Sarah Min | The illusion of choice
Should I drink Coke or Sprite? Am I in the mood for a Twix or Snickers bar? Will my breakfast tomorrow morning be Froot Loops, Frosted Flakes or Raisin Bran?
Although it may seem like you have an endless choice of products in the aisles of your supermarket, look a little closer and you’ll see that’s not even close to the truth. Indeed, despite the hundreds of products available to you, only ten large companies produce all of your groceries. Oxfam International describes how far these ‘big 10’ companies have extended their market power, illustrating all the unlikely connections that have formed from corporate manufacturing. From the candy-loving Nestlé brand that develops pizza for your next dinner party to General Mills that owns my favorite peach yogurt, the “Big 10” have certainly taken over the massive food industry.
Yet it goes beyond your weekly shopping list. This trend of a handful of companies dominating markets can be found in almost every other aspect of your life: from media to ice cream, hotels, eyewear and even deodorant. And masquerading as a variety of brand names that present themselves as “competition,” companies only offer consumers the illusion of choice.
The Illusion of Choice: The idea that a select number of corporations possess market power in various industries, people have only imaginative choices to choose from, as any decision they make would contribute to the same final society . Sarah Miller, the founder of the American Economic Liberties Project, which has conducted a detailed report on the tiny number of institutions that dominate our shelves, said in an interview with Vox that, “We assume we have all these choices and that all of these products are competing for our dollars on price and quality, and they really aren’t. This is another tactic in a set of tactics on how monopoly conglomerates leverage the power of market.
In other words, consumers, as always, seem to be getting the most out of the stick.
The deception of competition creates a market that suppresses entrepreneurship, producing a situation in which small businesses and startups cringe at the sight of the conglomerates they face. Moreover, this environment encourages big companies to become even bigger and leaves little room for emerging competitors. Yet these competitors are the same ones who are key to ensuring that the best is put on our shelves. New innovative firms are what create a diverse market, what the oligopolies that have historically dominated industries need: pressure and competition to retain their customers. When large, established companies are not pressured to deliver the best for the market, there is room for error and exploitation.
Worse still, the illusion of choice allows this to happen under the noses of a majority of the population. Most people don’t know where their money is going and have no idea who or what they are supporting. Many of these companies fund campaigns and ideologies that do not match those of their consumers.
From using questionable employment strategies to harshly exploiting our environment, many companies promote unethical practices that feed off the fear and work of millions of people around the world. These practices continue because the majority of consumers are unaware of what happened to get the product in front of them. Yet even as awareness of big business practices increases, it raises another question: are consumers even able to boycott those companies that seem to own every product and their alternatives on the market? Although the short answer is yes, the long answer is that it’s hard. Boycotting a massive corporation would require millions of people around the world to come together, demanding change as a whole. But as Oxfam International says, “no company is too big to listen to its customers”.
Although we don’t have a revolution yet, the beginning of all change is awareness: whether it’s what you buy, who you buy from, or taking stock of your own values and consuming accordingly. As Penn students prepare to be the next best and brightest in business, technology, and more, it’s imperative that we create change everywhere we go. With the great corporate culture embedded on campus and in the lives of everyone around the world, it is this understanding that will allow students and consumers like us to take ownership of the path we want our businesses to follow.
There are so many opportunities for growth and change, whether in these companies to change their harmful practices or in their consumers to hold them accountable. Some big businesses are already on the path to change, and for businesses that aren’t, there’s always your local farmer’s market to consider!
SARAH MING is a freshman entering Wharton studying business, economics, and the environment in Lexington, Kentucky. His email is [email protected]