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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.

Comments are now closed on this site, please visit Rob Hopkins' blog at Transition Network to read new posts and take part in discussions.

4 Comments

Caroline Cardew-Smith
2 Nov 6:14pm

Unfortunately it is to easy to make the wrong choice, the all under one roof supermarket is conveience for now, although maybe not so conveient in the longer term…

Brad K.
3 Nov 8:28am

I wonder. Would the impact of distant ownership and distant sourcing of sales goods be offset by a tariff by the community on goods transported from greater than 50 miles, and a second layer tariff for goods from outside the country? Or a tariff on goods sold for currency other than the local community’s currency?

A community could thus express it’s interest in local sourcing, and allow the big chains to compete with their products. And, this would encourage the big chains to support local sources, where they can. Telling a group of business or other organizations, “You aren’t allowed here,” could, in time, engender abuses.

Luck.

Paul Handover
3 Nov 2:27pm

Well as an ex-resident of Harberton I still follow with interest the affairs of Totnes and TTT. So well done to all those that supported this common sense. Regards to all, Paul H.

Jonas
3 Nov 7:51pm

The business advantage of big companies is real and unfair: I worked in a small organic food store and an organic supermarket chain, I exactly can tell the difference. However the advantage does not come from “efficiency”, but from a huge resource overhead and waste for centralized structures, WLAN ordering electronics, huge machines for compressing packages and from selling stuff that is organic by definition, but does not deserve the term. And a local organic food store is even more “truely efficient” than a small organic food store reliant on distant supply.