Supermarkets are synonymous with convenience. It is in their very DNA to act as a time-saving device for people living busy lives. And as a society we have issued collective thanks for this convenience by sending supermarket sales soaring to a level that would have been unimaginable during the heyday of the High Street forty years ago.
What, then, are we to make from this perspective of the appearance over recent months of food bank collection points in supermarkets? Is this merely the extension of a business model based on commodifying convenience to the sphere of charitable donations? Should we be grateful to the supermarkets that they have taken the bother out of thinking ethically and have made it quite so easy for us to derive the feeling of having done right by those in need?
The food bank has, sadly, become an increasingly established aspect of everyday life in Austerity Britain. Real needs are being satisfied in this way to ensure that calorific intakes do not fall below a dangerously low level. In the first six years following the onset of the financial crisis in 2007, the number of people in Britain relying on Trussell Trust food banks for an emergency three-day food parcel ballooned by over 4,000%. And this number has almost tripled again in the last twelve months alone as changes to the welfare system have taken effect.
It is clear that this staggering increase in demand could not be met without a commensurable increase in the willingness of people to donate otherwise unused food. There is nothing wrong, it could be said, with supermarkets putting themselves forwards as a vehicle for matching demand and supply in this way. But there are specific features of this case which mean that the story cannot end there.
The supermarkets are in the process of making a brand new market by establishing food bank donation boxes in their stores. Such processes can never simply be about satisfying the purely technical requirement of enabling demand and supply to be brought into line. A market in anything will always manifest a commercial rationale: markets necessarily provide a mechanism for ensuring the transfer of resources from one person to another.
By placing food banks in-store and advertising their presence on every aisle, a market is being made for the expression of good intentions. The psychological comfort of knowing that one has done right in the world has had a price put on it. It is only a small price to pay for most supermarket shoppers, because the donated food is likely to represent merely a tiny fraction of the overall weekly shopping bill. But this is a market arrangement nonetheless, because it involves the voluntary transfer of resources through an exchange relation, whereas such transfers would previously have happened in a very different way. There was a time before the onset of Austerity Britain when transfers enacted through the benefits system might well have been sufficient for the vast majority of people to have been spared both the trip to the food bank and the often accompanying loss of self-esteem.
But this market for the expression of good intentions has one extremely significant characteristic. At no stage as far as current newspaper reports suggest has any UK supermarket invited its customers simply to pick products off its shelves and place them directly in the food bank containers. Nobody is being given the opportunity to make a donation on behalf of the supermarket. Reciprocal donations of a sort are sometimes being offered, but it would be a mistake to think that the individual expression of good intentions is being matched by customers being given free rein to impose the corporate expression of good intentions. The supermarkets remain very much in charge of what, as well as how much, they are prepared to donate out of so-called surplus stock to top up the proceeds of their customers’ altruism. Yet this might act merely as another variant of the time-honoured tactic of using loss-leaders as a marketing device to attract more people into the store in the first place.
It is no coincidence, after all, that the food bank donation boxes are situated after the checkouts. The products have to be purchased first before customers can give them away and before they can then trigger a corresponding top-up donation. And the supermarkets have positioned themselves in all likelihood as the monopoly supplier of those products. Another – but this time conspicuously self-serving – meaning of ‘convenience’ comes to mind. The supermarkets have managed to capture the transfer of resources to the neediest parts of the population for their own ends. Whatever losses they might sustain through their own food bank donations are likely to be more than offset by the positive effect on their core business of being seen to station themselves on the ethical high ground.
However, could anything else have been expected? In a world in which supermarket share prices are falling as they struggle to maintain their earnings, it is maybe only normal that they would take advantage of every opportunity to make a bit more money, however mean-spirited the process of doing so might appear.
Yet it still has to be noted that profiting from customers’ charitable instincts certainly does not exhaust how the transfer of resources to those most in need of a square meal might take place under supermarkets’ food bank donation schemes. Instead of donations out of surplus stock, could the full value of supermarket food waste not be given directly by the supermarkets before it goes out of date? Surely this would be preferable to throwing it away after the sell-by date has expired and thus denying its potential to meet real needs. And if supermarkets really wanted to see the benefits to their stock price of restoring the reputation of their corporate brands amidst current concerns about sharp practices, an even more radical solution presents itself. What better way could there be of leaving a positive impression in their customers’ minds than inviting the malnourished into their stores once a week and allowing them to help themselves to goods up to the value of their weekly food waste?
After all, the specifically non-market transfer of resources to those who need them most would remove all of the ethical dilemmas involved when allowing big businesses to profit from their customers’ altruism. But maybe that’s simply too much of an inconvenient truth.
Matthew Watson is Professor of Political Economy in the Department of Politics and International Studies at the University of Warwick. He is also an Economic and Social Research Council Professorial Fellow.