Shopping locally is a political act

What merry chortles greeted new research showing that those who shop regularly and often tend to live healthier, longer lives than those who stock up once a week or less. There were comical headlines about retail therapy. Old jokes were dusted off: the person who said money cannot buy happiness didn’t know where to shop, ho-ho. In fact, the survey was confirming a truth so obvious that it is in danger of being forgotten. Buying is part of our nature. A relationship, however fleeting, with those who earn a living by supplying us with goods and produce is a normal and satisfying part of life. The quality of a community’s shops are what make it a happy, interesting, diverse place.

The effect is not just personal but has a clear – and, again, often ignored – economic and environmental spin-off. Local suppliers buy local produce, keeping local businesses alive and supporting local jobs. Wastage and over-consumption encouraged by supermarkets with their pile–em–high promotions – largely responsible for the 500 million tonnes of edible food thrown away every year– is reduced. Consumers are not obliged to drive to megastores outside towns.

Shopping is a political act. A domestic decision made every day can influence the way we live. There is no point in turning to politicians for help. Governments are institutionally in thrall to big business, whatever noises they may make about localism (Tory) or communitarianism (Labour). Cash-strapped councils are unable to hold out against the relentless campaigns of the vastly wealthy supermarkets.

So the march of giantism goes unchecked. The four largest supermarket chains currently have planning permission for nearly 500 new stores and are amassing vast land-banks for future assaults. The arguments made by the multinationals are brutally cynical. They suggest, ludicrously, that the arrival of a massive supermarket will have no effect on local shops – a lie comprehensively nailed this week by a Campaign for Rural England study into the connection between local shops and produce.

Then there is the claim that supermarkets offer convenience. It is true as far as it goes, but reveals a miserably reduced view of daily life. Convenience food is like convenience eating: it may save time, but for what and at what price to the quality of life? There is indeed something odd about the idea that a big business which puts local retailers across a wide region out of business, forcing shoppers to go to one giant store for all their needs, necessarily makes life easier.

The champions of large retailers accuse anyone arguing against their dreary retail monoculture of being elitist, of showing no understanding of the way busy people live in the real world. Perhaps, in the case of those for whom every penny counts, they have a case.

Although good greengrocers and butchers can compete on price and quality, many items in supermarkets benefit from the economies of scale. Those who have the luxury of choice, though, can act for healthier and happier lives, for more civilised communities, for a less wasteful environment, for local jobs and, in the case of food, a closer connection with the land which produced it. Above all, we can show in our daily lives a preference for the individual over the corporate. Governments and councils may be bullied by supermarkets, but, in places where it is not too late, we can vote with our wallets. Supermarket Britain is not yet here. The towns and parts of cities which are showing signs of regeneration and vibrancy are those where people have discovered that local shops – quirky, different, surprising – make for a happier environment. Here is one area where each of us can make a difference.

Independent, Tuesday, 12 April 2011