vegetables in its stores and on the ‘Healthy Living’ website, but such produce, if not organic, may also contain an unhealthy dose of pesticides. See section above on 'Greenwash: Tesco and Pesticides'. More and more fruit and vegetables are being grown in intensive hydroponic systems (i.e. in water rather than soil) - this is certainly the case in the UK with tomatoes and cucumbers. Supermarkets prefer this highly-controlled factory-farm method as they are more likely to get cosmetically perfect produce. Researchers believe that further research into the nutritional levels of hydroponic produce is essential as it may lack nutritional value.34

Tesco may be the leader of many a supermarket price war, but this is not the same as offering healthy food at an affordable price. Although Tesco and the other supermarkets sell some products cheaply, such as bread and milk, these are known as loss leaders and are used to entice customers into the store. Fresh fruit and vegetables are consistently shown to be more expensive in supermarkets than on market stalls and in greengrocers. Tesco Express convenience stores - which are springing up around the country as One Stop and Nite and Day are rebranded - and Tesco Metro stores are aimed at the lucrative 'cash-rich time-poor' shopping market. This excludes many local people who simply can't afford to do their whole weekly shop in Tesco.

For more information on the role of supermarkets in promoting unhealthy food, see the Health Select Committee report on Obesity 2003 – 2004, in particular page 31 and pp.38-39. Also see the chapter on 'The Ready Meal' in 'Not on the Label'. See 'further reading' section for full reference.

Back to top

The Tesco-isation of Britain


The 'Tesco effect' on other retailers


'Just before Christmas, a large leisure company went shopping for 1,000 televisions. As a substantial buyer, offering cash, it approached a manufacturer direct for a deal. The price quoted, per unit, was around £10 more than the sets were being sold for in Tesco.'35

The reaction to the news that Tesco is squaring up for a scrap with you must be like that of a border state of the Roman empire finding 20 legions of grim-faced infantry camped on its lawn with catapults and javelin-chucking machines, led by Russell Crowe in his furs.36

The mechanics of oligopoly/oligopsony trading ensures that the supergiants can secure low prices and exclusive deals with their suppliers. Londis, the cornershop brand, has admitted that it is cheaper to buy brands from Tesco and resell them than to get the items from its wholesalers,37 and Musgrave, who own Budgens, claim that Tesco buys from wholesalers 11.5% cheaper than independent retailers.

While consumers might be excited by supermarkets 'Slashing prices' or 'Special summer offers. Up to 50% off', persistent below cost selling by the supermarkets is a nightmare for small retailers. As well as often leading to bankrupcy, it also affects their confidence in trying out innovative projects in marketing or products to win new markets.

Two recent reports from the New Economics Foundation entitled 'Ghost Town Britain' highlight that more than 13,000 specialist stores, including butchers, bakers, fishmongers and newsagents, closed between 1997 and 2002, leaving many communities without accessible shops and services.38

Unless they have a niche market or dedicated customer-base, smaller retailers will simply never be able to compete. Not only can they not get the wholesale price that Tesco gets, but invariably their overheads are higher too.

Its not just the independent grocery retailers who are suffering, but also Tesco's key competitors (See section on Strategy: Core UK Business). But the net goes even wider. As the supermarkets move back onto the high street and into non-food goods (See earlier section on 'Strategy: Non-food goods'), other major nationwide chains are feeling the pain.

In January 2004, Boots blamed 900 job losses on the tough competition from the supermarket chains. Earlier that month, Tesco, which sells more medicines and toiletries than Boots and Superdrug put together, announced that on a basket of 12 baby products, including baby powder and rusks, a customer could save 11% over a similar shop in Boots. 39

Verdict Research say that more than 600 chemist shops will close (5% of the current network) over the next five years.40 Tesco has been able to move into this area due to the unexpected 'deregulation' of the pharmacy sector.

There are similar stories in other sectors from clothing newsagents. Matalan, New Look and Marks and Spencer are all struggling in their clothing ranges. WH Smith and even Argos were hard hit over the Christmas period 2003-2004. With their products in direct competition with the supermarkets, they have to be able to offer something quite different to woo the busy shopper back out of the supermarket and into their stores.41

Many different groups have been opposed to Tesco's takeover of c-store chains including the Association of Convenience Stores (which represents around 31,500 stores), the Federation of Wholesale Distributors and Bill Grimsey, chief executive of the Big Food Group which owns Iceland and Bookers wholesalers.42

In a recent poll by The Grocer, 64% of independent c-store operators are worried that they cannot compete with the supermarkets in this sector who have a huge advantage in marketing and brand awareness.43

In the words of one anonymous board member of another stock market listed grocery chain,

'You can’t knock Tesco for its business acumen but it should provoke a wider debate about whether we want the choice of different types of shop ? or do we want a completely corporate Britain?'44

Tesco's response to accusations of ruthlessness in recent months has been typically arrogant, 'You do tend to get a bit of noise on these occasions.'45 Or as Terry Leahy put it, 'Queuing at one store, then trudging down Watford High Street in the rain to another shop...Is this what people actually want to go back to?'46

It is important to also bear in mind the impact of the major supermarkets on the food service sector. Tesco and the other retailers have become major 'wholesalers' to restaurants, fast-food outlets and cafés.

Back to top

The 'Tesco effect' on local communities


As independent retailers go out of business, Britain's high streets are becoming 'ghost towns'. Its not just the local grocers and food shops who lose trade to 'out of town' shopping centres or Tesco convenience stores, but all the local businesses that work with them – from window cleaners to transport companies. While the supermarkets claim that they create jobs, in fact, evidence shows that jobs are either lost47 or replaced with banal shift work, and the town centre, part of the social fabric and character of any community, will begin to shrink.

Tesco is well aware of the effect that it has on market towns, which is why it has put out its leaflet, 'Tesco and market towns'48 as well as identifying itself as a 'Rural Action Leadership Company' by sponsoring Business in the Community's, 'Putting Down Roots in Market Towns' leaflet.49

Tesco argues that rather than having a negative effect on market towns, they recognise that 'it is in our interests to contribute to the vitality of the local economy and community to ensure the long term success of our stores.' In fact, they argue, 'Tesco is beneficial to a market town as people from the surrounding community visit the town regularly and it can prevent 'leakage' to competing centres.' As an example, they cite the effects on the local community of converting the historic cattle market in Beverley into a new Tesco. Whilst 'concerns were raised over the changes it would bring', the actual result, according to Tesco, is that the Tesco stores 'has boosted Beverley's reputation as a popular shopping destination'.

Of course, what it doesn't mention is that the cattle market and local farmers who used to do business there were more than likely put out of business by Tesco itself, and its buying practices. Meanwhile, in other market towns, such as Stalham in Norfolk, it is clear that Tesco has in fact had the negative effect that many local campaigners fear. Tesco built its car park on the market site promising that the market could continue on Tuesday mornings. But once its store was open, Tesco backtracked on its promise, and the council relocated the market to a much less suitable site where it has dwindled to a few stalls.50

'Before Tesco opened Stalham was a thriving market town, but now nobody walks to the high street, my business is down 40%' Candy Sheridan, shopkeeper, Stalham.51

Tesco also claims to be working with National Association of Farmers’ Markets in Uttoxeter to develop a farmers’ market in its car park. As it turns out this is no longer true: FARMA, the merger of National Association of Farmers’ Markets and the Farm Retail Association is not working with Tesco on any projects at the moment.52 According to the local tourism office, Tesco does have a farmers’ market in its car park, which presumably also promotes great trade for Tesco too.

The leaflet contains other vague assertions about ‘our local store teams being at the heart of the community that they live in and serve’. Which is interesting when you look at Tesco's agreement with North Norfolk district council and Norfolk county council to buy up the community centre, fire station and a block of flats used for social housing in order to secure a prime location for a superstore in Sheringham, North Norfolk. Sheringham is one of the last towns in Britain not to have a supermarket. This town of 7000 residents will soon have a superstore catering for 38,000 people in the region.

Local councils have traded community facilities, memorial gardens, allotments, social housing and an old soldier's club in order to facilitate Tesco. Similar stories abound from Hadleigh in Suffolk to Shaftesbury in Dorset. In Hadleigh, Babergh district council has altered the district plan so that Tesco can build on a flood plain – directly against national policy.53

Many grassroots campaigners feel let down by the Government's proposed changes to planning policy statement 6 (PPS6) that will favour large edge-of-town developments. Already local planning authorities are giving planning permission for stores even though it is clear that there will be a negative impact on the town centre.

'This is a wonderful town but Tesco will suck the life out of the greengrocers, butchers, off-licence, and then it is only a matter of time for us too. The personal service is why holidaymakers come to Sheringham, but with a giant Tesco it will be like everywhere else.' Ronald Wright, 73, of Blyth and Wright ironmongers, Sheringham, founded in 1898 54

Budgens, which also has a small supermarket in Sheringham, is now contesting the decision by North Norfolk council to grant planning permission to Tesco claiming that the planning decision was illegal.

Competition policy has failed small communities too. There have been further issues with the Tesco takeover of c-store chains, since in the conversion of former T&S stores to the Tesco Express format, in-store post offices have been closed down leaving isolated communities without easy access to a post office. This has been the case in Chalkwell Road, Sittingbourne,55 Shaw Village Centre, Swindon, Lisieux Way in Taunton and four One Stops in the West Midlands. It could also be the case in the two edge-of-town stores in Witney, Oxfordshire, that have been taken over by Tesco. Some local campaigns have been successful in persuading Tesco not to close their post offices including Longlevens in Gloucester and Jersey Farm, St Albans. With the Post Office 're-invention' closing many small post offices and causing a huge furore, one wonders whether the Post Office is working in cahoots with Tesco. If Tesco closes a small post office because 'it wants to make more space for shelving', the Post Office doesn't have to take the rap. Tesco is big and ugly enough to take the criticism as it knows that in most cases it has a captive market.

'I am a pensioner and disabled and will be in difficulty if Cogges Post Office closes. Altogether the closure of Cogges Post Office will make difficulties for many people on the estates, especially for the elderly. I cannot agree with Tesco's claim that they are coming to serve the local community. It seems to me that the community is being sacrificed to the god of money.' Margaret Wardell, pensioner, Witney commenting on Tesco's closure of two post offices in its stores (recently purchased from One-Stop)56

Back to top

Tesco and 'cash-poor time-poor' shoppers


'You get all kinds of income levels shopping here...but Tesco is determinedly moving away from being down-market and price led....It’s trying to move into Sainsbury's AB demographic' Nick Gladding, Verdict Research57

In 1972 Tesco had 790 UK stores. During the 1970s many small inner city stores were closed. They were too small to have adequate economies of scale and were in areas of low spending power. Of the 518 Tesco stores of under 500 square metres sales area in 1972, just 190 remained by 1980.58

This pattern of supermarkets moving into an area, causing all the local shops to close, and then moving out again because business isn't doing well creates something called 'Food Deserts'. 'Food Deserts' are not just about access to food, but also about access to good quality, inexpensive, nutritious food. On the whole such deserts affect the most vulnerable and the poorest in society – the elderly and infirm, those without access to food information, those without access to private transport etc. Tesco may be rushing to service the 'cash-rich, time-poor' through its Tesco Metro stores, but as other grocery retailers move out, who is feeding the 'cash-poor time-poor' citizens? For more information, see 'Inconvenience Food: The Struggle to Eat Well on a Low Income' published by Demos (2002).59

Getting a low price in a Tesco store also depends on where in the country you live. The Competition Commission found that supermarkets, including Tesco, were putting prices up in areas where there was no strong competition.60

The Citizens' Organising Foundation also discovered that supermarkets charge higher prices in poorer areas than rich ones. Poorer people are less likely to have cars and are therefore more of a captive market, unable to go in search of cheaper prices.61 Sainsburys and Tesco 'have been fiercely criticised by the Citizens’ Organising Foundation for charging higher prices in poor areas than rich ones.'62

Back to top

Urban regeneration?


Meanwhile, under its 'Regeneration Partnership schemes', Tesco claims to be a shining light in deprived areas. Tesco has moved into areas which are not 'commercially attractive', and along with 'other stakeholders', is building on derelict sites in areas of high long-term unemployment, where there is a poor skills base and inadequate levels of public transport provision.

Quite how supermarkets, who make their money from encouraging consumers to spend more on things they don't need or never knew they wanted, can regenerate an area is unclear. The jobs they provide are generally short term and banal, and very much depend on the supermarket not moving out again as soon as the area becomes unprofitable. Jobs will be lost elsewhere and opportunities for entrepreneurship stiffled. Most of the money generated goes back to Tesco shareholders, leaving the area poorer – economically and culturally – than it was before.

Tesco's 'regeneration partnership schemes' pose big questions about the corporation's role in development in general. In our era of Public Private Partnerships, corporations are increasingly taking over the services and roles we have expected from local authorities and government. But is the corporation, which is both unaccountable and legally obliged to put profit over people, really the best agent to do this? For a detailed critique of 'public private partnerships' check out the Public Services International Research Unit (PSIRU) atwww.psiru.org"> www.psiru.org and "Captive State: The corporate Takeover of Britain" by George Monbiot (MacMillan 2000).

Tesco makes much of its generous contribution to poor areas in submissions to the UK government regarding its tax burden.63

Meanwhile, in July 2004, Tesco announced it would slash 420 jobs in its IT support and invoice processing centres in Dundee, Cardiff and Welwyn Garden City and relocate to a new support centre in the hi-tech southern Indian city of Bangalore where it already employs 350 support professionals. Top-flight Indian graduates earn about £3,000 a year, a tenth of what an experienced accountant or IT professional could earn in the UK. The jobs to be cut range from data-entry assistants up to accountants and IT support professionals. Tesco claims it will offer UK staff jobs in other parts of the company 'as long as they are flexible'.

Back to top

Relations with farmers and suppliers


  • Tesco is the biggest buyer of UK agriculture;
  • Almost 100% of our meat is British;
  • We are working with UK farmers to extend the growing season so we can source more in the UK;
  • We have 300 new UK suppliers this year.
    -John Gardiner Tesco Chairman at Tesco AGM 13 June 2003

'Tesco buying managers have a reputation for securing the hardest bargains...One of them was given a new wine to taste...and was asked for his reaction. He sniffed the contents of his glass, tasted it and replied: 'Not enough margin'. Tim Atkins, wine writer64

According to the Competition Commission report on supermarkets (2000), Tesco pays the lowest prices to its suppliers.65 Tesco uses its buying power in the system to pit farmers and food manufacturers around the world into fierce competition with each other to push down the farm/factory gate price. It is also free to set unfair and unreasonable terms and conditions for accepting produce/goods because it knows that if the suppliers kick up a fuss, they can easily be replaced with someone more compliant.

Tesco has made a fine art of its system of exploitation; exploitation that affects not only small farmers, but also the big brand manufacturers. Allegedly there are only a few brand name products that are exempt from this treatment due to their huge popularity – they include Heinz baked beans and Whiskas cat food.

Tesco effectively set the price or hold auctions, forcing farmers and suppliers into competition to produce at the lowest price possible, even if this means losing money or cutting health, environmental and animal welfare corners. It is not surprising too, that farmers and suppliers have become reliant on cheap undocumented migrant labour provided by gangmasters. However, for Tesco and the others, with so many millions at stake on any one product, savings of 2% or 4% quickly add up.

In the Friends of the Earth briefing 'Tesco: Exposed', Michael Hart, of the Small and Family Farms Alliance, gives several examples of clear supermarket profiteering at the expense of farmers,

'In 1991, the farm gate price for potatoes was 9p per kg and the retail price was 30p; a 21 pence difference and a 233.5% mark up. In 2000, the farm gate price was 9p per kg, but the retail price was 47p per kg; the difference now being 38 pence, an huge mark up of 425%....[this product requires] no processing other than grading and packing...done by farmers before being put on the supermarket shelf, so clearly the increase in farm gate price to retail difference is due to supermarkets wishing to increase their profit margins at the farmer's expense. This is a clear abuse of their power in the food chain.'

On other occasions, rather than raise the retail price, the supermarkets use the low farmgate price plus their usual mark-up to protect or increase their market share.

The price which farmers receive for their produce sometimes fails to cover the cost of production, and consequently only farmers who produce on a very large scale and can therefore produce more cheaply can afford to carry on this way. For others, spiralling debt has become the norm and has forced many out of business. Essentially, the major supermarkets are paving the way for the demise of small and family farms. Depending on the sector, such farms are either becoming modern day serfs to the big corporations or being replaced by huge corporate farming enterprises. This evidently leads to social dislocation in rural areas and environmental destruction.

Such behaviour is blatantly exploitative. This is reinforced by the fact that many suppliers are too afraid to complain openly, fearing losing their business altogether. John Breach of the Fruit Growers' Association described the risk of being de-listed for raising objections to terms and conditions as 'very real', 66 and for this reason, it is difficult to be precise about the scale of the problem.

Although the Competition Commission, in its investigation into supermarkets (2000) highlighted numerous examples of anti-competitive behaviour by the supermarkets in their treatment of suppliers, no one, not even the big food multinationals, were willing to bring a complaint to the Office of Fair Trading under the current voluntary code of practice set up after the investigation. Probably because this voluntary code of practice, drawn up by the big four supermarkets themselves, required the complaint to be made to the supermarkets first, which would be commercial suicide. Unless the supplier can make their complaint with complete confidentiality, such a code of practice cannot protect suppliers and their contracts. Besides, buying and selling below the cost of production is not proscribed as part of the current voluntary code (See later for more details on the 'Breaking The Armlock' alliance).

The bottom line is that Tesco and the other three major UK supermarket chains have tremendous concentrated power in the supply chain to buy produce from farmers and suppliers worldwide. In economic terms, this is known as an 'oligopsony' – or a group of companies that have a monopoly on the supply side of their work. As a example, in August, Tesco dropped one of its three milk suppliers, Dairy Crest, the UK's biggest dairy foods group. Tesco’s decision to take more from its existing milk suppliers, Arla and Robert Wiseman, has meant that Dairy Crest has lost its huge contract worth around £60m. This move is part of the general supermarket trend to consolidate for efficiencies and price stabilisation. It is unclear what the impact will be on small farmers at the bottom of the food supply chain.67

For more information see other Corporate Watch publications, www.corporatewatch.org/?lid=217">'What's wrong with supermarkets?' and 'A Rough Guide to the UK Farming Crisis'.

The most ignominious end for a farmer is surely working behind the deli counter at Tesco. Michael Soanes, from Beckley, Oxfordshire, is one such farmer who was forced to work at Tesco to make ends meet at the height of the foot and mouth crisis.

'We are suffering dreadfully. The takings are down and I still have to pay the mortgage, so I'm working 30 hours a week at Tesco. That's part-time as far as I'm concerned. I work fom 7am until midnight, either I'm busy at the farm or at Tesco.'68

Back to top

Tesco's response to claims of exploitation


Tesco has put forward several arguments to counter these criticisms. For more detailed discussion on these issues, see Corporate Watch publication 'A Rough Guide to the Farming Crisis' www.corporatewatch.org.uk/agriculture/farmreport.pdf

The world market argument As outlined in a BBC report on dairy farmers’ protests,69 Tesco claims that it cannot raise the price paid to farmers for milk because it buys from processors, not directly from farmers, and it therefore pays market prices, which it is not allowed to fix. This, on one hand, is a result of neo-liberal economic trade rules, and shows how unfair these rules are towards small producers who are not allowed to systematically receive a fair price for their products. On the other hand, Tesco can take part in fairly trading tea and coffee, so why can't it make all its products fair trade? As the supplier at the top of the chain, and the largest buyer of British farm products, Tesco could, if it believed in a fair price, instigate a fair trade system for farm products. No-one has more power to do so.

The subsidy Another argument that Tesco has used is that the price paid by retailers is not the most important issue, rather that farmers are suffering from the high rate of exchange of the pound, which gives them relatively less subsidy money.70 This is also a favourite argument of the National Farmers Union, but it is really quite peripheral. The reason why farmers need so much subsidy money in the first place is because they have been paid less and less for their produce over the years, and subsidies have become a form of welfare payments to farmers. If the supermarkets paid farmers a fair price, subsidies would not be needed.

In another effort to divert attention onto subsidies, Tesco director, Lucy Neville-Rolfe and former Northern Foods boss, Lord Chris Haskins co-wrote a policy document for think-tank the Foreign Policy Centre on 'Is there a Future for European Farming?' (2002). The general argument is that farmers orient what they are growing towards subsidies and not the customer. Given the argument above, it is, perhaps, understandable why farmers have focused on growing crops that receive subsidies.

Tesco is really the friend of British farmers At Tesco's AGM 2003, Terry Leahy repeatedly insisted that Tesco only makes 3p in the pound profit so they cannot be profiteering from farmers. He claimed that it was the consumer, if anyone, who is benefiting from low prices. He also claimed that Tesco is forgoing huge profits by not importing from overseas and by buying British to support ailing farmers.

Tesco has outlined measures which it has undertaken to support British farmers by buying mostly British meat and dairy, which is at great personal cost to themselves because foreign produce is cheaper. Meanwhile, the bulk of products sold in supermarkets are processed and no notice is taken of their origins at all. No meaningful improvement for farmers in Britain and elsewhere can take place until the imbalance caused by artificially cheap transport has been removed and it becomes consistently cheaper to buy local. Furthermore, Tesco cannot be the saviour of British farming because it cannot deal on a human scale. Tesco can only achieve its much-publicised cheap prices through dealing in bulk and this excludes small producers. Supermarkets do sometimes begin to deal with small producers, but only with a view to making them larger and more 'economical' to deal with.

Tesco's claims to be a friend to British agriculture, should really be read as a friend to the National Farmer's Union. This probably says more about the National Farmer's Union as a union fighting for farmer's rights against corporate greed (or not!), than it does about Tesco. See Corporate Watch briefing 'The National Farmer's Union: Friend to Big Business not to Small Farmers' for more details.71

In Tesco's market town leaflet,72 Tesco also responds to the criticism of the way it deals with suppliers. The criticism is 'wrong because it ignores a simple truth. A successful and sustainable food business needs excellent relations with its suppliers...so that they can supply the products to satisfy customer demands'. Whilst this may placate its customers, Tesco's suppliers know that the balance of power in this excellent relationship is firmly in Tesco's favour.

Its not true!

In February 2004, DEFRA commissioned 'independent' researchers, London Economics to investigate the increasing gap between farm-gate and retail prices in the UK.

The report only looks at whether reductions in farmgate prices are passed onto consumers, and finds that they are not in the case of fruit and veg. It does not look at whether the farm gate prices are reasonable in the first place and does not look at all the other ways in which supermarkets bully suppliers.

The results of the report are also wishy-washy and inconclusive as to the cause of this gap. Although the evidence does 'not point to a systematic widening in the nineties of farm gate-retail price as a result of potentially stronger buyer power caused by increasing concentration in the food retail sector', 'one cannot therefore conclude that buying power was not an issue during the nineties'. It also recommends 'these points need to be further explored before any firm conclusions regarding the impact of buying power can be drawn.'73

Nevertheless, the British Retail Consortium (BRC) put out a press release (30/7/04) claiming that this study 'destroys the myth that supermarkets hold farmers in an armlock'. 'It is time for those who constantly criticise food retailer's relationships with farmers to admit that their attacks are based on nothing more than myth and prejudice'.74

The total misinterpretation of the figures illustrates an industry desperate to defend itself to consumers in the face of the increasing lobby for a fair deal for supermarket suppliers. Its not suprising that the BRC has taken up the supermarkets' cause, as its Director General is Kevin Hawkins, OBE, the former director of communications at Safeway, and its new chairman is Michael Wemms, a former Tesco director. London Economics also has an interest in Tesco's welfare as it used to write reports for it.

Meanwhile figures from the Liberal Democrats show that supermarkets' operating profits have risen by 300% during the last 15 years, from £884m in 1988 to £3,355m in 2003, and their directors have reaped a 557% increase in pay. In the same period, farmers' incomes have risen by 29%.75 According to Liberal Democrat food and rural affairs spokesman, Andrew George MP, Tesco's profit is almost 50% of the £3.6bn generated by British farmers.76

Despite the general culture of isolation and despair in farming, several protests have taken place against supermarkets which are seen to have the most influence on the prices paid to farmers. These include Tesco's distribution centres and Annual General Meeting. Farmers for Action have picketed Tesco distribution centres and in July 2004, farming campaign group, FARM gathered outside Tesco’s stand at the Royal Welsh Show to protest against its role in perpetuating low farmgate prices. FARM representative Robert Alderson said: 'Tesco, and the other supermarkets, continue to pay the farmer less than the cost of production with the result that farmers are pulling out of production at an unprecedented rate.'77

Back to top

Farm labourers, packers, canners and undocumented migrant labour


'The dominant position of the supermarkets in relation to their suppliers is a significant contributory factor in creating an environment in which illegal activity can take root. Intense price competition and the short time scales between orders from the supermarkets and deliveries to them put great pressure on suppliers who have little opportunity or incentive to check the legality of their labour. Supermarkets go to great lengths to ensure that the labels on their products are accurate...We believe they should pay equal attention to the conditions under which their produce is harvested and packed...Supermarkets cannot wash their hands of this matter.' -UK Government Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee Report into Gangmasters 2003

The worst abuses of workers' rights in this country are not so often against people working directly for supermarkets, but those working for companies doing contract labour for them, such as factory work and packaging. It is unclear how many migrant labourers, documented and undocumented, are working in the UK, but estimates vary between 100,000 and 2 million.78 Around 50% are controlled by ‘gangmasters’, who operate like informal employment agencies, and who until very recently were not required to register or be licenced in any way.

These suppliers are usually companies you haven't heard of, but supermarkets would not be able to function without them. It is also very convenient for the supermarkets to pass the buck – 'We're very concerned but these people aren't directly employed by us, what can we do?' The workers concerned are often foreign, sometimes illegal immigrants, which makes it very difficult for them to expose their working conditions.

It seems that even once the problem of gangmasters has been recognised, and even if they have legitimate work permits, foreign workers are still not safe from extreme exploitation and humiliation. An article by Felicity Lawrence in the Guardian (March 2004) describes the 'debt bonded labour' conditions of some workers supplied by 'an employment agency involved in a government-backed initiative to clean up the gangmaster industry '. The agency in question, Staffmasters, was supplying South African workers to a packhouse packing fruit and vegetables for various supermarkets including Tesco. Money was loaned to the workers to get a flight over to the UK and a two-year working visa, then deducted from their wages – which were below the legal minimum wage to start with – at 100% interest. With more money being taken out of their wages for accommodation, many workers were left with almost nothing at the end of the week. Workers claim that when they said they wanted to leave, they were told they could not do so until they had worked off their debt to Staffmasters.79

In May 2004 175 workers were sacked by Europackaging in Birmingham because they had joined the GPMU trade union. The workers had been forced to work 84-hour weeks on the minimum wage, often with no days off for weeks at a time. When the remaining workers went on strike, they were threatened with sacking too. Some staff remain on the picket line, meanwhile asylum seekers have been brought in to do the work instead.

Tony Burke, Deputy General Secretary of the GPMU said:

'The treatment of our members there is utterly appalling. This is exploitation of British citizens just because English in not their first language and some of them do not speak much English at all. Now, if what is being alleged about taking on asylum seekers is true, that's a whole new ball game. It is highly illegal and dangerous for those individuals, and supermarkets like Tesco and Sainsbury's need to know of these circumstances as soon as possible.'80

The supermarkets claim that they do not benefit for the exploitation of migrant workers by gangmasters, because they pay the gangmasters the going rate. Nevertheless, they have created a climate that thrives on 'flexible' insecure working conditions through their ever changing specifications, seasonal and product demand, and because they sometimes demand that their suppliers produce for less than the cost of production. Therefore, sometimes the supplier will need a huge labour force and sometimes none. Sometimes they will require 18 hour working days, six days a week, and sometimes no work for months.

After years of campaigning by trade unions, the Gangmasters Licencing Act became law in July 2004, which should see UK gangmasters licenced and registered. Meanwhile the exploitation of undocumented migrant labour has been a feature of agriculture in Europe and the USA for years.

Back to top

Fair trade and treatment of overseas suppliers


'No company can continue to pretend to be promoting ethical trade along its supply chains when it slashes supplier prices to the point where growers who pay a living wage, treat their workforce with respect and make environmental improvements are cut out of the market.' -Alistair Smith, Banana Link81

Tesco stocks 60 Fair Trade product lines in the UK, making it the biggest seller of Fair Trade goods. It has now set up its own Fair Trade label, which includes South African wines and flowers.82 These products give the impression of a caring sharing corporation.

Tesco (along with most of the major supermarkets) is signed up to the Ethical Trading Initiative (ETI), a coalition of NGOs, trade unions, companies and government departments describing itself as 'a ground-breaking initiative…with the aim of helping to make substantial improvements to the lives of poor working people around the world.'83 Established in 1998, it has drawn up a base code which all members have to sign up to which discusses working conditions, wages, hours, child labour and discrimination. The ETI covers supermarkets' own-brand products.

Like all corporations, Tesco is keen to sign up to a 'voluntary' code of conduct for its plantation and factory workers, rather than have to cede to national or international labour rights legislation which would ensure workers a basic living wage, health and safety legislation and the right to collective bargaining. In particular, the ETI does nothing to challenge the power relations between suppermarkets and suppliers. In a letter leaked in 'The Grocer' in 2003, it was revealled that Tesco demands payments from its suppliers to cover the costs of its compliance with the Ethical Trading Initiative of US$119 or £69.50 per quarter per supplying site. A demand which according to one supplier hits smaller businesses hardest since they are more likely to have a number of sites.84

In November 2003, Insight Investment commenting on Tesco's performance within the ETI said, 'We are pretty concerned. [Tesco] did seem to lag behind the likes of Sainsbury's and Marks & Spencer...There would be concern if labour standard abuses were found'.85 After general lobbying from investors, Tesco promised to catch up with its rivals by putting auditing systems in place to track trading policies. They claim 'We've been trying to work out how to move it [the Ethical Trading Initiative] forward. We're hoping we have something here that the supply chain can sign up to'.86

For this reason, many grassroots unions and Southern NGOs are quietly cynical about the ability of the ETI to be anything more than a talking shop.

Tesco has also, in recent months, made a mockery of 'fair trade'. Evidence shows that supermarkets have exploited customers' good will by overcharging for Fairtrade products.87 John McCabe, a retail pricing expert with consultants Connector Global, said 'The supermarkets know that people do not go for the cheapest product when buying Fairtrade because they think the extra money is helping someone in the Developing world'. He accused Tesco, along with Sainsbury and Asda, of excessive mark ups on top extra that they pay the suppliers. As a result, the supermarket chain announced an 11p cut in the price per kilo of Fairtrade bananas.

In its report, 'Trading away our Rights: Women in Global Supply Chains', Oxfam make direct allegations against Tesco and its treatment of suppliers in South Africa. Its research shows how Tesco loads many of the costs and risks of its fresh-produce business onto farmers, who are passing them onto workers - especially women - in the form of precarious employment. These pressures include basing producer prices paid on target retail prices rather than actual production costs, raising producers’ costs without raising their prices and making farmers pay for the cost of special promotions.

Bananas are the most popular product sold in supermarkets. Tesco sells one in every four bananas, and BananaLink estimates that Tesco makes about £1m a week from banana sales. The price Tesco pays its suppliers has fallen 30% since the beginning of 2002. The price cuts are passed back to the importer/ripeners who are barely breaking even just to stay a supplier. They eventually end up passed back to the workers in terms of very poor wages, labour and environmental conditions. Essentially only bananas from unsustainable sources, where wages are rock-bottom, and unions cannot organise, can be sold at these prices. Costa Rica, Britain's leading source of bananas, cannot now sell to Tesco or Asda unless suppliers there are prepared to make a loss or flout the legal minimum price. There is currently an attempt by bosses to quash the trade union at the Bribri plantation in Costa Rica which supplies Tesco.88

According to Friends of the Earth, it would take a fruit farm worker in South Africa, earning the current daily rate of pay, 15 centuries to earn the annual £1.9 million salary of Tesco deputy chairman, David Reid.89

Back to top

Potentially sourcing from the Illegally Occupied Palestinian Territories


At Tesco's 2003 AGM, campaigners accused the company of sourcing products from the illegal Jewish settlements in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. The directors, who had earlier talked proudly of total product traceability, were unable to answer whether Tesco products which were labeled 'Made in Israel', thus allowed to be imported into the EU 'tariff free' under the Israel-EU prefential trade agreement, were in fact from the Occupied Territories, and subject to taxes and custom du