There was a moment this morning when the idea of shopping for shared value came to life. It was when an Asda employee described what motivated her to become one of the supermarket's 'community life champions': 'You were reaching out and giving and not taking,' she said.
For a lot of people the idea of a supermarket giving and not taking will prompt a snort of disbelief. Every little helps to keep the profits rolling in, to modify one familiar slogan. So has Asda, giant subsidiary of the even more gigantic Walmart, suddenly emerged on the side of the angels?
Shopping for Shared Value
is the title of a new report from the RSA. I was at this morning's launch, and also a member of the advisory group that met several times over the last year to help inform the research project. The report's core theme is that there is an opportunity and a need to develop new approaches to retailing that maximise the benefits to local communities, and it argues that there's a natural affinity between the interests of supermarkets and those of their customers. As the report puts it, 'there is an opportunity to lead among competitors and make shared value a factor in attracting market share'.
It's a neat turn of phrase, and the study neatly finesses some of the more contentious issues around the role of supermarkets in modern Britain. Some cast them as saviours, providing cheap and convenient food for all; to others, they are the spawn of the devil, putting local shops out of business and turning us into a nation of couch potatoes stuffing ourselves with ready meals.
What Asda has understood through its Community Life programme, though, is that its stores employ many staff who want to give and not take, and who come to life and light up their communities when they're working for good causes, whether it's a breast cancer charity or offering help to people struggling with addictions.
As Paul Kelly, Asda's director of external affairs, said today, 'the people who know what's important are the people who live and work in communities'. Many of those people are Asda staff and their friends and the customers who shop in their stores.
Around 19 million people visit Asda stores every week. More people shop in supermarkets than are employed in the labour market. There are many more shoppers than voters. So allowing staff to set the agenda for supporting their localities is a significant move and creates the potential to mobilise thousands of people to support good causes. At a time when local government funding for voluntary organisations is being cut, this shouldn't be underestimated.
The RSA sees supermarkets as key players in the world of 'community venturing', creating social value through business activities: 'Large retailers have an inherited advantage in achieving social value at scale: they have a presence in thousands of localities, regular contact with millions of individuals, and years of trust established in certain aspects of a brand relationship.'
There are challenges here, though, that need to be addressed in more depth if supermarkets are truly going to become givers rather than takers.
The first is the challenge of place. Just because Asda has surplus space in the big out of town or edge of town stores it built before it realised they would be overtaken by internet shopping, is that redundant space the best place for community activity? How does that contribute to the development of the character of a town or city? Will community activity in an Asda store help to remove life from the local high street?
Then there's the challenge of community. What kind of 'community' activities are acceptable and worthy of support? How much freedom will community champions have? Suppose people want to campaign against a fracking proposal in their town, or oppose local authority cuts to voluntary services? How will community life champions respond if they're asked to circulate a petition against a site for Gypsies and travellers? Goodwill and enthusiasm may not be enough to enable them to hold the ring in difficult and contested areas.
Third, and related to the first two, is the challenge of accountability. What matters to Asda shareholders is footfall, profit margins, turnover and market share. Is the contribution of community champions to be tested against these metrics or in some other way? And do they answer to their line managers or the communities they have been asked to champion?
The fourth challenge is economics. The role of supermarkets within local economies is far from universally benign, as commentators such as Andrew Simms and Joanna Blythman have spelled out in a wealth of detail. Is there really a symbiotic relationship between supermarkets and local businesses? How would supermarkets need to change to bring that about?
There's a fine line between the socialisation of supermarkets' business and what could easily become the privatisation of community work. That tension was glossed over somewhat at today's event, but at least the questions are starting to be asked.