Minister's Letter

September 2017

Shopping Dilemmas

It's very easy to become nostalgic about shopping in the "good old days". We long for the old-fashioned High Street with its array of shops such as a butcher, baker, grocer or greengrocer, each with its tempting display of goods and ruddy-faced proprietor. The fact is that our choice of food (and everything else) was far more limited than it is nowadays; a lot of produce was seasonal and many items which are now commonplace were regarded as "foreign" or "exotic". Today we have access to a vast variety of products which would have bewildered our ancestors. But that very choice presents us with moral and ethical decisions even as we make the most basic of purchases.

As a student back in the 1970s, I remember being exhorted not to buy produce from countries with oppressive political regimes, such as apartheid-ridden South Africa. Then the Fair Trade movement asked us to consider the wages and conditions of the people who create or farm the goods we buy. The organic enthusiasts made us start thinking seriously about the chemicals and additives used in food production. And nowadays we also embrace the concept of "food miles", looking to see how far a product has travelled in order to reach us, and wondering about the effect that its journey has had on the environment.

These initiatives are good; but they pose us with many dilemmas. For instance, I may forego buying a cheap shirt from a discount store because I suspect it has been made by sweat-shop workers in a developing country - but how can I be sure that, by paying more, I'm not just filling a middle-man's pockets? Equally, I may choose to ignore fruit that has been flown half-way around the world because of its effect on global warming - but will the farmers who grow it face destitution as a result? Ethical shopping throws up some tricky questions - although that is no reason to stop doing it!

One choice we may rarely think about is where we actually make our purchases. Most of us, hard-pressed for time and conscious of the pounds in our purse, do most of our routine shopping at large megastores. They are convenient, we can get everything we want in one go, prices are competitive and parking is freely available. Even our part of Cardiff offers us the choice of all the major supermarkets from Aldi and Lidl to Sainsbury's and Waitrose, together with the "big box" stores on Newport Road. In recent years many people have also chosen to make purchases on the internet; Amazon in particular has become a huge (and sometimes highly controversial) player in this field.

But that's the problem. As the superstores and the internet take an ever-larger percentage of our money, so they undermine the independent retailers we cherish. We may bemoan the fact that our friendly local greengrocer has gone, but the facts are clear: there is only so much money to go round and, if we choose to spend it at the large retail outlets or online, then the smaller stores will inevitably suffer. And there's more, for the "big boys" also exert huge pressure on their suppliers. This means that hill farmers are going out of business because the supermarkets have driven down the price of milk to an impossible level. It means that the choice of apples may be more restricted because certain varieties travel better or look more attractive. Even artisanal products such as bread are soon copied by large manufacturers, often at the expense of quality.

All these factors mean that the decisions we make about where we shop are important. I know that we can't turn the clock back to some sepia-toned past: some change is inevitable. But we do need to recognise that local shops are a vital part of a community's infrastructure. For they are often very aware of their customers' needs, act as a focus for the neighbourhood, and provide a vital service for the poorer members of society who find it hard to travel to distant superstores. And they are also important because we don't want to see our once-thriving High Streets turning into derelict wastelands containing nothing but charity shops, bookmakers and discount stores. But these shops can't survive on the meagre sales of an odd pint of milk, chocolate bar or occasional newspaper.

At harvest time, we usually think of food producers such as farmers and fishermen. But I'd also like you to think of the other end of the supply chain, and ask a very specific question: when did you last buy something - anything at all - in the Maelfa? I know that it's hardly an attractive environment and that parking is a nightmare; I know that the choice of shops and produce is limited and prices may be high.

But the retailers who are still there are struggling to survive; if they close, the current redevelopment will turn out to be nothing more than a costly white elephant. More to the point, many people will then have to spend precious time and money travelling elsewhere, and our community will have lost its beating heart and meeting place. We, as God's people in Llanedeyrn, can do something to prevent that from happening. Indeed, I would say that it is part of our Christian duty of care.

Yes, harvest is coming: a time when we rightly give thanks for God's bounty. But, even as we celebrate, let's also think of the impact we make each time we choose where to buy our daily bread.

With best wishes,


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