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Corporate monopolies are hiding in your grocery aisle

Psst: The same company is selling you Q-Tips, mayonnaise, and Ben & Jerry’s.

The typical American grocery aisle has an abundance of choice, but in reality, a handful of corporations control the majority of household brands.
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Emily Stewart covers business and economics for Vox and writes the newsletter The Big Squeeze, examining the ways ordinary people are being squeezed under capitalism. Before joining Vox, she worked for TheStreet.

At your local pharmacy, the options can feel overwhelming, even in the deodorant aisle. Dove, Axe, or Degree? Or maybe Secret, Gillette, or Old Spice? Or maybe Speed Stick?

While the brands and labels are different, you actually don’t have that many choices at all. Three companies basically own the aisle — Unilever, Procter & Gamble, and Colgate-Palmolive. They’re three of the biggest consumer goods conglomerates in the world.

That’s the thing about the choices you think you have in spending your money: A lot of the time, they’re just not real.

That’s the conclusion of a new report from the American Economic Liberties Project. The organization launched in February and is headed by Sarah Miller, former deputy director of the anti-monopoly think tank Open Markets Institute and an antitrust expert. Its mission is to combat monopolistic behavior and corporate power and their effects on democracy and the economy. It’s part of a growing push for antitrust enforcement on the left.

The Economic Liberties Project report delves into the “illusion of choice” — basically, the fact that across industries, a handful of corporations control the majority of products, brands, and services. It ranges from cereals, beers, and snacks to car rental services, hotels, and even eyeglasses.

“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,” Miller said in an interview. “It’s one other tactic in a set of tactics around how monopolistic conglomerates leverage market power.”

Ben and Jerry do not own Ben & Jerry’s

You might vaguely know of Unilever, but you definitely know its products: Vaseline, Q-tips, Pond’s, Caress, and St. Ives. And that’s just what’s in the pharmacy. Unilever also owns Lipton and Tazo Tea, Seventh Generation and Cif, and Hellmann’s mayonnaise. Perhaps most surprising about Unilever’s catalog is its ice creams, including Breyers, Popsicle, Klondike, Talenti, and Ben & Jerry’s. The latter was acquired by Unilever in 2000.

There’s nothing particularly nefarious about companies such as Unilever owning a ton of brands, but it’s something that consumers just don’t realize. And in an age when people are trying to be more conscious of their purchasing choices, like seeking natural or local brands, it’s, well, jarring.

You think the money you spend on a pint of Cherry Garcia is going to Bernie Sanders-loving Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield up in Vermont. It’s actually going to London-based Unilever, which clocked over $50 billion in revenue last year across more than 100 brands. (Ben & Jerry’s is still headquartered in Burlington, though, and says it’s been able to largely stick to its socially conscious mission.)

A lot of the choice you see when you travel isn’t real

Three companies — Enterprise, Hertz, and Avis — control about half of the car rental industry, even if the names of the stands at the airport are different. Avis, for example, owns Zipcar, Enterprise owns Alamo, and Hertz owns Thrifty and Dollar.

And next time you’re planning a trip and trying to find the best prices on your flight or hotel, you might want to note that a lot of the websites you’re surfing aren’t actually competing with one another. Booking Holdings owns, Kayak, and Priceline, among others.

A look at Big Eyewear

Among the most eye-popping (pun intended) multi-brand monopolies is in eyeglasses. $50 billion European conglomerate EssilorLuxottica essentially owns the eyewear industry — it manufactures brands such as RayBan, Oakley, and Ralph Lauren. It also owns LensCrafters, Sunglass Hut, and Vision Direct.

In 2018, journalist Sam Knight for the Guardian did a deep dive into EssilorLuxottica’s eye monopoly, which it achieved in 2017 when Essilor, a French company, bought Luxottica, an Italian company, for $24 billion:

If Luxottica has spent the last quarter of a century buying up the most conspicuous elements of the optical business (the frames, the brands and the high-street chains) then Essilor has busied itself in the invisible parts, acquiring lens manufacturers, instrument makers, prescription labs (where glasses are put together) and the science of sight itself.

The company holds more than 8,000 patents and funds university ophthalmology chairs around the world. In deals that rarely make the business pages, Essilor buys up Belgian optical laboratories, Chinese resin manufacturers, Israeli instrument makers and British e-commerce websites.

Why this matters

Corporate consolidation and monopolies aren’t the most headline-grabbing issues, but they’re really present in our everyday lives. New York University economist Thomas Philippon, author of The Great Reversal: How America Gave Up on Free Markets, estimates that corporate consolidation is costing American households an additional $5,000 a year.

The idea is that the more competitors there are in a space, the more pressure there is to keep prices down and the quality of a product or service high. But because of how antitrust laws have been enforced (or, rather, not) in recent decades, competition has declined, and fewer players have been allowed to dominate. Even though, as the illusion of choice shows, people don’t even realize it.

But as I recently explained, monopolies and corporate concentration can impact much more than your grocery store receipt:

Corporate concentration means companies have to compete less for workers, and therefore could push wages down. Monopolies and oligopolies can also harm suppliers — if Amazon gets big and powerful enough, it could control what shippers such as FedEx and UPS can charge it.

Consumers also lose the ability to vote with their wallets and eyeballs — basically, to say, I don’t like what a company is producing, what it’s charging, or how it’s behaving and go somewhere else.

Corporate power is a hard problem to solve. It’s also often invisible. So the next time you go shopping, maybe check the label.

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