Ethical grocers offer an alternative to supermarket chains, but can they hope to expand while maintaining their principles?
Absence has not made my heart grow more fond of supermarkets, but there are times when I miss their sheer convenience.
Since I gave up shopping in them almost a year ago I have halved my grocery bills, wasted less food, cut down on packaging and avoided eating horsemeat.
My routine now involves going to the local high street for fresh produce, making regular online bulk-buys and growing my own vegetables.
In busy weeks, not being able to buy everything from broccoli to bleach in the same place can seem a bit time consuming. What I would like is to be able to shop in a larger, affordable grocery. A supermarket, if you like, but one with an ethical policy.
Such places do exist: I’m thinking of the Unicorn Grocery in Manchester, the Real Food Store in Exeter, the True Food Community Co-op in Reading, London’s The People’s Supermarket, and The People’s Supermarket in Oxford. These are places where you can get a week’s worth of groceries, including wine and washing up liquid, and not pay inflated “artisan” prices for the privilege.
The models of these shops vary slightly, but at their most basic level they work a bit like a large scale buying group. Set up as social enterprises rather than profit-driven companies, they aim to make sure suppliers are paid fairly, but the fact they are affordable is the key to their success.
Unicorn Grocery, for example, regularly publishes its organic fruit and vegetable prices, which are consistently cheaper than supermarkets’ non-organic produce. Currently, Unicorn says its organic cherry vine tomatoes cost £4.82 a kg, while at the nearby Tesco it claims comparable, non-organic tomatoes cost £6.25 a kg.
At the Real Food Store the organic free range eggs “are cheaper than anywhere outside of Poundland”, according to one of the directors, David Mezzetti. “And they’re local – the eggs come from less than seven miles away.”
The problem is, of course, that we don’t all live near a co-operative grocery (as it happens, I don’t live near any of them). So what would be handy is an affordable, ethical chain of supermarkets.
Perhaps it’s not as unlikely a concept as it seems: Brighton-based Ruth and Amy Anslow are in the process of setting up a chain they claim will be “fit for the 21st century” – hisBe Food CIC. “The existing supermarkets are unethical, boring and old-fashioned,” Ruth says. “We think it’s time for a change.”
HisBe Food CIC, which stands for How it should be Food community interest company, focuses on sustainability and affordability. “We’re not into fava beans and organic walnut oil,” Ruth says. “We’ll sell basics like fruit, vegetables, bread, dairy and meat, and dried goods. The difference from the major supermarkets is that we won’t be profit-driven, so we’ll pass savings on to consumers.”
The company is run for profit, but its structure means those profits are invested back into the business rather than taken out for shareholders and directors. The company is launching a crowd-funding scheme looking for investments from £25-£5,000 to raise the rest of the cash to set up a branch.
The first shop should open in early summer 2013 and will be at the London Road end of Brighton. While the new supermarket won’t deal in rock bottom £2-a-chicken prices, Ruth says people will be able to buy quality food without overspending. “We’ll sell high-welfare meat, but we will talk to customers about what they are cooking so they can buy the right portion sizes,” she says.
Most ethical grocery shops are standalone ventures. The People’s Supermarket London model was used to establish a store in Oxford, but the shops are run completely independently. The True Food Co-op runs multiple mobile markets as well as a large shop, but says it doesn’t plan to establish a chain, and neither does Unicorn Grocery.
“We’re not looking to set up another shop anywhere else, let alone a chain,” says Unicorn’s Kelly Bubble. “We’ve discussed the issue, but expanding means having many more members and this can prove difficult.
“We keep our ethics strong by being a workers’ co-operative with equal pay and say in the way things are done. Having other shops, whether they are franchises or part of a chain, means we could end up moving too far away from our buying ethics.”
Instead, Unicorn offers advice and support to others setting up similar ventures in their own communities. “People come and see us and work out how they can meet the specific needs of their own local community. Every local area is different – we want to grow the idea of co-operative groceries, but for local people to set them up in their own communities,” Bubble says.
The Anslows do hope to establish a chain of supermarkets. What they are driven by is the desire for everyone to be able to access affordable, quality food, and they think a chain will more effectively do this.
While chains are criticised for taking money out of areas, hiSbe Food, being a community interest company, plans to invest money back into the stores and their neighbourhood, holding community events and supporting local producers.
“We want to make a big impact on the UK grocery sector,” Ruth says. “For this we need more than one store. Once we’re established in Brighton we will look at expansion, for example through franchises, and aim to set up wherever communities tell us they want the supermarkets.”
What do you think of this approach? Do you think an ethical retailer can have scale and remain true to its ideals?