Billionaires won’t save us

28th May 21 by Christina O'Sullivan

The climate revolution isn’t profitable, so billionaires will never be on board

I don’t consider myself naive about the state of the world, but every so often I read something that leaves me utterly dismayed. Since the start of the pandemic, there have been many horrifying stories of how badly workers have been treated; one story that truly shocked me was that managers at meat giant Tyson bet on how many workers would contract COVID-19. If we ever needed evidence of how utterly broken our food system is, managers literally betting on workers’ lives should be enough. 

The pandemic has highlighted the different realities we all live in: as has been pointed out, we may all be facing the same storm, but we are definitely not in the same boat, despite what that cringe-inducing celebrity Imagine video may want you to think. Or, Gwyneth Paltrow’s pandemic low point being eating bread, whereas for many it was not being able to eat at all. Research from the Food Foundation shows that food insecurity remains higher than pre-Covid levels, affecting an estimated 4.7 million adults (9% of households) over the last six months. This compares to pre-Covid levels of 7.6%. 

As someone who has worked in food policy for years, the pandemic sadly confirmed my worst fears about our current food system – that it’s an inherently unsustainable system based on extracting cheap labour and precious natural resources. This extractive industry sees its workforce as expendable, which is how we ended up in the paradoxical situation where workers are essential but also deemed unimportant, essential but underpaid. Research from the Living Wage foundation shows that 16% of key workers earned below the Living Wage in April 2020, and when it comes to supermarket workers, the situation is much worse, with almost half (45%) of the 900,000-strong supermarket employee workforce earning below the Real Living WageThrough my work, I’ve had many discussions with supermarkets, and whenever the topic of food being too cheap (i.e. the price does not reflect the environmental impact of its production) is brought up, supermarkets are quick to argue that cheap food is important for food access. If supermarkets are concerned with food access, why not simply pay their own essential workers more? 

A 2021 report by the Baker’s Union found that one-in-every-five people working the food sector cannot afford the food they produce, serve and sell. This is particularly shocking in the context of research by the High Pay Centre,  showing that Ocado had the highest pay ratio for UK companies, with a 2,605:1 ratio between the CEO and an average employee (meaning that, for every pound earned by an average worker, the CEO earns £2,605). Tesco and Morrisons also feature in the top 10 corporations with the highest pay ratio: Tesco’s is 305:1 and Morrisons’ is 217:1. Moreover, Waitrose continues to refuse to return the £85m of government business rates relief despite record-breaking profits and other supermarkets giving the money back. It’s time to recognise that food access is not supermarkets’ key concern, but instead using cheap labour to sell us cheap food. Supermarkets will tell you that they don’t control the market, but that is simply untrue:  the ‘top ten’ UK retailers control around 94% of the UK groceries market share, and 75% of UK individuals say they visit a supermarket twice or more a week. They are the market; you can’t dictate the terms of the game and then claim you are powerless to change it. If supermarkets truly care about food access, it’s time to put their money where their mouth is. 

The reality is the climate movement has to centre social justice, which means that there must be a redistribution of wealth and power. If the food system continues to be dominated by corporations, then the concern for delivering profit to shareholders will always come before protecting people and the planet. The pandemic has highlighted that, to fight climate change, we need a post-corporate food system; we need to put our trust in the collective, in the real essential workers. We must redefine the function of billionaires: they can never be heroes when their hoarding of wealth is diametrically opposed to the equality we need to secure a just future for everyone. 

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