8 Jan 2013
OMFG. The New Year has started very badly for Bridget Chappel and Carol Levine. As reported in the Guardian, they have just discovered that their beloved local indie coffee shop ‘Harris + Hoole’ isn’t an indie coffee shop at all – it’s part of a chain of ten coffee shops! And what’s even worse is that retail colossus Tesco is elbows-deep in this arch deception. Bridget and Carol have been left feeling “duped” and “upset”.
Lulz aside, what are Bridget and Carol actually upset about? H+H are pretty clear about Tesco’s non-controlling stake in their business. It’s also been written about extensively in the press and appears frequently in the lightest of Google searches. Admittedly H+H doesn’t say it on its fascias or menus, but then again the Quaker Oats man doesn’t wear a Pepsi badge and Diesel doesn’t stamp Nestle all over its jeans. I’m going to venture that B+C aren’t really miffed about the “duping” of ownership as much as the owner itself – Tesco. I’m guessing if H+H were secretly owned by the butchers across the road or Colin Firth then they’d be still sipping happily on their skinny hazelnut lattes.
There are some undertones of localism here, but B+C’s misery seems to come mainly from a knee-jerk mistrust of the generic “big bad company” – the pervasive, faceless organisations that (in their own words) are trying to “rule the world”. There is no differentiation between them, big is just bad. Carol for example arbitrarily weds tax-avoiding Starbucks with tax-paying Tesco: “I avoid Starbucks because it’s a big chain and it avoids tax… Now I find this is Tesco…”
Sure, big companies have done bad things. Especially back in the day when, unchecked by governments or the press, they got away with too much for too long. But today, more than ever before, social media and the socially-conscious consumer are putting pressure on companies to behave. The brand is the central lever in this, allowing consumers to measure corporations against the values they claim to uphold.
David Jones in his influential Who Cares Wins highlights the far-reaching good that major companies like Unilever, Marks & Spencer, GE are doing for society and the environment. A quick check on Tesco’s 2012 CSR report shows that it is taking things just as seriously. Not just through the tens of millions it gives to charity every year, its plummeting carbon footprint, or getting kids playing more sport. But also through activities that feed directly into the bottom line. Regeneration Stores are intentionally set up to support poor and deprived areas – the sorts of places fancy coffee shops would be scared to go. In 11 years these have created over 13,000 jobs, with nearly half going to the local long-term unemployed. On the local theme, Tesco also shifted £1bn of local products last year, whilst helping local and independent suppliers find new markets.
For Jones, it’s the big companies that are the most important – they are the ones with the money and resources to make a difference. Put another way: no-one takes Luxembourg to task on its environmental policy. It’s a bitter pill for people like B+C to swallow, but nowadays it’s big corporations that are doing good in ways our local butcher, baker and candlestick-maker never could.
I’m not suggesting we should all blindly support every multinational. In fact, it’s very much their responsibility to win our trust. But some, including Tesco, are beginning to get it right. We needn’t feel so wronged if we accidentally find ourselves supporting them.