A man carries a bag of groceries while walking in front of a Loblaws sign.

Controversial ‘Steal from Loblaws Day’ is not just illegal — it won’t foster meaningful change

Written by Omar H. Fares, Toronto Metropolitan University. Originally published in The Conversation
Retailers in Canada have some serious work to do to rebuild trust and demonstrate their commitment to both ethical practices and community well-being. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette

Posters declaring May 12 the first annual “Steal from Loblaws Day” began popping up across Toronto the last week of April. They have since spread, and have been sighted in Atlantic Canada as well.

The appearance of these posters has sparked intense discussions both online and offline. While some appear to support it in the face of perceived corporate greed, others have condemned the promotion of theft as unethical and illegal.

The appearance of these posters coincides with calls for a boycott throughout the month of May. However, it’s important to note these two events are not connected: the organizers of the boycott have made it clear they do not support the calls for theft.

Although it may be rooted in legitimate grievances, the campaign behind the posters is illegal and fails to achieve its intended objective. Instead of fostering meaningful change, it risks undermining social cohesion and the economic stability of communities.

Canadians are frustrated

The motivation behind both the posters and the boycott stem from growing frustration with rising grocery prices, often attributed to “greedflation” — a term describing how corporations leverage inflation to raise prices and bolster profits.

Loblaws’ record-high profits and recent corporate practices have made it, in particular, a target of consumer outrage. Loblaw chairman and president Galen G. Weston, for his part, has called the accusations of profiteering “misguided” and “untrue.”

The misconception that large corporations like Loblaws can simply absorb losses from theft without consequence is a significant misunderstanding fuelling the calls for theft as a form of advocacy.

The ripple effects of shoplifting extend far beyond the immediate loss of merchandise. While individual instances of theft might appear insignificant, they accumulate, forcing retailers to make difficult decisions such as reducing operating hours, altering product selection, increasing prices and reducing employee benefits.

These actions can unintentionally harm the very communities the organizers aim to help.

The misguided Robin Hood mentality

Another common self-justification for shoplifting from large retailers stems from the perception of redistributing wealth — from the affluent to the less fortunate. This Robin Hood mentality, while seemingly noble in intent, fails to account for the significant adverse consequences inflicted upon employees and honest consumers.

These groups face the brunt of the repercussions as businesses, in response to losses, are compelled to increase prices and reduce the quality of services in an effort to bolster security measures and mitigate financial damage.

This approach to social justice, by focusing on immediate redistribution, ignores the broader implications such actions have on the community. The direct impact on businesses is just one aspect. The ripple effects extend deeply into the lives of everyday individuals who rely on these businesses for their livelihoods and services.

When prices increase and service quality drops, it is not the corporate executives who suffer, but the average employees and consumers who find their costs rising and their shopping experiences diminished.

Moreover, this kind of mentality perpetuates a cycle of distrust and economic hardship rather than alleviating it. By undermining the rule of law and societal norms, such actions foster an environment where dishonesty becomes normalized, and mutual trust— the foundation of any stable community — is eroded.

Rather than achieving any meaningful poverty reduction, this misguided attempt at social justice often leads to tighter community divisions and heightened security environments that serve as deterrents to the welcoming, open nature of community spaces.

Rethinking corporate accountability

It is important to note that while the goal of addressing economic inequality is valid and necessary, the means of achieving it through acts of theft under the guise of wealth redistribution is counterproductive. It does not bring about true social justice but instead entrenches the very disparities and distrust it seeks to eliminate.

To genuinely assist those in need, it would be more effective to engage in sustained advocacy for systemic change, support community-enhancing initiatives, and participate actively in democratic processes that aim to reform the structures perpetuating economic inequality.

A close up of a hand holding a grocery flyer
Galen G. Weston, Chairman and President of Loblaw Companies Limited, holds a folder containing a discount flyer as he waits to appear as witness at the Standing Committee on Agriculture and Agri-Food investigating food price inflation in Ottawa, in March 2023. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Spencer Colby

The growing frustration with corporate practices certainly warrants attention and highlights a call for action. However, the endorsement of theft as a method of protest is overshadowed by more effective and ethical accountability measures.

Those seeking change might consider engaging in constructive dialogue, supporting businesses committed to ethical practices, or advocating for legislative reforms. For instance, the House of Commons committee is urging major retailers like Loblaw and Walmart to sign a voluntary grocery code of conduct. This code seeks to ensure transparency and fairness in pricing and supply chain practices. These methods provide avenues for expressing concerns without breaching ethical, legal and social boundaries.

By championing transparency and pushing for reforms, consumers can influence business operations in a more meaningful and law-abiding manner and make a significantly stronger case for change.

These approaches address grievances and promote a fairer economic system by upholding principles of justice and equity without resorting to actions that undermine the very communities they aim to uplift.

Rebuilding consumer trust

It is clear that large grocery retailers, including Loblaws, must engage in serious reflection and proactive measures to address consumer outrage about the cost-of-living crisis. Retailers need to address the root causes of public discontent stemming from perceptions of corporate irresponsibility and economic disparity.

Retailers can strengthen their relationships with the communities they serve by initiating dialogue with consumers and local leaders to better understand and address their concerns.

Implementing and highlighting programs aimed at economic assistance for underprivileged shoppers or contributing more significantly to local causes can also shift public perception and foster goodwill.

Ultimately, retailers in Canada have some serious work to do to rebuild trust and demonstrate their commitment to both ethical practices and community well-being.

This proactive approach can be the way to go to discourage destructive actions like retail theft and promotes a more harmonious relationship between large corporations and the communities they serve, ensuring long-term sustainability and community support.

The Conversation