Our supermarkets and the illusion of choice

I’m sure we’ve all been there: standing in the aisles of the grocery store, bemoaning the fact that we can’t find something unpackaged or staring at the back of a label with a list of ingredients so long our eyes start to glaze over.

While we may sometimes feel overwhelmed by choice in our grocery stores, the fact is that a majority of our food – particularly the packaged food that is so popular – is produced by just a few companies. And these companies are not benevolent monoliths. They are massive companies concerned with profit over people and planet. This is our supermarkets and the illusion of choice.

Our zero waste journey may be leading us away from these options but the truth is many of us will buy packaged goods out of convenience or necessity. And we’ll agonize over choosing the best option when, in reality, it’s probably all owned by the same people anyway.

This image is a good indicator of what the illusion of choice means (via Oxfam):

who’s controlling our supermarkets?

The companies we’re talking about are the ones we all know – the ones called “The Big 10” by Oxfam’s Behind the Brands campaign: Nestle, PepsiCo, Unilever, Mondelez, Coca Cola, Mars, Danone, Associated British Foods (ABF), General Mills, and Kellogg’s.

Below are The Big 10, a selection of the companies they own, and a few of their most recent ethical issues. (Remember: while not all of these ethical issues are directly tied to sustainability, social issues have a direct impact on climate change and carbon emissions.)

The Illusion of Choice Coca Cola
who they own

This list is not extensive but highlights some of the surprising brands we tend to think are “better” or not under the same brand – US only. Here is a full list of Coca Cola brands.

  • Dasani
  • Fairlife milk
  • Honest tea
  • Simply juices and drinks
  • Zico coconut water
  • Costa Coffee
what’s wrong with them
The Illusion of Choice Unilever
who they own

This list is not extensive but highlights some of the surprising brands we tend to think are “better” or not under the same brand – US only. Here is a full list of Unilever brands.

  • Dove
  • Hellmann’s
  • Lipton
  • Ben & Jerry’s
  • Pond’s and St Ives lotion
  • PG Tips
what’s wrong with them

The Illusion of Choice Pepsico
who they own

This list is not extensive but highlights some of the surprising brands we tend to think are “better” or not under the same brand – US only. Here is a full list of Pepsico brands.

  • Naked juice
  • Sabra hummus
  • Tropicana
  • Sun Chips
  • Quaker Oats
what’s wrong with them
The Illusion of Choice General Mills
who they own

This list is not extensive but highlights some of the surprising brands we tend to think are “better” or not under the same brand – US only. Here is a full list of General Mills brands.

  • Betty Crocker
  • Pillsbury
  • Nature Valley
  • Annie’s Organics
what’s wrong with them

The Illusion of Choice Nestle
who they own

This list is not extensive but highlights some of the surprising brands we tend to think are “better” or not under the same brand – US only. Here is a full list of Nestle brands.

  • Gerber
  • S.Pellegrino
  • Toll House
  • Haagen-Dazs
  • almost all main animal food brands
what’s wrong with them

The Illusion of Choice Mondelez International

who they own

This list is not extensive but highlights some of the surprising brands we tend to think are “better” or not under the same brand – US only. Here is a full list of Mondelez brands.

  • Cadbury
  • Nabisco
  • Oreo
  • Ritz
  • Toblerone
  • Triscuit
  • Wheat Thins
what’s wrong with them

who they own

This list is not extensive but highlights some of the surprising brands we tend to think are “better” or not under the same brand – US only. Here is a full list of Mars brands.

  • Many major pet food brands
  • Most popular chocolate candy bars
  • Most major gum brands
  • Dove
what’s wrong with them

The Illusion of Choice Danone

who they own

This list is not extensive but highlights some of the surprising brands we tend to think are “better” or not under the same brand – US only. Here is a full list of Danone brands.

  • Dannon and Oikos yogurt
  • Stok coffee
  • Vega
  • Silk
  • Good Plants
what’s wrong with them

The Illusion of Choice Kellogg's

who they own

This list is not extensive but highlights some of the surprising brands we tend to think are “better” or not under the same brand – US only. Here is a full list of Kellogg’s brands.

  • Most breakfast cereals
  • Pop-tarts
  • Moe’s Southwest Grill
  • Morningstar Farms
  • Kashi
what’s wrong with them

The Illusion of Choice Associated British Foods

who they own

This list is not extensive but highlights some of the surprising brands we tend to think are “better” or not under the same brand – US only. Here is a full list of ABF brands.

  • Fleischmann’s yeast
  • Karo corn syrup
  • Twinings
  • Many sugar producers as subsidiaries
  • Primark
what’s wrong with them

PS. Four of these companies are taking part in Loop – read why I think this zero waste initiative is nothing more than a cash grab.

why it’s a problem

These companies control most brands we see in the supermarket, meaning we actually have very limited choice in terms of who can support with our money. That being said, these companies create the illusion of choice by offering different variations.

Not a great thing for several reasons.

To start on a very basic level: choice isn’t necessarily better for us. These few, large companies want to give us the notion we have almost unlimited choices to hide how much of a grip they have on the market. But psychologically, this “abundance” of choice is a negative:

All of this choice has two effects, two negative effects on people. One effect, paradoxically, is that it produces paralysis rather than liberation. With so many options to choose from, people find it very difficult to choose at all… The second effect is that, even if we manage to overcome the paralysis and make a choice, we end up less satisfied with the result of the choice than we would be if we had fewer options to choose from… The more options there are, the easier it is to regret anything at all that is disappointing about the option that you chose.

– Barry Schwartz, The Paradox of Choice

I’m sure you know the feeling: you standing in front of a wall of products, finally choose one, and then have a very distinct meh feeling after the purchase. With so many flavors and minute differences between your food products, it’s almost certain you get a FOMO feeling after checkout. The hard truth is that the more companies can tempt you with thousands of different little variations, the more they can line their pockets – and distract you from asking more important questions about your goods.

The other big issue with a small number of large companies dominating the food space is that power consolidates, supply chains get longer, and the ability to monitor becomes much more difficult.

Having what is essentially a monopoly on the pre-packaged/convenience food industry makes these companies supremely powerful – and us consumers supremely powerless. (Anyone else feeling like they’re ready to move away from our current system?)

Larger companies mean larger supply chains which – even if you want to be the most ethical, scrupulous company there is – makes it nearly impossible to keep track of violations. In the case of Nestle and Mondelez: even if we give them the benefit of the doubt that they care, it’s quite difficult how realistically they could determine some of the massive amounts of cocoa they source was coming from illegal deforestation. 

Realistically, a company worth billions can never truly be ethical.

Required reading (includes affiliate links):

Our Supermarkets and the Illusion of Choice - Green Indy Blog (pin)

what are the options?

The most obvious bit of all of this is that most of these companies are not offering any sort of ethical or low-waste products, so likely you’re buying less of these already. (And when they start selling items in reusable products through Loop, I’d highly suggest you look at the ethics of the product, not the container.)

If you have the means – and most reading this article do, let’s be honest with ourselves – start working a little harder at looking critically at what you buy. While we may not be able to shop 100% package free (and zero waste isn’t zero anyway) we can choose to support smaller, more transparent companies whenever possible.

(That being said, many people without access to fresh food or living zero waste on an extreme budget may find it more difficult to source alternatives. Still, my husband and I bring in around $2000/mo and still have many options, so for many people it’s just a matter of a value shift.)

Practical ways to move away from Big 10 Brands:

  • Research local alternatives. We can get so caught up in the idea of “plastic free” that it can be hard to remember there are bigger issues beyond a plastic bag. Are you currently buying anything from these Big 10? (Statistically likely!) Make a list and then dedicate 15-20 minutes of research to find local or DIY options. We can’t make all the changes at once, but we can educate ourselves to be prepared when the time comes.
  • Download the Buycott app. (Thanks to an IG follower for the reminder!) Buycott is an app which “reads the Universal Product Codes barcode on a product, and suggests whether a consumer should buy or avoid that product based on how well it aligns with the consumer’s values and principles.” If you still buy a significant amount of products with barcodes, this is a great way to find out what’s going on without having to do any significant googling. 
  • Look into the Oxfam Behind the Brands campaign. While the campaign doesn’t provide recent updates, the basic information is still a helpful jumping-off point to learn more about these Big 10 brands. Bonus points if you forward the information about your friend/family member’s favorite junk food to them for a little bit of self reflection. (Don’t forget to offer a more ethical, delicious alternative!)

Scared? Angry about the way these companies dominate our lives? Good! Use that to be someone who consumes less and educates themselves more. It’s a difficult but ultimately rewarding endeavor!

Our supermarkets and the illusion of choice - PollyBarks.com - PollyBarks.com