Monday, 16 March 2009

The Hippy Co-op Comes of Age.

The collapse of confidence in conventional business models has drawn new attention to co-operative and mutual alternatives. More people are expressing an interest in worker owned co-op’s than ever before. In last years Co-op UK’s annual review of the Co-op economy the top performing worker co-op in the country was the Triangle Wholefoods Collective Ltd with a turnover of £24 million.

Triangle probably better known under its brand name of Suma is in some ways a caricature of a workers co-op! With its commitment to total worker equality and passion for organic, vegetarian and ethical products it’s like the “good life” turned into a business.

The Northern Co-operative Wholesale Society that went on to become the CWS was formed in 1863. Suma is the 21st century equivalent!

Reg Taylor already had experience of whole foods in London before he moved to Leeds and opened a retail shop, Plain Grain. He realised that if other whole food shops got together and worked co-operatively they could get a better deal for their customers.

Suma was started in August 1975 by Reg at a meeting attended by whole food shops, 8th Day, from Manchester; Alligator, York; Single Step, Lancaster; Maggie’s Farm, Durham; and Down to Earth, from Sheffield. They established a whole foods wholesaling co-op in order to supply each other.

Demand grew quickly and Triangle was registered as a common ownership workers co-op in 1977. Today Suma is a highly respected independent wholesaler of health and whole foods. Operating since, 2001 from its own large purpose-built warehouse in Elland, near Halifax it distributes over 7,000 different products to some 2,500 supermarkets, small retailers, caterers, hospitals, schools and prisons.

Suma’s ethics drive the way the business operates with a hundred plus multi-skilled workers who own a share of the business, all paid the same basic wage with allowances reflecting different work patterns and hours. They all usually do more than one job in any week. A driver, for example, will drive for three days and work in the warehouse for the other two, office staff too carry out manual tasks for one day a week.

There is no chief executive and any employee can put a proposal forward for consideration by the committee. The ethics also drive the activities of the business as they are as organic, green, vegetarian and fairly traded as they can make it going to considerable trouble to fulfil these objectives. Suma has grown consistently since 1974 and thrives in a fiercely competitive market by providing a better service to its customers and better jobs for its workers.

Suma are careful that when you buy a banded as well as their own brand products that each and every product has been chosen as much for its all round quality as for its vegetarian, ethical and health promoting credentials.

They are consistent innovators with a large range of own brand products. Suma was a pioneer of recycled toilet tissue and dairy free margarine. It avoids the “pills and potions” end of the healthfood market concentrating on recognised alternative remedies and was in the 1980’s an early importer of fair-trade coffee. I am particularly fond of its organic beers its Penumbra stout is particularly tasty!

Further it refuses to stock and distribute products from countries where human rights are known to be abused. The business has changed considerable over the years but, changes are democratically agreed and supported by the membership, not imposed by management and paid for by the workers. As we all get more conscious of the quality and provenance of what we buy Suma is ahead of the market.

They may sell lentils and look like hippies but Suma is a great co-operative success story and as they say “Suma is, at heart, a political statement that workers can successfully manage their own businesses without an owner/manager elite”.


Fairtrade Palestinian olive oil is being stocked in Co-op stores —
Good news on our campaign to get Palestinian olive oil into mainstream supermarkets. The Equal Exchange Fairtrade Palestinian Extra Virgin Olive Oil that is the first Palestinian product to receive Fairtrade certification will be available in around 300 Co-op stores from March 22nd at £5.99 a bottle.