Subway: Commodity Chain

Fast Food Globalisation means that through the Subway sandwich we buy for lunch we are connected with other people and places around the world. This includes connections to people and places involved in producing and selling us that sandwich, but also connections with other consumers who are buying the same type of sandwich for their lunch in towns and cities across the globe. We can think about these connections in terms of a global commodity chain.

The commodities that we buy – whether clothes, electronic goods, clothes or sandwiches – can on the one hand be viewed simply as a finished thing or collection of things. However, a complex network of connected processes is required in order for that finished commodity to be available for us to buy in a shop. In the case of a Subway sandwich, this involves coming up with the concept and design for a new sandwich filling, growing the ingredients, picking, processing and assembling them, packaging, transportation, distribution and retailing, as well as promotion and marketing – and all of these stages involve people.

A commodity chain therefore involves networks of labour and production processes whose end result is the finished commodity. For Subway this is a massive logistical operation involving a range of actors, organisations and regulations in order to ensure standardisation and consistency of product across all of their stores. For example, one aspect of the Subway commodity chain involves the production of tomatoes for all of their US stores as illustrated in the diagram below:

Image produced by the Global-Rural project

As the diagram illustrates, a range of inputs are required at each stage of production including labour, energy, materials, resources and technology. You can learn more about this commodity chain by watching the video Every Sandwich has a Story produced by Subway.

Tomatoes for Subway’s stores in the US are grown there domestically during the summer months. However, in order to achieve a year-round consistent supply, Subway is amongst a number of large US corporations, including Wal Mart and Safeway, who source a large amount of fresh produce (e.g. tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers) from Mexico.

Tomatoes texture clue169

Corporations such as Subway don’t own farms in Mexico. They buy tomatoes and other produce through US-based food wholesalers, who are in turning buying the food from a Mexican-based distributor, who will be buying the produce from a large Mexican Agribusiness company such as Agricola San Emilio.

Increasing consumer demand have seen farm exports to the U.S. from Mexico triple to $7.6 billion in the last decade, meaning that all the different companies in this supply chain - agribusinesses, distributors and retailers – have financially benefited. However, little benefit from this export boom has arguably trickled down to farm labourers who work in the fields picking the tomatoes, peppers and chillies, and who are required to work more intensively to keep up with the increasing demand.

An in-depth investigation by the Los Angeles Times newspaper in 2014 revealed that thousands of Mexican farm labourers were living and working in conditions of extreme hardship. You can read more about that investigation and its findings here.

In addition to social impacts of Fast Food globalisation such as the exploitation of low paid workers in the commodity chain, there are also environmental impacts associated with large scale intensive food production. In the next section we focus on one particular issue that’s having a major global environmental impact: palm oil production.