Recently in The Tesco Effect Category

08.04.02 place laid for dinner 140x78 010a.jpg Food is rising rapidly up the agenda. Allotments, biofuels, calories, customs, eating disorders, famine, farming, fats, fibre, foodmiles, GM, health, organic, packaging, processing, salt, seasonal, security, sell-by, sustainability, vitamins, water.... Where do we begin with what to eat and drink?

Modern society has moved from food as nutrition and survival to food as an element of our leisure experience. Until recently it's been seen by many as an issue to be left to dieters or even ‘health freaks’.

But now people are beginning to ask what food's about. The immediate answer to this question could be, it’s all very confusing. There are 'facts' and there are, it seems, 'food factoids'; and there are some consequences for action, when we think things through....

Here are some general headings and questions about food which may help:


Nutrition (Should we eat it?)
Strange as it may seem, for most adults there is still more concern about calorific value and ‘losing weight’ than there is about the nutritional value of what we eat. Almost everyone wants to be slim; yet despite concerns in many parts of the world about obesity and health relatively few people actually eat their fruit and veg ‘Five A Day'.

We as consumers still don’t fully appreciate nutritional information or understand the significance for our health and well-being of salt and other minerals and vitamins, various sorts of fats, fibre, ‘additives’, sugar, glycaemic index, units of alcohol and so on; and in some respects nor, completely, do the experts.

The healthy eating message is beginning to sink in, but questions around nutritional labelling and how to project the public health message continue to loom large.


Children eat too (Is food for kids especially important?)
Even (especially) for children, the health impact of being overweight, along with issues around longer-term well-being and educational outcomes, are now major concerns, as Jamie Oliver and his School Dinners campaign keep reminding us.

It is not altogether clear however that poor children necessarily have ‘worse’ diets than better off ones – possibly because even wealthier children eat ‘the wrong things’, albeit from choice (kids of all sorts it seems won’t eat their greens). But perhaps some groups consume ‘nicer’ food than others, even though the direct nutritional value - or not - of food consumed by children may (sometimes) vary independently of income.

So what more if anything needs to be done about family eating patterns, or advertising food to children, on the television and elsewhere? How much value should we put on meals together as a way to promote family well-being and cohesion?

And how important, as a good start, is breast-feeding? Should we as a society do more to encourage it?

Or should we emphasise exercise more than nutrition, to protect children's physical and mental health?


Organic? GM? Nano? Sell-by date? (Is it wholesome?)
Confusion reigns when we look at the science behind modern food production.

Is organicWho says so, and why is it so pricey?) What about free-range? What's a superfood? And do superfoods really exist?

Has the product we're about to eat, or an antecedent of it, been genetically modified? Is that good or bad? – and for whom? consumers, farmers or other people in the developing world? Also, how has it changed the food?

What of new techniques? Are any food nanotechnologies involved? Whatever would they be for? Are they good or dangerous?

Who decides ‘sell-by’ dates? And by what criteria?

Can we trust the Food Standards Agency, the government and European legislation and everybody else involved in food regulation and statutory labelling? What about the consumer organisations and the supermarkets? Who knows best?


Presenting, preserving and not wasting our food (Is tinned OK and who needs packaging?)
How can we tell whether tinned food is as good as frozen or fresh? How much packaging is required for hygiene and how much is, for instance, simply there to make food look good?

What's the relative energy and resource cost of different ways of preserving food?

And, crucially, how can we ensure that food we buy is not wasted? At present one third of food purchased - in restaurants, shops or wherever - in the UK alone is simply thrown away: hence the Love Food Hate Waste campaign. Perhaps even with today's relatively higher prices we are more careful about food if we're locavors, when we know locally who grew or prepared it, and where, than when we don't?


Food miles (Does it cost the earth?)
Food travels the world in strange ways. We (in the UK) get tomatoes and lamb from the other side of the globe, yet we also grow them ourselves.

How to tell people usefully about the food mile cost of what they eat may be a moot point. It’s not just how many miles, or even carbon footprint: it takes some eight units of grain to produce one unit of beef; but some people still reckon that good value - including, no doubt, growing numbers of consumers in China and India, who have a preference for an affluent Western diet.

So sometimes the real cost or value can only be calculated by comparing what would happen if foods of equivalent nutritional or other sort of value were produced in a different way. And how would you put that on a label?


Biofuels (Is growing 'food for cars' acceptable?)
We all know that we're using too much oil, charging around in cars and planes when often we don't need to.

Biofuels seemed for a while to be the perfect way out of this - grow crops to substitute for more usual oils. But now, as the UK's Chief Scientist has said, we know there are costs too; some biofuels are neither sustainable, nor ethical.

And on top of this we must acknowledge that biofuels, like food for people, takes up valuable land space. The question is, what's the 'right' balance - if there is such a thing?


Water used (Will it increase global tensions?)
There is an emerging awareness that food is mainly water, and that water is the also the most precious (and sometimes wasted) commodity in its production.

If the beef-to-grain carbon ratio is high, the equivalent water ratio is many times more so. (Let us pass on the comlex issues around food for domestic animals and pets - there is an important balance to acknowledge here between these animals' functions as sources of security and comfort for people, and their costs to the environment - but who has looked at this balance?)

There are those who believe that water, not oil, will trigger the next global disputes; but as yet few of us have thought how to approach the global issues of water scarcity and food.


Food prices (Can we afford it?)
The cost of food against income has fallen for most of us in the first world over recent years. Now it’s beginning to increase again to more traditional levels – though it will probably stabilise - as global issues such as draught, climate change and biofuels impact on the market.

Food habits have changed from agrarian times, but often seem nonetheless to lag behind the reality of what's available, and may say more about cultural expectations or how a person ate when they were young, than about what's now regarded as 'best' for them (or, indeed, with modern advertising the converse may also be true on occasion).

Perhaps people need to know about less expensive and more nutritious alternative foods, if the ones they’re used to become more expensive, or may now be known to be less 'healthy'? But who can best tell them?


Commercial advantage and competition (Do supermarkets cause ‘food deserts?)
Allied to this is now a fear that supermarkets placed in disadvantaged or poor areas will result in so-called food deserts, where poor people can no longer afford to buy even the basics of a decent diet.

But some observers say that food deserts are really different types of access, or actually an urban myth or 'factoid'. Evidence for these food deserts is to date far inconclusive – indeed, some research indicates that when supermarkets come to poorer areas, both the economy and local people’s diets may improve.

So how can we indicate economic ‘value’ and nutritional benefit in the contexts of where people live, what they expect to eat and how they get access to their food?


Customs, symbols and traditions (What sort of foods for whom?)
Shared food has always been a way of bonding - we cut cakes and 'raise a glass', offer potlatch, drink tea and conduct many other ceremonies across the world to denote belief, position or togetherness.

Then there's the fascinating question of why different people in different places and at different times eat different sorts of food. Sometimes it's easy to explain - 'luxury' and difficult to obtain foods are reserved in almost all cultures and communities for conspicuous consumption on special occasions, for instance - but often there are other styles and patterns to eating too.

And what do we know about 'healthy' diets across the world? Why do people in some places live longer and fitter lives than others? What traditions and customs help us keep our communities intact? And is any of what we might learn about customs and habits of food consumption transposable from one community or culture to another?


Seasonal, allotments and home grown (Should we grow it ourselves?)
Locally produced foodin season' is the new mantra, but it can’t be the whole story. There are many localities which can’t provide the full spectrum of nutritional need. Varied diets often require varied sources.

Nonetheless, an appreciation of the cycles of nature helps us to understand how our food is produced and what makes it special. ‘Seasonal’ recipes draw attention to the possibility of ingredients with a low carbon footprint, just as allotments, smallholdings and local market gardens offer the possibility of learning about how what we eat grows.

Producing and sourcing food locally may not resolve all our problems, but they certainly have their place in the spectrum of things we as consumers can enjoy and need to know. How about allotments for everyone who wants one (there are long waiting lists in some places), and special efforts to grow – and eat - vegetables and fruit in schools and other community locations?


The food economy (How does all this fit into UK plc?)
There are many things to think about here; just ask the politicians, farmers and market gardeners. And that's before we get to talk about European subsidies and farming compensation packages...

That however is not the whole story. Slowly, we are grasping the interconnections between the economic impacts and needs of farmers and growers, and how official policies affect the welfare of the wider rural and urban economies. Never again, hopefully, will problems like foot and mouth be addressed without understanding the fragile complexities of the rural economy as such; and hopefully too in future the wider public will perceive the business and scientific complexities of matters such as animal vaccination.

But let’s understand that not all food needs to be produced in rural areas. There’s plenty of scope also for townspeople to develop opportunities and skills via commercial companies and social enterprises around food, as is evident from the popularity of city-based organic foodstores, local vegetable deliveries and farmers’ markets... not to mention the universal interest in restaurants and cafes in modern day society!


Food, farms and famine (What about the developing world?)
If opportunities for stabilising the food economy remain to be developed efficiently, effectively and well in Western economies, how much more so is this true for those parts of the globe where even the grain supply is critically under-resourced, and where water and food are in desperately short supply. These were the sorts of concerns of the Downing Street Food Summit in early 2008.

Many people would like reassurance that the food they purchase is ethically sourced and gives a fair return to the farmers who produced it. And we need to understand much more about the food supply chain, as Professor Tim Lang of the Centre for Food Policy has been saying for years.

Movements such as Fairtrade are gaining wider recognition – plus a greater share of commercial shelf-space - and are critical to our understanding of food as a global issue.


Sustainability and ‘food security’ (Will there be enough food for everyone?)
There are those who fear we are sleepwalking into a global food disaster. We need to find ways of adjusting our eating habits (and other consumption) without delay.

Currently it’s said that humankind acts a though we had three planets-worth of resources at our disposal, not just one. And that's before we start to look at how population is increasing (in the UK as well as almost everywhere else).

It is also suggested that, in contrast to the current situation, the UK (and doubtless numbers of other nations) could with ease be self-sufficient for food if everyone were vegetarian - even though our lifestyle in the Western world is many times as water and carbon intensive as that of people in developing countries. Veganism, of course, is even more effective as a way of feeding everyone. Becoming 'selfsufficient-ish' (and largely vegetarian-ish?) can be achieved in most, except perhaps the most extreme, locations.

These last few observations offer a rather pointed context for all the other matters discussed above.


Read more about Food
and about Sustainability As If People Mattered.

What questions and views do you have about food?

Loganberries (small)  06.7.30 008.jpg Over the past century our connection with basic food production has largely been lost. But now there are urgent environmental as well as direct health reasons to ensure everyone understands how food is produced. People as consumers (in both senses) need to know about food miles, short produce supply chains, nutritional value and the annual cycle of food production through the changing seasons.
One obvious starting point for this crucial 'sustainability' message is schools; and another is allotments.

Apples 06.7.30 011.jpg The way that people find out about food seems to vary from generation to generation. This wasn't always the case. For millennia you ate what you could grow and, if you were lucky, also what you could swap of your surfeit for someone else's surfeit.

Then came the developing trade routes, some ancient and exotic (the Silk Road, also a route for spices and much else) and others, far more mundane to our modern minds, such as Salters Lane, the mediaeval travellers' way which appears in British towns and villages as widely spread as Hastings, Redditch, Tamworth, Chester and Stockton-on-Tees, along with other similar reminders of trade in by-gone eras.

Also within Europe, for instance, were the horrors of such deprivation as the Irish potato famine of 1845-9 and more recently, for some within living memory, informal and formal food rationing (the World Wars of 1914-19 and 1939-45) - a deprivation it is now often considered was more of the palate than of essential nutritional substance.

Different expectations, the same basic understanding
In all these cases, however, fabulous or tragic, ancient or contemporary, people understood something about the genesis of their food. It was either from plants or from animals, nurtured intentionally or garnered whence it appeared. If you wanted to eat, you had to engage in some way in the production or location of your meal.

This, it could be argued, is what is different in times past from how things are today. It can certainly be said that although people must still find their food somewhere, it tends to come pre-prepared, in labelled packets, frozen or perhaps in tins, but not self-evidently from plants and animals.

In much of the western or 'first' world the conscious link with what is rather romantically referred to as 'the soil' has quite largely been lost. Most people now expect to be able to eat anything they can afford and that they take a liking to, any time they choose.

The downside of choice
Nobody would disagree with the general idea that variety in our diets is a good thing. But in practice it doesn't seem to be like Strawberry pot 06.7.30 010.jpg that. Our food arrives on the shop shelves (the only place now where most of us hunt and gather) processed and packaged, and often laden with things we don't need as well as those we think we want....

For every interesting flavour and texture there are frequently too many empty calories, too much refined sugar and the 'wrong sort' of fats, if not always too few vitamins and minerals. (Contrary to popular belief, frozen and tinned food can, we are told, be as nutritious in these respects as the 'real thing'. Indeed, given that frozen and tinned foods are usually very fresh when they are processed, they may well have more nutritional value than the produce lying 'fresh' in the market.)

And herein lies the rub. There is a confusion in perceptions between 'fresh' and 'well-preserved' foods, between 'produce' and 'ready meals'. And most people have only the vaguest of ideas about the essential differences between, say, strawberries or carrots flown in 'fresh' from California or South Africa, and those grown in glasshouses close to the point where they are sold.... which in turn means we cannot fully appreciate concerns around 'food miles', local / short supply chains or, to return to our original theme, nutritional value-for-money.

Allotments (sheds & netting, Sudley) 06.7.15 003.jpgClose to the land, close to the retailer
At last some retailers (including some of the biggest) are beginning to acknowledge some of these issues. They boast that they have short supply chains, that their produce are prepared immediately after cropping, that they are willing to promote sustainable 'seasonal' products; and they even sometimes offer nutritious recipes to cook from basic (and less basic) ingredients which are fresh and wholesome.

Now it is up to everyone to make sure they understand what is meant by all this.

For not the first time in this debate, much of the answer has to lie in education, in encouraging children to nurture living things; in making sure children know that food does not grow on supermarket shelves, and that they understand how the seasons can be harnessed to ensure a supply a healthy and varied diet.

The other obvious approach is helping people, wherever they live, sustain their own communities, to visit farmers' markets, and grow at least some of their own food, in allotments or by sharing back garden space, or even just in pots.


From little acorns do great oak trees grow, just as from modest ideas about strawberry pots or rows of peas and potatoes can the notion of seasonal food once again take its place in our understanding of a sustainable world.

Tesco and the other huge supermarkets want to show socially responsible, how green and cuddly, they are. The test will be in how much they actually deliver - and the power to encourage them to achieve this lies much more than some have so far conceded with the communities in which they are located.

The 'charm offensive' by Tesco can't be faulted. Their new 10-point plan says they are going to be 'green and good', and to blend in more with their retail neighbours, at least for the Tesco Express outlets. That's genuinely good news all round.

It's difficult to tell how much this intiative is in response to concerns, recently referred yet again to the Competition Commission, about large retailers who are 'stoking up' on land, and how much it's just part of the retail learning curve that all sensible commercial businesses need to be on. My guess is it's a combination of the two, but who knows?

And indeed, who cares? It's what happens which matters in the business world and to the average customer, not why it may have happened.

Green and forward looking?
We can only welcome the promise to use totally bio-degradeable bags, to have clearer product labelling, to deliver bulk merchandise more considerately on the high street and to promote healthy eating. Tesco knows very well that these promises will have to be kept - there are plenty of people watching out there who would be delighted to find them failing to deliver these undertakings. (To quote Andrew Simms of the New Economics Foundation, 'The good neighbour tag could come back to haunt them, rather like the Tories with their Back to Basics campaign.')

There are many debates to be had about Tesco, but the logic of the market still in the end applies. If enough people make a fuss, things will change. If they don't, change may occur, but not at the same rate. The really clever businesses, of course, change in anticipation of what the fuss will later be about, not as an overt response to it. Maybe that's the oft-commented genius of Tesco boss Terry Leahy?

Strength in numbers?
But for many local consumers the 'real' issue isn't so much the logic of the market as the perceived 'threat' to local communities and smaller businesses. This concern is probably reasonable in many respects. Tesco and the other huge supermarkets have enormous resources and strengths and the little shop on the corner doesn't. It might however be useful to remember that strength, for all parties, may lie in working together.

This could happen in two ways.

Firstly, have the small local businesses approached their bigger neighbours (or vice-versa?) to see what possibilities there are for, say, joint customer-faced training, local supplier support, promotion of healthy life-styles, community investment or anything else? Is there any real dialogue going on to test the depth and sincerity of the claim of the big stores that they want to work with their tiny neighbours? If there is, it's not hit the headlines...

And secondly, what are local business leaders and advisors doing to help small enterprises to get together and act as one to 'protect' their interests against the giants? Wouldn't this be a more constructive use of, say, council officials' time - paid for by all of us - than carrying on endless local enquiries?

Convoluted logic
There's a strange logic in the situation which often seems to come up, where on the one hand local activists persuade their council to oppose intended (and in many respects often much-needed) investment by the large interests, whilst at the same time most people in the community choose to shop in larger stores. Perhaps there's a message here somewhere?

Less fuss about Tesco and their ilk hoping (until the current initiative) to open as long as they want to on Sundays (they can already do this in Scotland...), and more attention to the ways that local businesses can collaborate to serve their particular communities, might be quite a good idea. To quote Sharon Fraser, head of audit at Deloitte in the north, 'Financial support could help the small stores improve their property portfolio.' And what applies to property portfolios applies equally perhaps to other aspects of local business.

In the meantime, the 'competition' between the Big Boys to show their green and cuddly credentials can be no bad thing either.

Fruits & flowers 06.7.30 003.jpg The inner city is not an easy place to indulge green fingers, but there are many reasons why we all need to think about this. It's not even just about fresh, healthy produce; there's a really important issue of sustainability in all this. Let's start with the hesitant late-night gardener in Tesco.

Late night shopping (feeling very virtuous because we'd just been to a dance and inter-active media event at Unity Theatre and had even stayed for the discussion afterwards)... so it had to be Tesco Old Swan if we wanted bread and coffee for the morning.

Garden flowers 2006 (July) 001.jpg Inevitably, I gravitate to the plants and flowers stall - where else but the supermarket would you be tempted to buy seeds for weekend gardening at 11 p.m. on Friday night? A woman already there is eyeing a packet of French marigold seeds uneasily. Do I know anything about gardening?, she asks. She is thinking she might grow some flowers in a pot in the back yard

My 'advice' is limited by my own inexpertise. Perhaps it's a good idea to use water-holding gel to guard against neglect of the seedlings (my own major misdeed) and, if a dry patch is likely, nasturtiums are both delightful and very forgiving. We chat on such things for a while and the woman moves on, clutching the marigold seeds doubtfully.

Shops, jobs and flowers for everyone?
Old Swan is a part of town which faces many challenges. Much of the housing stock is derelict Victorian, doubtless magnificent in its prime but now 'student' flats, or else back-to-back terrace. The unemployment rate remains high and the educational attainment is well below average. Tesco is the only major store on the area, and a very significant local employer; and it stocks gardening products which, if my late-night encounter is anything to go by, tempt first time green fingers.

None of this justifies the particular business strategies which some say the superstores adopt. But perhaps it does point to a few important considerations about economic development of a run-down area, and it also tells us that people still hope for better - why else buy flower seeds?

And why is there so little that grows in the lives of people in Old Swan? There's nearby Newsham Park, curently a topic of hot debate amongst those who value green space, and the Edge Lane (Wavertree) Botanic Garden - would that it had the same recognition and status as its contemporaries in e.g. Birmingham! But not much else.

Green fingers from the start
Pears 06.7.30 012.jpg When then can we expect that inner-city chidlren will learn routinely how to grow things at school? When will we start to think carefully about more allotments and other community growing space for grown-ups? In what ways can we help with the active use of gardens and allotments in the city? When will we start to teach children (and their mums and dads) about seasonal, lcaol prodcue? And how can we link the urge to see things grow with wider matters of health, diet and environment?

These are matters of sustainability in the long-term; and if they start from marigolds in a pot from Tesco, that's an interesting conjunction too.

The 'Tesco effect' is a matter of serious concern for everyone, from the All-Party Parliamentary Small Shops Group to people on abandoned and insular housing estates. What is needed now is more thought for how the future could look, and what can best be done to serve the interests of consumers - and businesses and employees - across the board.

The MPs looking at supermarket dominance have, we gather, been quite clear that the future does not bode well. Leaks from the High Street Britain 2015 report suggest that food wholesalers and independent newsagents may soon be freezed out by supermarkets.

This debate is on-going, on this site and in many other places and is significant for us all - hence my returning to the theme yet again.

Contexts change over time
I do understand why people are concerned about supermarkets. There is a fear that supply chains will be / are being distorted, and that suppliers, especially small suppliers, will be squeezed out in favour of the big boys. Such concerns are both real and legitimate; though we must wait until the Office of Fair Trading reports back on its current enquiries before we come to clear conclusions about the current state of things.

And I'm sure, too, that the all-party parliamentary small shops group, which will issue its formal report on High Street Britain 2015 soon, is thinking hard about the future as well as the present and the past. Nonetheless, I am surprised at the apparent lack of debate (at least as reported in the press) in terms of some of the fundamentals of the issue.

Some basic questions for the future
Amongst the questions which come to my mind every time the 'Tesco effect' comes up as a topic are these:

1. Is it the role of local planning officers to offer 'protection' to small shop-keepers? And, if so, under what rationale, and do they have a framework in which to do it? (They may well have, but I'd be astonished if I'm the only person who doesn't know what it is.)

2. Is it reasonable to suppose that supply chains are strengthened when suppliers, especially small ones, collaborate - in of course legal ways? What work has been undertaken to establish vulnerabilities and strengths here?

3. What do we know about the ways that local independent traders can work together to protect their patch, and to offer a quality, forward-looking employment experience to local people?

4. Are there ways in which the energy and other resources put into transporting and other handling of goods - especially foodstuffs? - can be shared more overtly with the customer, so that the purchaser can choose 'environmentally friendly' products, as they might well prefer to in local markets?

5. Why is there so little debate about the socio-economic contexts of supermarkets? One size may well not fit all, despite the strength of e.g. the 'Clone Town' arguments coming from the new economics foundation and others. In run-down places supermarkets may well be the only employer in the whole area which is big enough to provide stable employment and proper training. In wealthier localtions there may be many other employers who can provide training and career routes for everyone who seeks these. Surely this context makes a difference to 'value-added' in terms of supermarkets? So what do we know about the 'career progressions' of supermarket workers in various contexts?

6. And finally, who is thinking about the appalling service provision gaps in housing estates throughout the country? In terms of supermarkets they may well be 'food deserts', but aren't there niches here for (social?) enterprises such as farmers' shops, local bread shops and all sorts? These are not necessarily day-dreams, they could with the right support (and security measures) actually happen; and they could also offer training in trades and retail to local people. So, again, what research has been done to test feasibility, and what work has been done to encourage such efforts?

The questions continue...
We could ask a lot more questions like this. There are indeed many issues about which we need to know more as the 'Tesco effect' is debated; but it would be good if such questions could be asked in the context of changes for the future, and of small trader / supplier empowerment, rather than sometimes simply because of nostalgia or of fear of the big supermarkets, whatever.

Tesco has won its appeal to expand a store in South Liverpool (Allerton) by 50%. Some - though not all - local people are very worried by this. But the retail giant has also offered to set up consultation with residents to see how developments can be made to have the most positive impact. This offer must be taken up.

I see (front page of today's Daily Post) that Tesco's appeal for their South Liverpool development has been successful.

It's been interesting that so many people have read and / or responded to my postings on Tesco and the environment. This is clearly a matter about which a lot of people have strong feelings, one way or the other. My own view however is that the debate, whilst it's probably now come to an end legally - unless there's a challenge? - has been beneficial whichever view one takes.

The community has gained influence
Perhaps those members of the local community who were and are against the development of the South Liverpool (Allerton) site - and by no means all local people took this view - are currently despondent about the outcome of Tesco's appeal. I'm not so sure that they should be.

Yes, Tesco has the go-ahead to enlarge their store very considerably, but there have been serious efforts made to reduce the 'green impact' of the development as far as possible, and the University is pleased they can confirm they will go ahead with their own sports proposals. Also, of course, the promised money from Tesco will now be forthcoming for the public realm work along the Allerton shopping corridor.

But that's not the only positive outcome. The most recently evident one is that Tesco is striving to show itself in very publicly 'listening' mode. They want to set up a residents' committee to work on the local impact of their development, and they have acknowledged the significance of the concerns expressed. The opportunity is therefore now available to take Tesco up on these offers and see if the promises of consultation etc are kept.

The ball is now firmly in the objectors' court. I hope, to continue the sporting reference, that those who protested will choose to pick that ball up and run with it. Tesco has offered to work and liaise with local people. Let's respond in kind and see if and in what ways the offer is meaningful.

Building sustainability into community life will take a real shift in how we do things; but, just like weight-loss diets, it will only work for most of us if it's something we find enjoyable and actually want to do.

It's been very interesting to see how everyone has responded (on- and off-line) to recent postings here on Eco issues.

I started with a piece on 'allotments for all', wandered through some thoughts on Tesco and the other superstores, and have so far ended up with ideas around building communities in which sustainable living becomes part of the common, shared experience. (All these postings are listed below, if you want to have another look.)

The theme which is emerging for me is that we (literally) can't afford to make sustainability into a 'do it because it's good for you' exercise. It's too important for that. And evidence elsewhere (e.g. with weight-loss diets) shows that people simply won't carry on doing what they should unless they really believe it's for the best and, critically, it fits into their pattern/s of living.

So, we can get a little way with house-to-house collections (Liverpool does these too; and it still has almost the lowest recycling turnover of any place around), and we can indeed troop up to Tesco or wherever with our recycle bags, when we go shopping (one lot of petrol, two missions). But some people don't have cars, though they may have babies, or no job, or boring, isolated days.....

Fitting the practice to the people
This is why the 'little but often' approach might work for certain folk. It's nice to have places to go, especially if in a good cause (i.e. recycling and community-building, in this case); and it's nice to have things to grow, as people would if they had back-yard allotments - which is of course also where the green waste would be composted.

I strongly suspect - though we'd need much more evidence to be sure - that giving people reasons to get out and about, even if only to recycle stuff and meet up with neighbours (see Eco-Inclusion), would help to develop local relationships, and thus the community as a whole. In some ways, it's like parents waiting at the school gates - but in this case it can be everyone, not just carers of small children.

And, if previous experience serves me right, meeting up informally but for a purpose also gives everyone in a locality reason to become more invoved in their community, and to make this more of a reality in terms of common interests and ambitions for the future.

A new sort of community?
Get people to relax and talk to each other, and you never know where it will take them (or you). Giving them an excellent reason to do this (recycling) adds impetus to the process.

I'm trying to think out new ways to connect, which also take account of eco-considerations - without adding further rules and constraints to people's everyday lives.

It would be impossible to persuade everyone to give up cars and all the other things we've grown to think of as essential for our lives; but adding a bit of community spirit might 'include in' more, and more varied, people of all kinds to the very necessary task of tryng to sustain the eco-communities in which we, everyone of us, have to live.

The Tesco Effect

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It may not be fashionable to say so, but maybe Tesco has a point when it says it can work to help develop local trading and communities. The evidence is not conclusive, but neither have all the arguments as yet been fully explored.

The debate about Tesco is all around us in Liverpool just now. There are strongly vocal groups, some of them just local people and traders, and some of them I suspect part of larger national campaigns, who are implacably opposed to any further development of Tesco anywhere near our patch.

Others, far more quietly, would actually rather like a bigger, brighter Tesco (or any other large supermarket) not far from home, where they can pop in, parking assured, 24 / 7.

It seems however that whilst one of Tesco's applications, to the north of the city, has now been approved, there will be a big fight over the south city bid. Officers have recommended agreement, politicians mostly oppose it; so who knows what will happen when it all goes to appeal?

Reasons for unease
As far as I can gather, opposition to Tesco and other supermarkest falls into some four categories:

1. we live nearby, and shoppers will block our street parking, and maybe make a noise;

2. green space is at risk;

3. local traders will suffer;

4. we are opposed to any big business which may be getting the upper hand.

Reasons for quietly hoping plans will go ahead, however, tend simply to be that it's convenient, open long hours and the range of merchandise is good.

Mixed messages
Maybe I've missed something, but it feels to me as if a number of mesages are coming over here, not very coherently.

Firstly, concerns about street parking are persuasive for local councillors dependent on electoral support - let the people park - but they are not otherwise very convincing. Mechanisms exist and are easily put in plaxce to prevent parking altogether, or allocate resients' priority, etc; and in any case most Tesco stores have quite adequate parking facilities of their own, if they are permitted to establish these.

The concern about green space of course follows from this - more Tesco space, less green space; but Section 106 arrangements (which basically require developers to 'give' something to the local community in return for 'taking' a local footprint) can be brought to bear by Council Officers, so that alternative facilities will be part of the package. Perhaps not everyone from the Council for the Protection of Rural England will be happy with the end result; but, to be frank, cities are not rural.

The argument that local traders will suffer is more difficult; the jury is still out on this, because the evidence is generally unconclusive. Organisations such as the New Economics Foundation suggest that the effect on local traders may be damaging; this is therefore an issue to be taken seriously. It is probably however less clear that at least some of these local traders would have done well even if the lcaol supermarket had not been built.

And finally, the question of market share needs to be considered. Tesco, for instance, has about 30% of this in Britain, almost twice as much as its nearest competitor. But whether Tesco should be constrained is a matter in the hands of the Office of Fair Trading, not something which can be resolved at local level in a narrow context.

The counter-argument
The issues so far discussed are perhaps only part of the story.

Let us put aside matters of investment, when building large supermarkets, in local infrastructure and construction and so forth. These are usually acknowledged at least in part at some level.

But only rarely is it also noted that Tesco, like its main competitors, offers well-defined and nationally led staff training and development; the pay to start with is not especially good, but the opportunity to move up the ladder (or across to another one) is certainly there. In some communities, there are few other opportunities of this sort; but where these opportunities are on offer, specially in otherwise less advantaged areas, they are surely of value.

And, finally, we have to ask ourselves why local traders, if they really do want to keep going, are not forming liaisons at the professional as well as the protectionist level. Are they sharing responsibilities such as staff training, local environmental improvements and the like? What, if anything, is the collective deal, with or without the supermarket in their midst?

Maybe Tesco is right to carry on growing, or just maybe it should be restrained; but the basis of the debate so far does not explore all the issues at stake. If the simple demand to 'stop!' were replaced by a dialogue on how to develop, with or without large supermarkets, local people and politicians might discover that there are more ways forward than they think.

Farmers' Markets have a special place in city life. They encourage us to feel part of a community, yet when we go to these markets we also feel that as individuals we are attending to our health and leisure needs. Farmers' Markets may indeed sometimes in reality be big business, but they fill a gap in our fragmented urban lives.

Farmers' Markets seem to be all the rage in Liverpool at the moment. They started in the ciy centre (by the Victoria Monument), and recently sprouted up in Lark Lane to the South of the city. Now, this Sunday, there is at last to be one in Hope Street, the cultural quarter. All the recent evidence suggests that, weather permitting, this too will be a big success.

So why is everyone in the city so enthusiastic about Farmers' Markets? Several possible answers to this question come to mind:

Farmers' Markets make us feel healthy. Whether the produce is actually fresher and more nutritious (or beneficial in other ways, if not edible) than produce we can buy in supermarkets, we willingly go along with the idea that it must be.

Farmers' Markets make us feel part of a community; we throng around, perhaps sharing comments with perfect strangers about what's on offer, and aware of the shared purpose in our being there. Yet we also feel like individuals - not for us the pre-packaged routinised stuff of the big stores. We are making a positive, personal choice to buy, or perhaps just to consider buying, produce which feels, against supermarket standards, just a bit exotic.

Farmers' Markets take us back in time. We imagine, more or less accurately, that this until quite recently is how people have always conducted their financial transactions. There's a rusticness about what we're doing which harks back to a supposed golden age which is in contemporary times usually only seen on Christmas cards.

Farmers' Markets are ecological. If we can, we walk to them (or at least park the car a distance away), clutching cane baskets and imagining, correctly or otherwise, that what we intend to buy is organic.

Farmers' Markets let us feel authentic. We can actually talk, and maybe even negotiate our purchase, with the people who are seling their own goods - which we naturally suppose they have also themselves carefully crafted. The goods are authentic. The person-to-person transaction is authentic. We must be authentic.

And Farmers' Markets are interesting. We are often not sure what we'll find when we get there. Who will turn up this time? What will they have to sell? We attend trustingly, purses speculatively at the ready in our pockets; not for us on this occasion the usual boring shopping list!

It might be surmised from this list that I have a problem with Farmers' Markets. Not so at all. They have a real part to play in the lives of many city people, just as they always have had in more rural contexts.

It's the function these markets perform in our splintered urban communities which fascinates me. They may in fact sometimes be the visible parts of very large business operations, but they are perceived as 'small', micro-enterprises undertaken by real people. They make us feel special, they spark our imaginations and they activiate our interest in important aspects of health and community.

Don't miss the next Liverpool Farmers' Markets. Be sure to be in Lark Lane on Saturday, or in Hope Street on Sunday!