Recently there’s been a lot of media hype about the two major supermarket chains in Australia (Coles and Woolies, which dominate about 80% of the grocery market, for anyone who’s unfamiliar with them) increasing their reliance on home/private-branded lines at the expense of traditional, branded grocery lines such as Heinz. They’re even going so far as to say that Coles’s sultana bran shouldn’t be allowed to have a similar purple packaging to the Kellogg’s sultana bran, saying that ”They’re trying to confuse the customer or lull them into the view the product is fundamentally the same” (‘Cos they’re so, so fundamentally different).
I can’t say I’m a fan of Coles and Woolies’ monopoly on groceries. I can’t say that I like how they have specials because they force their suppliers to take price cuts while the distributors still reap the same, absurdly high profit margin (I know this due to a family friend who supplies eggs to Coles. When Coles puts their eggs on special, it’s at the supplier’s cost). I don’t like that everything is being imported from overseas just because it’s cheaper and as such, the food-processing industry in Australia is getting smaller and smaller.
But the thing is, I have to balance all my dislike of Coles and Woolies with my need to buy groceries every week on a student’s budget and still be able to pay my rent, my bills, my public transport costs, necessary clothing and study costs, all with a government student allowance of less than $250 a week. I’m not saying that I’m struggling to pay these things. I get it all paid and even have a little left over for having fun because I also work in a fruit shop a few hours a week. In that way I’m privileged. I’m also privileged in that I have no food allergies or special requirements other than my choice of being a vegetarian. But cheap groceries are what allow me to get by. And branded items just aren’t cheap. And I’m not silly enough to believe that branded food is any better than non-branded food. Apart from where it’s from, sometimes.
And that’s what all the debate has been ignoring so far. All us little people, we need to get by as well. How is it that everyone is always going on about the rising cost of living, but we’re still expected to buy brand-name products? $1 a litre for milk helps. Pasta for $.99 helps as well. I often make my way to Aldi on the other side of the city because their prices are so much cheaper, because the majority of their produce is actually from Australia, and I refuse to believe that there are secret underground factories out in the desert that are manufacturing Aldi-specific brands separately from the rest.
So it’s a balancing act between food ethics and cost, which I’m constantly having to redefine. I won’t buy anything but certified free-range eggs for example, even though they’re horrendously expensive, but I will buy coles-brand bread, milk and cheese. I buy all my vegetables at the independent fruit shop I also happen to work at, which gets its produce every morning from the Brisbane markets, and is also cheaper than Coles. I don’t buy apples in summer, I don’t buy tomatoes in winter: I try to eat whatever’s in season. I will only buy recycled toilet paper. I try and find the time to go to the markets in the city on the weekend and buy things there. I would love to buy only organic, locally produced food, but I just can’t justify spending that much money. And I literally don’t have it.
I like to think I do what I can at this point in my life. But until the cost of living is addressed, I refuse to argue that supermarket home brands are as evil as they are being painted out to be.