Should I drink some Coke or Sprite? Am I in the mood for a Twix or Snickers bar? Is my breakfast tomorrow morning going to be Froot Loops, Frosted Flakes, or Raisin Bran?
While it may seem like you have an endless choice of goods in your supermarket aisles, look a little closer, and you will see that is not even close to true. This is because, despite the hundreds of products before you, a mere ten major corporations produce your entire grocery haul. Oxfam International depicts just how far these “big 10” companies have expanded their market power, illustrating all of the unlikely connections that have formed from corporate manufacturing. From Nestle’s candy-loving brand developing pizza for your next dinner party to General Mills owning my personal favorite peach yogurt, the “big 10” have certainly taken over the massive food industry.
Yet, it goes further than your weekly shopping list. This trend where a handful of corporations dominate markets can be seen in almost every other aspect of your life: from media to ice cream, hotels, eyewear, and even deodorant. And masquerading behind the variety of brand names that pose as “competition,” companies only offer consumers the illusion of choice.
The illusion of choice: The idea that as a select number of corporations possess market power across various industries, people are presented with only imaginative choices to choose between, as any decision they make would contribute to the same final corporation. Sarah Miller, the Founder of the American Economic Liberties Project, which conducted an extensive report on the minute number of institutions that dominate our shelves, said in an interview with Vox that, “we assume that we have all of these choices and that all of these products are competing for our dollars on price and quality, and it’s really not the case. It’s one other tactic in a set of tactics around how monopolistic conglomerates leverage market power.”
In other words, consumers, as always, seem to be drawing the short end of the stick.
The deception of competition creates a market that suppresses entrepreneurial spirit, producing a state of affairs in which small businesses and startups tremble at the sight of the conglomerates they’re up against. Furthermore, this environment emboldens big businesses to get even bigger and leaves little room for emerging competitors. Yet, these competitors are the same ones essential to ensuring the best get put on our shelves. Innovative new companies are what create a diverse marketplace, which is what the oligopolies that have historically dominated the industries need: pressure and competition to keep their customers. When large and established businesses don’t face pressure to ensure the best for the market, there leaves room for error and exploitation.
Worst of all, the illusion of choice allows this to happen under a majority of the population’s nose. Most people aren’t aware of the places their money goes to, and have no idea who or what they are supporting. Many of these businesses finance campaigns and ideologies that don’t match their consumers’.
From the usage of questionable employment strategies to the severe exploitation of our environment, many businesses promote unethical practices that feed off the fear and work of millions around the world. These practices continue as a majority of consumers are unaware of what occurred to make the product sitting in front of them. Yet, even as awareness of big business practices rises, it poses another question: Are consumers even able to boycott these companies that seem to own every product and its alternatives on the market? While the short answer is yes, the long answer is that it’s difficult. Boycotting a massive corporation would necessitate the gathering of millions around the globe, demanding change as one. But as Oxfam International puts it, "no company is too big to listen to its customers.”
While we may not have a revolution just yet, the start to any change is consciousness: whether it be of what you’re buying, who you’re buying from, or taking stock of your own values and consuming accordingly. As Penn students set to be the next best and brightest in business, technology, and more, it is imperative that we create change everywhere we go. With the big business culture embedded on campus and in the lives of everyone around the world, it’s this understanding that’ll allow students and consumers like us to take a hold of the path we want our businesses to go about.
There is so much opportunity for growth and change, whether it be in these businesses to alter their harmful practices or in its consumers to hold them accountable. Some large corporations have already been on the route to change, and for corporations that aren’t, there’s always your local farmers market to consider!
SARAH MING is an incoming Wharton first-year studying Business, Economics, and the Environment from Lexington, Kentucky. Her email is firstname.lastname@example.org.