The ethics of food shopping

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.

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5 thoughts on “The ethics of food shopping

  1. Well, a lot of truth in what Jo writes. BUT: if we always go along JUST because we are currently unable to pay the higher price, i.e. for petrol: 8 ct cheaper; pasta at 99ct; cheap cereals…. will we not one day pay a much higher price because all competition has ceased to exist… forced out of the market by the monopolies who are then able to charge whatever they want?
    I admit, I’m not free of guilt, having filled up my car at Caltex/Woolies when I had a 10ct per litre dicsount voucher. But I didn’t feel good about it.

    We are led to playing a game only the big players can win. Actually, it should be up to the governments to protect us from those exploitative, deceiving practices – it’s their job.

    If governments allow more and more people to slide into poverty, such as students, unmeployed and elderly, no one can blame them for not being seduced into the lures of Coles and the like. The call is out for governments to increase pays such as the dole, Austudy and the Age pension – the need for people to resort to unwanted anc artificailly cheap products would cease to exist.

    1. Yes, I agree with a lot of this as well. I know that the choices we make today aren’t always the sustainable ones. But I think your last paragraph really points out where the onus is – it’s on the government (for keeping the cost of living so high) and on Coles/Woolies’ absurdly high profit margins (and their refusal to accept anything lower). Until they step up, we can only achieve small victories.

  2. I hate the 2 big chains and feel no duty to shop there. They have no good will from me at all – I only go there for things I can’t get elsewhere. They cut out products I liked (such as a branded stoneground wholemeal flour – I think it was ‘The Old grain Mill’) and substituted their crappy own brand of wholemeal (which was not the same).

    I try to shop at Aldi (at least they’re up front about their philosophy and always have their own brands – plus the shops have a better feel), and I buy my flours from the bulk place in Lismore (Pacific Whole foods). We are so lucky to have that place – all their things are fresh and reasonably priced. And then there’s Farmer Charlies for fruit and veg … or grown yr own if you can. I make my own bread, and yoghurt as well.

  3. Yes, I love that bulk food place! I just bought a bunch of stuff there yesterday and brought it with me to Brisbane 🙂 It’s not even so expensive – just goes to show how much prices at Coles/Woolies are artificially inflated!

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