LOS ANGELES — An activist group here is calling on Tesco to put its money where its mouth is when it comes to social issues.
The Urban & Environmental Policy Institute at Occidental College here last week issued a 72-page report charging that the global retail giant, which is based in Cheshunt, England, but is planning to open its first Fresh & Easy stores in the U.S. this fall, doesn't always live up to its promises.
“We believe a measure of accountability needs to be established,” said Amanda Shaffer, director of communications for the UEPI and one of the authors of the report.
The group analyzed Tesco's activities in four basic areas: serving low-income communities, worker wages and benefits, local sourcing and environmental impact.
In a press conference discussing the study, the group also called upon other supermarket companies to adhere to the same principles of social responsibility that it is asking of Tesco.
“The report recommends that residents, shoppers, policy makers as well as community, environmental and labor groups stay involved in identifying ways that Tesco, as well as its competitors — the other supermarket chains — contribute to healthy communities,” said Robert Gottlieb, director of UEPI, in the conference call. “Some practices should be adopted by the company, some should be negotiated in binding community benefit agreements, and some should be passed as policies that apply to all food retailers.”
Tesco could not be reached for comment on the report.
Although UEPI applauded Tesco for many of its efforts on social responsibility, the group said the company also has sometimes over-promised and under-delivered. The group likened the company to Bentonville, Ark.-based Wal-Mart Stores — which has also come under heavy criticism for its social policies, especially from organized labor — with the exception that Tesco “has been much more effective at marketing its message.”
Tesco is often criticized in the U.K. for its rapid build-up in market share, which many say has put local mom-and-pop stores out of business.
One of the key issues the UEPI would like Tesco to be held accountable for is the retailer's stated goal of opening stores in low-income urban areas that are currently underserved by supermarkets. The group said it wants Tesco to agree to open a minimum number of stores in such neighborhoods, and if it fails to do so, to then pay into a fund that would help attract food retailers to those types of areas.
The group said 10 of the 98 Fresh & Easy locations Tesco has slated for development are in low-income, urban areas, and only one of those — on Adams and Central in Los Angeles — is currently underserved.
“Overall, most of the Fresh & Easy sites are in neighborhoods where the median income is actually higher than the average,” said Shaffer.
UEPI also said it is encouraging Tesco to hire “a substantial number” of full-time workers, rather than relying on a part-time force, as it has indicated it will do. Tesco said it would employ a workforce of about 30 people per store, with part-timers earning about $10 per hour.
The group also suggested that Tesco establish a “good relationship” with labor unions, noting that in the United Kingdom, the company actually encourages its workers to join the union, while in the U.S., it has said that meeting with unions is “not being considered.”
UEPI also called on Tesco to source as much product locally as possible and to set a goal of importing less than 1% of its merchandise.
While the group noted that Tesco will use solar panels to help power the distribution center it is building in the U.S., it called on the chain to utilize more “green” construction practices in its stores. It also noted that the distribution center, in Riverside, Calif., is located in an area “that has severe pollution problems, that will only be exacerbated by the Fresh & Easy truck traffic.”
UEPI identifies itself as a “social-change-oriented institute” with “strong community ties.” Its programs include the Center for Food & Justice and the Pollution Prevention Center.