An old man once told me that there used to be about 50 small shops in his village. It was Beighton, then in north-east Derbyshire but later to become part of Sheffield’s suburban fringe. You could buy anything without leaving. He lamented the coming of the bus services, believing that once people could travel into […]

An old man once told me that there used to be about 50 small shops in his village. It was Beighton, then in north-east Derbyshire but later to become part of Sheffield’s suburban fringe. You could buy anything without leaving. He lamented the coming of the bus services, believing that once people could travel into Sheffield to shop, the local businesses went bust.

There must have been thousands of villages like this. We were a nation of shopkeepers in a world of shopkeepers. Thinking about the distribution of goods, by horse and cart and later by lorry, this would have been very efficient in economic and environmental terms. Every drop-off point would be a large delivery of goods to local shops, then presumably most customers would arrive on foot. Low carbon footprint and good exercise.

But we don’t live in fairytale country villages. The past is gone forever. When we spend our money on the high streets, we’re ‘redistributing’ income, but where to?

To take one example, let’s look at Holland & Barrett. I occasionally buy from this health food supplier, where the staff are required to ask whether I’ve got my rewards card. I almost got round to validating my card online, but just took the trouble to check through the terms and conditions. At first I was pleased to read that my personal information would never be released to any company outside the Holland & Barrett group of companies for their marketing purposes. It was only when I read the FAQs on another web page that I saw a similar statement, but this time referring to the NBTY Group, with no explanation. I did a bit of digging and found this to be an American health food corporation which bought Holland & Barrett in 1997.

OK, so the head office is not in Nuneaton but New York. That’s hardly a surprise, nor is it necessarily unethical. But as an afterthought I dug deeper and found that NBTY was bought in 2010 by the Carlyle Group, the third largest private equity firm in the world. Holland & Barrett is buried among its hydra-headed multiple investments; over $31 trillion of assets controlled by a company owned by a handful of partners. John Pilger describes it as specialising in oil and gas pipelines and weapons. Naomi Klein calls the group notoriously secretive. It profits from wars through high-level government connections. Stakeholders and consultants have included John Major and George Bush Senior. Just to be clear, this is not a company you or I could buy shares in. It’s private equity. This is the epic world of the mega-rich. Strange that Holland & Barrett’s website doesn’t seem to even mention the holding company. I wonder if the staff in the shops know. Why not ask them?

Profit-sucking multi-nationals leave us little more than minimum wages. James Wallbank of Sheffield’s Access Space centre coined the term ‘poverty mining’ to describe this process. Wealth is being hoovered out of communities with every pound spent. Meanwhile on the streets of Sheffield I am beginning to notice more and more people stooping to pick up lost coins and cigarette ends. Poverty is real, and it’s here.

The magazine you’re holding champions local businesses and activities. This is not just a question of charity beginning at home. It’s not just do-good ethics. Nothing wrong with that if it was, but think about the impact of buying from locally-owned businesses. Every penny spent in our city will mostly be repeatedly redistributed here. It’s us investing in our community, instead of international conglomerates and arms dealers. Please think about this when you shop. Every tiny purchase you choose to make with a small local firm means far more to them than the drop in the ocean of loss it represents to the big boys.

Just a thought. We can’t go back to the mythical past, but let’s look around at the present and think about the sort of future we face.

alt-sheff.org

Hosted by Alt-Sheff.