We should not have given up the high street for convenience, says Emma Mutch
Dumbarton High Street in the early 1920s
The bustling high street has largely faded away into nostalgic memory. The butcher shop, the ironmonger, the baker, the tailor ‘round the corner have all disappeared and been replaced by chain cafes offering the same fare, overpriced specialty stores, and an occasional remnant gourmand shop. Now when the milk runs low, we drive or walk or take some method of public transport to a mega store that offers everything from clothes, to baked goods, to home wares, to alcohol. Everything we need is in one convenient location, as long as it is not too far from our homes and we are wealthy enough to have an easy mode of transportation. When these mega stores were brought in, we were told they would be quick, convenient, cheap, better for you, better for your family. All the while, the charm and local roots of the high street would remain. After all, nobody took the bakery or the butcher shop away from the baker and the butcher. But when we take a look down our streets it seems that something of a farce has been played on us. The high street is gone, and in its place are tin shed Wal-Mart giants. What has happened? Where did our regional foods, our domestic economies, or our local supply lines go? Quite simply when we did away with our local retailers in favour of massive incorporated stores we made the high street model untenable. We sold out our local places and brought in internationalised companies. It turns out we could not have our cake and eat it too.
The consequences of this move are many. Yes, mega stores are easy, and they can be cheaper. But is that worth it? Are we really happy to cast our vote in favour of a few more hours spent droning away on our laptops if the costs are so high? Speaking of those costs, the first of them is monopolisation. When we decide that Amazon is easier and all round more convenient than popping out to a couple stores on the street, we contribute to Amazon being able to control large swaths of product lines across the world. That means Amazon decides what a product is worth; they write the price tag. Clearly, that can be negative for both the producer and the consumer. Then there are disastrous environmental impacts we must consider when we internationalise the market. We ship products all over the world incurring sizable greenhouse gas emissions as we do it. It is not possible to look at every negative consequence of incorporating the high street. So, we will use an example instead. Agriculture is an excellent example of the kind of disaster we can create for ourselves when we decide that the butcher is just too slow or too inconvenient. Once upon a time, agriculture was a fairly local endeavour. It was hard to ship large quantities of animal products and local farmers were only capable of supplying enough foodstuffs to provide for a town or even a city. In order to solve for the apparent problem of limits on available products, we opted for the mega store. To supply these mega stores agriculture went corporate. Cows, pigs, chickens et al. came in from the fields and were put in massive metal containment units where they incurred injuries, were trampled alive, and experienced inexcusably horrible welfare standards. We also created inequitable food supply lines. Rather than a butcher or a baker supplying a neighbourhood, the logistical game of accessing the cheapest product to put on the shelf results in underpaying farmers or workers, food deserts, and food shortages. Food deserts, occurring in impoverished areas where people cannot travel to a super store, are not the product of inadequate supply. Rather, they come from inadequate logistic organisation complicated by the fact that megastores hold the agricultural sector to ransom, then underpay farmers because, well, who else could they sell to? And to top that off, even though we have food deserts, we throw about a third of our food away without ever touching it. The internationalised system causes waste in large proportion.
The picture looks quite grim, but we already know the solution. It is simply to realise we have gone the wrong direction; we must turn around and go back. We must resurrect the corporatist strategy of independent, yet collaborative, skilled merchants. This will resurrect the high street. In Scotland, the model would be put into action by licensing retailers on all limited licenses for certain goods. You can be a licensed textile producer but you cannot also be a licensed cheese monger. You may be a licensed butcher but you cannot also be a licensed florist. This suggestion is not entirely novel- in the last month there have been calls for Scottish Government to restrict alcohol licensing to small off-license shops, creating many a small business opportunity from Shettleston to Partick.
This will resurrect skilled trades, independent ownership, and true competition. Now this is the model of true corporatism; a system in which society thrives as guilds, unions, and associations of tradesmen work to contribute to the common good. The Honourable Glaswegian Guild of Butchers offers competition, regulation, and fraternity among tradesmen, ensuring that the highest quality and most cost-effective cut of meat goes from the shelf and into your oven. This true competition between one independent owner and another allows each guild to provide the best product for you, the consumer. Like organs in a body, these guilds and associations function together to produce an optimised whole where each product has been individually tailored to the needs of the community first- then the nation, and only then to the wider world. This return to local products and local tradesmen will reinvigorate the regional economy and regional supply of goods.
But like all social change, the resurrection of the high street will be accomplished in small practical steps, always with the common good in mind. For the moment, there are plenty of ways to reinvigorate the high street, from giving massive VAT breaks for street facing businesses, to increasing the minimum wage requirements in supermarkets. But first, we must identify the problem and encourage the public to commit themselves to the reinvigoration of their local high streets.
When the high street returns, we will find that we have a highly diversified, adaptable, specific supply of goods tailored to our area, the things we want to purchase, and the social goals we want to achieve. We will find a high street tailored towards our own flourishing. Are we really willing to give that up for convenience? I say no!