2 Nov 2012
‘The True Meaning of Choice': a piece for The Guardian’s ‘Comment is Free’ section
Totnes’s victory over Costa Coffee and the true meaning of choice.
‘Choice’ is an overused word in business. The people of Totnes rightly opted for community resilience over predatory markets
[Original here] Last week, Costa Coffee announced that, in the face of huge opposition from the community and traders of the Devon town of Totnes, the UK’s first transition town, and in spite of being granted planning permission,they would not be opening after all. It was a much-celebrated decision, one for which they deserve real credit. The campaign in Totnes focused around arguments that the town has a unique high street economy, characterised by the absence of the “Clone Town Britain” phenomenon seen in so many other places, and a prevalence of independent businesses which, for many other parts of the UK, is but a distant memory. It was argued that the community’s economic resilience lies in diversity and local markets, not in long supply chains and distant, remote ownership.
Costa claimed that their store would “add to the vibrancy of the town”, adding to the choice already on offer. But if Totnes already has 41 places that sell coffee, almost all independently owned and already quite “vibrant” enough thank you very much, what does “choice” mean in this context? It is this question of “choice”, and how the word can be used or abused, that I want to explore here.
“Choice” is one of those motherhood-and-apple-pie words which can surely only be a good thing, can’t it? We all love “choice”. It is, of course, ultimately your choice whether you buy your coffee from an independent local business or a chain such as Costa. But would opening a chain in a local economy introduce more choice, or ultimately lead to less? Would it lead to job creation, or to greater job losses, to job displacement? Would the chain support the local bakers, farmers and services that enable more money to cycle locally and give a local economy its robustness?
Last year’s Portas review identified that, between 2001 and 2011, the number of off-licences and tobacconists fell by more than 50% and food specialists by 30%, while the number of superstores grew by 35%, to a point now where 8,000 supermarket outlets now account for over 97% of total grocery sales in the UK. Our obsession with “choice”, or what is presented to us as that, has actually narrowed our choices hugely. Costa or Starbucks? Tesco or Asda? Apple or Microsoft?
Costa proudly declares that it pays the full 25% corporation tax, unlike certain coffee chains we could mention. But with many independents, such as book shops, being undercut by huge chains with questionable tax arrangements, once again the question of which offers more “choice”, in the wider sense, arises. And choice for whom?
In 2009, Slaithwaite in Yorkshire, also a Transition initiative, opened the “Green Valley Grocer“, a thriving co-operative community greengrocer, funded by community shares, selling fresh produce, some of it grown by another co-operative set up to supply the shop, and aiming to source 50% of what it sells within 30 miles by 2015. Recently, Morrisons have announced plans for a huge store in a former mill building nearby. Which ultimately adds the most choice – and resilience – to the economy of Slaithwaite?
Choices come with consequences, however hard we may wish that was not so. Surely it should be our choice if we want a high street resilient to predatory markets and remote corporations? It is the reweaving of local food webs, community-owned enterprises, a culture of entrepreneurship focused around community resilience that, in the long term, truly offers choice, rather than the no-holds-barred dash for economic growth at all costs that is currently being forced upon us. It is this choice that the people of Totnes have wrestled back, creatively, imaginatively, but firmly.