Tour de co-ops

Our recent ‘SUSY’ project speaker tour featured guests from Zaytoun, a social enterprise which markets Palestinian products in the UK, and College associate Veena Nabar, a co-operative expert from India. One of the highlights of the tour was not just learning from our speakers, but taking them on study visits to explore how different types of co-operatives work in the UK.

The SUSY project focuses on the ‘Social and solidarity economy’ (SSE), and involves education, advocacy and promotion about its benefits. The international network RIPESS describes SSE as ‘an alternative to capitalism, as well as other authoritarian, statedominated economic systems, in which ordinary people play an active role in shaping all of the dimensions of human life: economic, social, cultural, political, and environmental’.

Examples of SSE identified by RIPESS include Fair trade; community supported agriculture; ethical banks; local currency; worker co-operatives and social enterprises; co-housing; transition towns; renewable energies; organic farming; and slow food. Whilst there is no one model or approach, what unites SSE initiatives is an emphasis on ‘the welfare of people and planet over profits and blind growth’.

There is clear crossover between SSE and co-operatives, in their form, structure and values, from organising work in ways that prioritise democracy, equality, empowerment and ownership, to offering consumers choices of products  that are fairly traded, organic, sustainable and environmentally friendly. During their time in the north of England we visited four different co-ops of different scales and sizes to see how they were putting SSE into action, which I found just as educational and inspirational as our visitors!

In Elland, near Huddersfield in West Yorkshire, we visited Suma, a very large and successful worker co-op which is celebrating its fortieth anniversary this year. Suma produces and distributes vegetarian wholefoods and other goods, including a large proportion of Fairtrade, organic and environmentally friendly products, from own brand baked beans, spices and dried foods to ecological cleaning products and recycled toilet rolls (a product line in which Suma was a pioneer in the UK retail sector!). It is one of the UK distributors of Zaytoun products, including olive oil, spice mix za’atar, almonds, and grains such as maftoul and freekeh.

Suma has more than 160 members, all of whom are owners of the business, and operates a flat structure organised into certain core areas. All members are paid the same, which is well above the average salary for the area. In the staff canteen at Suma, where workers eat free vegetarian meals each day, cooked on rota by their colleagues, we heard about what it’s like to work there from two members, one longstanding and one who has just passed through the long and intensive trail period through which new members are recruited. Rather than recruiting specific roles, members are recruited as members of the co-operative, and must be approved at a vote of all members at the end of a trial period in which they are put through their paces in different areas of the business. On a day-to-day basis tasks are spread between the members, from warehouse picking to driving trucks to buying to admin, with the majority of members doing several different jobs throughout the week. This ensures a team that is multi-skilled, flexible and adaptable – and, as we heard, staff tend to stay at Suma for a long time.

Down the road, in the picturesque village of Holmfirth, is Fair Trader, a community co-operative on a much smaller scale. Founded in 2009, with its shop opening in 2010, the members of Fair Trader are individuals and organisations based both in the immediate area and all over the world, who buy shares in the co-operative in order to support co-operative and community development, primarily in the developing world. Although the Fair Trader shop employs two people, the co-op relies heavily on the enthusiasm, skills, time and expertise of volunteers.

On our tour, director and secretary Mark Lewis told us how Fair Trader Co-op is constantly trying to innovate and add new products, sourced both from local craftspeople, artists and producers, and from co-operatives and producers across the globe, from food and clothing to gifts and cards. Among the most interesting are a slow cooker which works using insulation, children’s toys, drinking glasses made from recycled bottles in Mexico, and Fairtrade and organic beer, wine and food products. Among the food products it stocks is the Zaytoun range, which was used as a basis for a Palestinian-themed evening meal in Holmfirth during the speaker tour, organised by volunteers from Fair Trader.

In Manchester, we visited Unicorn, a grocery run as a workers’ co-operative in the suburb of Chorlton. Founded in 1996, it recently celebrated its twentieth birthday and is a Manchester institution, attracting not just people living in the local area but shoppers from all over the wider region. We took part in a ‘Grow A Grocery Day’ aimed at others who are thinking about establishing co-operative groceries. Attended by people from Greater Manchester and across the north of England who are at various stages of setting up a grocery business, the day was a chance to find out about how Unicorn’s co-operative model works in practice, from a tour of the shop floor to the chance to quiz members about topics such as buying, HR and marketing. Among the most interesting aspects were hearing that the shop is zero waste, with any food approaching its use-by date being used to make soup, or being sent back to growers for compost. It was also great to see the shop’s roof garden and pond, normally off-limits to the public, where black redstarts have been introduced.

Kellie, who had worked at Unicorn for 18 years, explained that rather being a premium shop Unicorn sees itself as competing with larger shops such as supermarkets and aims to play a symbiotic role with independent local shops in walking distance. It also works with local growers. People do a high proportion of their shop there, with a wide customer base of over 7,000 and an average basket spend of £22, and Unicorn regularly price matches ingredients. The emphasis is on affordability and accessibility, and ‘sourcing things with a little bit more care’. Unicorn also informs and educates its customers, with blackboards around the shop highlighting the story, background and provenance of certain products and their producers. During the speaker tour, Zaytoun was the featured producer, with shoppers able to sample Zaytoun products whilst browsing.

Unicorn has seventy members and a flat structure and operates according to consensus decision making. A forum meets every two weeks, and although there are opportunities to specialise everyone multitasks to some extent in order to understand different aspects of the business, and everyone spends at least some time on the tills in a customer-facing role.

Finally, 8th Day is another longstanding co-op in Manchester, serving the university area just south of the city centre. Started as a boutique and clothes shop in the 1970s, it became a co-operative in 1976 and today specialises in vegetarian and ecological foods and lifestyle with a café and a grocery shop. With thirty workers and sixteen members (workers have to work 24 hours a week to be a member, with four days a week considered the ideal), the co-op considers its workers’ spiritual wellbeing as well as their physical and economic wellbeing to be important, and aims to ‘create an environment where people are happy to come into work in the morning and are smiling’ as ‘there’s no boss waiting for you – you own it yourself’.

Whilst all these co-ops are very different, according to their particular specialisms and the needs of the communities in which they’re based, what stood out was the central importance of people in how they function. This includes not just the commitment of individuals and organisations to the co-operative values of democracy, equality, equity, self-help and self-responsibility, but the culture and ways of working together that co-operatives entail.

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