Macklin / When charity begins at the till

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GOOD old Coles. In a burst of patriotic generosity, it announced in full-page advertisements that “Coles supports farmers with $5 million to help combat drought”.

Robert Macklin
Robert Macklin.

It’s enough to swell the hearts of Aussies everywhere, especially those of us who do our weekly shopping with the company that owns not only supermarkets, but Liquorland, Bunnings, KMart, Target, Officeworks and on and on it goes…

Of course, it’s not really a $5 million gift to the poor, old, drought-stricken farmers. When you look a little closer that headline figure actually comprises “grants and interest-free loans”. The company don’t say what proportion of it comes under each heading, but of course the loans would have to be repaid. And it doesn’t say what form the “grants” would take. Could it be, perhaps, that some would come in goods from its own companies? And could the amounts be calculated on the retail cost of the clothing, say, from Target or widgets from KMart?

But there’s more.

Again, from the great well of human kindness the company says it’s volunteering to “collect donations at every Coles checkout across Australia”, which they promise to send to the CWA “to distribute among their local farming communities to those who need it most”.

All very admirable. Except, of course, that to make your donation you’d have to go to a Coles store and you can bet pounds to peanuts that donors would also be shoppers adding more than enough to Coles’ bottom line to pay for the exercise.

Sad to say, it’s just another example of the yawning gap between business and benevolence. Coles is no better nor worse than other members of the supermarket oligopoly. If they really wanted to help farmers they would pay them a decent price for their produce and reduce their middleman take.

The real reason for their misleading $5 million headline is that its own recent plastic bag imbroglio resulted in a PR black eye and it wanted to gloss over it with a little pretend generosity from its so-called “Nurture Fund”.

In fact, Canberrans have adapted to bring-your-own cloth bags with very little fuss and if Coles don’t ban the plastics voluntarily, the various states should do it for them. Indeed, there is a crying need for a commission of inquiry into the whole packaging industry. There’s enough plastic packing in the supermarkets and hardware stores of Australia to befoul our seas for centuries. And most of it is completely unnecessary.

Retailers like it because it means shoppers buy more batteries or nails or ping pong balls than they want or need. And don’t get me started on the fizzy drinks down Coles’ obesity aisle where the contents are almost as deplorable as the packages they come in.

At least in Australia we’re developing some reasonable alternatives to the supermarket oligopoly – the farmers’ markets each weekend are becoming ever more popular among Canberrans. At the coast, the Moruya Market goes from strength to strength.

If it’s true that all politics is local, so perhaps is progress. And that, Mr Coles, is what really swells the heart.


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