News analysis: Supermarket sweep gathers pace

More environmental and development NGOs are joining anti-supermarket alliances, writes Mathew Little.

Tesco is fast becoming the new McDonald's. Tescopoly, the web-based campaign set up to resist the supermarket behemoth's mushroom-like expansion across the nation, has signed up more than 200 local campaigns opposed to planning applications for more stores. The Tescopoly website has registered more than a million hits since it was set up last year. Organisers claim we are witnessing the birth of a national movement.

But Tescopoly is just one part of an emerging anti-supermarket alliance that spans international development charities, environmental NGOs and small pressure groups opposed to the disappearance of local markets. This isn't just Tesco versus the Nimbys - it is more like civil society versus the global food industry.

Sandra Bell, supermarkets campaigner at Friends of the Earth, one of the founders of the Tescopoly website, says: "There are people who are concerned about countryside and communities in the UK, charities that are fighting global poverty and organisations concerned about workers' rights. The reason the supermarkets concern such a wide section of NGOs is their dominance in the market and their power, which the Government is doing nothing to address."

War on Want, another Tescopoly founder member, has begun an anti-supermarket offensive that has American giant Wal-Mart, the owner of Asda, in its sights. The charity says price wars between big supermarkets in the UK have had a devastating effect on suppliers in the developing world. It is sponsoring screenings of a new US documentary, Wal-Mart: the High Cost of Low Price, which the superstore chain has dismissed as propaganda but some have predicted will do for it what Supersize Me did for McDonald's.

John Coventry, media officer at War on Want, says this is not mercenary campaigning. "It's a good focus to bring global development issues to public consciousness," he says. "People realise supermarket behemoths are taking over local businesses in this country; they can learn there is a big international perspective. In terms of campaigning, it really fits in with the political landscape at the moment."

War on Want and Friends of the Earth may be seasoned anti-corporate campaigners, but the spidery reach of the big four supermarkets in the UK has inflamed even unusual suspects such as the Women's Institute.

The WI polled a cross-section of its membership last September to mark its 90th anniversary and uncovered a strong sense of resentment at supermarkets.

"They attributed the destruction of local communities and local shops, farms and the environment to supermarkets," says public affairs director Farah Nazeer. "People have been quietly annoyed for a long time, and it all flooded out in the research."

The WI used the polling evidence to launch campaigns against excess supermarket packaging and to get a fairer deal for the dairy farmers that supply the supermarkets with milk. It also wants a government investigation into supermarket practices.

The WI is a member of Breaking the Armlock, an alliance of farming, environmental and consumer organisations calling for stricter controls on supermarkets to stop them passing on "unreasonable costs" to farmers and growers. The alliance has brought together some unusual bedfellows, none stranger than Friends of the Earth and Farmers for Action, the militant group behind the fuel protests in 2000. The two groups were more accustomed to snarling at each other over fuel taxes. "Sitting round a table with Farmers for Action is pretty unusual," says Bell. "We've usually been on opposite sides of the fence, but on this issue it has realised that Friends of the Earth is one of its allies."

Although much of the voluntary sector see supermarkets as a problem, even more would love a closer relationship. Their size and their patronage by tens of millions of Britons mean they are a holy grail for fundraisers.

Charity of the year partnerships with Tesco have raised £2.2m for the Alzheimer's Society and £3.2m for Macmillan Cancer Relief in recent years.

Age Concern was Tesco's charity of the year in 2005 and expects to reach its £2m target through staff fundraising and cause-related marketing.

The charity had to balance the fundraising potential of the venture with the criticism that Tesco was squeezing out local shops relied on by older people.

"There is a perception that older people want to patronise smaller local businesses rather than a large, international retailer," says an Age Concern spokeswoman. "We encouraged local Age Concerns to carry on campaigning if they felt concerned about the closure of local shops and Post Offices.

But we had a fundraising objective, and the £2m we raised will help us deliver services to older people that will help them access vital services that reduce poverty and isolation."

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