What Ethical Issues Have Our Supermarkets Faced Over The Coronavirus Pandemic?

Throughout the Covid-19 pandemic, there have been many changes and inconsistencies with everyday life- amongst all the change and uncertainty, supermarkets have been a constant, and arguably a form of normality, throughout this strange period. This blog will look at how ethical supermarkets in Britain have been over this period, and what different ethical challenges they have faced.

During the first national lockdown, there was a time where supermarket shelves were bare- with ‘essential items’ such as cleaning products and tinned goods being limited to one or two per customer. The heavy coverage of panic buying on television, in newspapers, and most notably, on social media arguably instilled more panic in shoppers, causing more frequent visits to stores and more of these products in scarce supply being purchased. The accountability of this may not lie with the supermarkets themselves, as they were right to have implemented the restrictions on the essential products. However, was it ethical for the media to be covering panic buying so frequently? Although it is vitally important to spread news, arguably the excess coverage of empty shelves induced panic on other shoppers, causing the problem to escalate further.

Panic buying across the UK cleared shelves of essential and long-life items at the start of the Coronavirus pandemic. Image: Middlesex University.

Another potentially negative issue which has been affiliated with supermarkets over this pandemic has been increases in the cost of products. Whilst research suggests that prices increased 1.9% over 12 weeks (ending on 19th April, in the middle of the lockdown), Which?.co.uk found that the public perceived unreasonable increases in price- with 28% saying there was an unreasonable increase in cost of antibacterial cleaning and sanitising products. However, Which?’s investigation found the public were spending more on their grocery shopping in general, with the most common reason being ‘buying more expensive brands or products due to lack of choice’. This indicates, perhaps, the cost of grocery shopping has increased because of lack of availability of some products, and the fact that many people were spending more time at home during the lockdown, and therefore not buying takeaway or restaurant lunches and other meals. If the case were that supermarkets were increasing the price of products as a result of the pandemic and capitalising on the fact that the general public could only shop at essential stores, that would be unethical.

Some independent retailers took advantage of the Coronavirus situation by inflating prices of essential products. Image: Entertainment Daily,

During the first lockdown, there were reports of severe price hikes in independent retailers– especially regarding essential products like hand sanitiser and toilet rolls. One pharmacy in Essex reportedly sold hand sanitiser for over ten times its original price, and a corner shop in Birmingham sold toilet rolls individually for 50p-£1 per roll. Amongst retailers taking advantage of the coronavirus pandemic, there were several users on eBay back in March, who were selling packs of hand sanitiser- which would retail for between £5-£10- for upwards of £1,000! This shows that there was unethical behaviour at the start of the pandemic from some retailers, however, it seems supermarkets have behaved ethically, albeit with a small increase in costs. Do you feel that your supermarket has behaved ethically throughout the pandemic, or have you experienced high price increases?

Supermarkets have faced many ethical issues during the Coronavirus pandemic. Image: The Independent.

One move by some supermarkets, which I believe to be extremely ethical and should be praised, is their pledge to return the business rates tax relief which the UK Government put in place at the beginning of the pandemic. Tesco was the first to announce they would be doing this at the beginning of December- confirming they would repay £585 million. Asda, Lidl, Aldi, Sainsbury’s and Morrisons have followed suit and agreed they would also be repaying this money, alongside retailers in other sectors, including Screwfix, B&Q, Pets at Home and B&M Homestores. A few supermarkets did not agree to this, with Waitrose arguing this tax relief has been vital for their business to continue, which comes after a difficult year in sales for John Lewis PLC. This was a bold and admirable move made by these organisations, which will be welcomed by the Government and public alike, especially in the wake of the significant debt which has accumulated from the Coronavirus pandemic.

Although supermarkets in the UK have faced many more ethical issues than those outlined in this blog, it seems that during a time of such uncertainty, supermarkets have behaved ethically and have been a vital lifeline to everyone. In my opinion, one of the most significant examples of ethical behaviour is refunding the business rates tax relief to the Government, which a number of supermarkets have refunded due to their sustained income during the pandemic, which was not something they had to do. What do you think to supermarkets’ behaviour during this pandemic- do you feel they have behaved ethically?

Thank you for reading, and Merry Christmas!

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