The Price of Consumption

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As humans we cannot survive without water for 3 days and food for 3 weeks, food and water are essential parts of our existence. As the centuries have passed, we have changed the way we gain and consume our food. The process has become less and less personal to a state today where the food is produced for us, packaged and put on a shelf; all we have to do is put it in our basket. This has allowed big businesses to capitalise on our want for convenience, but at what price? How does the food get to the shelf, where does it come from and what do our supermarkets get away with?

I have worked for a large, at times the largest, supermarket in the UK for longer I’d like to admit, at around 7 years. The processes and money driven nature of the businesses that control our food consumption disgusts me. I have worked in both a larger store (14 aisles, still small to some) and smaller store (4 aisles). The things I have been asked to do and witnessed, go against what I believe. We may well live in a country where food consumption is the easiest it has ever been, but what is the price we pay?

Warning Signs

The amount we know about the processes it takes to get our food into our basket is limited; we prefer to turn a blind eye, ignoring the raw deal supermarket suppliers get. We are what we eat, food is very personal and as a whole we are very careful about what we choose to put into our bodies, this is the complete opposite to the ethos supermarkets are run by. There was complete outrage when it was discovered we were being sold horsemeat labelled as other meat. The idea that supermarkets would allow their supplies to provide them with meat that is illegal to sell in this country is mind-boggling. Combine this with the “aggressive accounting” (overstating profits by £263 million) used by one retailer; it creates a very concerning picture. These may well have been the visible elements of the problem but what lies beneath? I expected there to be a full-scale review of every process undertaken by supermarkets, if they can get away with selling horsemeat and overstating profits, they must be getting away with a whole lot more. Fundamentally, supermarkets are happy to lie to their customers to increase their profits or just lie about their profits.

Wastage

What surprises and shocks me more than anything else are the amounts that supermarkets get away with wasting, and the ease at which they do it. Everyday the small shop I work in has at least one/two bags of waste; this is one small shop, when you think about the scale it is beyond belief. Tesco’s have 3,561 UK shops and 7,817 worldwide, Sainbury’s 1,200 and Asda 525, then there is M&S, Waitrose, Morrison’s and the new age of supermarkets; Aldi and Lidl. There tends to be a culture of laziness where it is easier to scan and throw away the product rather than clean or repair it for a reduced price.

These companies have policies and processes that they have to follow removing a lack of leeway and common sense. It is common practice to throw away three cans of beer because the fourth has been damaged. I once argued with my manager because she refused to allow me to have or pay for three one-day, out-of-date steaks, after they had been recorded as waste. She claimed; it placed her job in “danger”, she is a vegetarian. The complete lack of common sense that these companies and the way their manager’s act with is criminal at times. One evening the manager on duty placed the milk delivery, consisting of three dollies in the lift down to the warehouse, he then forgot about it and didn’t place it in the warehouse fridge. The next morning all of it had to be wasted (photo above).

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My store recently replaced their freezes and due to poor pre planning, a lack of room in the warehouse freezer and not enough staff to have the stock worked before, it was all directly wasted (picture above). As a fresh faced 17 year old, the shop I worked in underwent a re-fit where it closed for a week, during which the lorries kept turning up. The majority of this stock was instantly wasted; I spent my next two eight-hour shifts once the store had reopened wasting stock amounting to grand’s worth of waste. It was only the other week where the fresh food products had been brought up in the lift to only sit there for three hours before being put back into the chillier. Our training informs us that fresh food products shouldn’t be out the fridge for longer than twenty minutes; these products will end up on the shelf and will be sold to the public.

So far I have only talked about the amount of food wasted, which is down to poor processes, lack of management skills and basically driven by a lack of staff, which I will go on to talk about. However, the amount of resources it takes to run one small express store is astounding! The introduction of bagging charges is a step in the right direction but I would like to highlight the amount of paper wasted through receipts. I decided to start collecting them due to the number of people who don’t require them, therefore being put straight into the bin and not recycled. I undertook this for forty-three shifts over a period of four months where I worked between four and ten hours each shift, not spending the whole time on the tills. It is important to remember this is just one member of staff, in one small shop, that is open 7am-11pm. When you start to take into account the number of supermarkets that exist, combined with the hours they are open, with the amount of staff throwing away receipts every second, you start to get a full picture of the problem. The photo below has the “collection” placed against a 1litre bottle of squash to put it into context.

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What frustrates and concerns me the most about these cases is the lack of common-sense and forethought shown. A lot of these cases could easily have been avoided with a bit of pre-planning, care or more staff. These supermarkets are aware of this wastage, the cost it has and the unethical nature of the processes. The company I work for has an initiative where the bakery products that are unsold at the end of the day are bagged up and used as pig feed, it might not be the best use of the excess but at least its being reused. Although there have been long periods of time where this hasn’t been abided to and has just been thrown straight into the bin. There has been a scheme started by a small number of stores where they will give away their out-of-date products to the homeless, yet this is only on a small scale at the moment, with a larger scheme that runs in France.

Management and Staff

These supermarkets, like any business, are run to make money, when this is combined with something as personal as food it can led to poor decision-making that isn’t in the customer’s best interest. During my time at my current store, five years, I have had ten different store manages, several deputies and countless different team leaders. My store is known as a problem store due to its good location; close to a station, a university and other businesses, meaning high footfall at lunch and during the evening commutes. This means it needs strong management and moderate-staffing levels throughout the day so stock can be worked regularly and the shop kept tidy.

The store has been regularly run for long periods of time with limited staff. When staff have left only enough people have been hired to cover their hours, not the gaping holes in the rota. There have been several occasions where the store has been run one on one, the staff member has to cover tills, while the manger runs through their routines. Recently while in the process of yet another store manager change, where the new store manager was placed into the shop with no deputy, the shop had to be shut several times due to a shortage of staff. I find this astounding that as a country we have, 1.75 million people unemployed (March 2015) and one of the largest supermarkets in the UK, one of the biggest companies in the UK, can’t hire enough people to keep their shop open!

We receive high amounts of interest in jobs at our store but they are forced online before hoping for an interview. They then have to wait for the “right to work” process to be complete, which can take anything from a week to months before having an induction, which is held monthly in the region, so up to 50 miles away. By the time these processes are complete the applicants tend to have found another job. The inability of this large company to hire staff easily, for what is a well-paid job for the skillsets required, when there are so many people unemployed, is startling.

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To Summarise

We are currently at a very interesting point at how we like to gain and purchase our food; the market is becoming more diverse with an increasing number of convenience format stores. I believe the companies that have a strangle hold upon the market are having to adapt and change fast, or face closer. Each individual store has to prove its worth and I hope that because of this, routines and processes start to be followed with more common sense. I would like to think the things I have witnessed are limited to the supermarket I worked for, however, I believe it’s a wider problem than one chain. As individuals we always believe there is no point in taking action because it is meaningless, although, in this case we have a massive effect on what we allow these businesses to get away with. It is difficult to know what is going on behind the scenes but when the problems are glaringly obvious and are easy to identify, I urge you to vote with your feet and purchase your food from sources you believe they are treating your food and your needs correctly because ultimately it’s going into your body.

What is hard to come to terms with is the poverty and homelessness levels we have in this country and the ease with which supermarkets can waste edible food. The shop I work in has customers from lower end incomes coming in everyday, some from miles away, to look for reduced products, while behind the scenes we are content at throwing away slightly damaged or one day out of date products, and this is not just limited to my store. I do believe these companies are beginning to act with greater ethics in their re-usage of bakery products, the introduction of bagging charges, changing packaging stages, alternative stores like this one and schemes that sees food provided to charities for the homeless, but these have to be rolled out nation wide so we can truly become more resourceful.

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