Local Assistance for Co-ops
Unicorn Grocery is a large wholefoods co-operative grocery in Chorlton, South Mcr. We’ve been trading since 1996, and have grown from the original four members to 71 today. We are a flat structured worker co-op, so all of our 71 members are directors of the business, and we make business decisions by consensus. Unicorn offers a wide range of affordable, wholesome food with a focus on organic, fair-trade, plant-based and local sourcing.
From the beginning Unicorn has been firmly rooted in our local community. Our model ensures we offer very good value, high quality food, and our commitment to community is shared through welcoming local schools on visits, hosting meet the producer evenings, attending local events and playing a role in the local traders association, amongst many others.
Our Founding Principles are at the core of our business and influence what we sell and how we operate: namely Secure Employment, Equal Ops, Wholesome Healthy Consumption, Fair & Sustainable Trade, & Solidarity in Cooperation. It’s this last principle that informs out commitment to providing support and assistance to other co-operatives.
We always look to trade with like-minded businesses, particularly co-ops, and stock lines from UK co-ops like Suma & Essential, as well as many other co-ops around the world, including Revolver coffee (Cuban co-ops), various Zaytoun lines (Palestine), Adivasi (India to Germany and Manchester), Carishea (Ghana to Scotland), Tropical Wholefoods – Mango Co-ops in Burkina Faso, Maple Syrup (Shady Lane Canadian co-op, Quebec founded 1924), Iris pasta (an Italian Co-op brought to us by Suma), and Agricoop (Sicily)
Our fifth principle also states “we seek to encourage co-operation by operating a fund to support projects which share our vision of community and society in the United Kingdom”. The 1% fund is so-called because it is equal to 1% of Unicorn’s total annual wage bill (we also have the 4% Fund for projects in the global south, including cooperatives). We choose to base the fund on our wage bill rather than our profits because ‘profit’ can be interpreted so variably and using many different standards – this seems like a clearer and more transparent way of defining what we give. It also better reflects our growth as a business and means if/when co-op staff get better off (when wages increase above inflation), so do the projects we support. We make small donations and target projects where we feel our contribution will make a big difference. Maximum donations are £2000 and a typical Unicorn grant is usually much smaller than this.
This funding stream has five criteria:
- Building a more co-operative economy
- Promoting social inclusion and equality (e.g. homeless shelters, refugees and asylum seekers, women’s rights, mental health support)
- Building a more sustainable food and farming system which is fairer, lower carbon, improves biodiversity and promotes sustainable land use (e.g. new organic grower initiatives, food sovereignty gatherings, promotion of plant-based diets, community food growing schemes, tree planting and urban wildflower corridors)
- Creating food poverty and food access solutions (e.g. community cooking & growing projects focussed on low income households, emergency food provision through foodbanks)
- Building cleaner and fairer energy and transport systems (e.g. co-operative & community energy solutions)
We consider applications from worker co-ops that meet one or more of the following criteria:
- Co-ops in start-up or expansion phases
- Co-ops experiencing some kind of unexpected crisis e.g. flooding
- Co-ops working in sectors that are typically hard to make money from e.g. agro forestry or farming
- Co-ops providing community or environmental services
To be successful in requesting support from our fund, worker co-ops should be:
- Operating enterprises in line with our values, to be judged on a case-by-case basis
- Making some provision to support other worker co-ops themselves, either now or in the future
We awarded around £3000 to co-ops from our £15k 1% budget last year, including grants made to Greater Manchester Community Renewables, the Co-operators Camp and to Valley Organics. In previous years we’ve also supported the worker co-op weekend.
We hold loanstock in a number of cooperative businesses, including GMCR (solar energy), FC United, Tree Station (who supply our wood), Wild Thyme (wholefoods in Portsmouth) and several others. Currently we have £53,000 invested in loanstock (some longer standing investments over the past 6 or 7 years, others more recent).
And then there’s the support we offer through our Grow a Grocery guide and study days hosted at Unicorn for people wanting to replicate our model – many co-ops have taken some elements of what we do and built it into their co-ops. We often have other co-ops visiting us – to meet with various members for advice and guidance, or to spend a day or a week working alongside us to gain practical insight into how our co-op operates. We have offered guidance and support to various co-ops setting up grocery businesses over the years, currently including Village Greens in Prestwich. One of our members spent a month working 2 days a week there to offer guidance and support, and is now a board member supporting them as they continue to develop their multi-stakeholder co-op.
We’ve recently collaborated on an Induction pack for new co-op members produced by Co-op College, alongside a few other contributing co-ops.
We set aside an hours allocation per year for co-op days, which are available as paid leave for our members wishing to attend co-op events/meetings. We have a few members who sit on co-op boards including Village Greens, Co-ops Community Finance, Co-ops NW, Co-ops UK, and others.
There can be downsides – no business wants to throw its hard earned surplus away, so we can’t approve every request that comes our way, and it can be hard saying no. We look carefully at the business case for an investment, and we do the same for a 1% fund donation – we want our funding to be well used and have maximum impact, which does mean we need to be careful about putting it into financially viable businesses.
And as a very busy co-operative grocery, we know how much our members take on with all the various projects and additional work we all get involved in over and above our day-to-day rota’d tasks. So when it comes to being a point of contact for another co-op looking for advice and support, it can add quite a lot of pressure to working life, particularly if a co-op is struggling.
I’d like to focus on one particular example of co-op support – our longterm relationship with Glebelands. Next to the River Mersey in Sale, Glebelands is a small market garden co-operative, producing organic veg which is all sold in and around Greater Manchester. The site was taken on in 2001 by Lesley Bryson & Adam York (also one of Unicorn’s founder members), who transformed it into a success story for sustainable urban food production. This was helped along by a very close relationship with Unicorn, which made survival possible where trading on the open market would not have been.
Adam and Lesley left the site in 2008, handing it over to a four-strong team of who make up Glebelands City Growers co-operative. There was only a wage for one and a half full time workers at that point, so Unicorn invested £14,500 to help the team purchase a tractor, a flail mower and other essential equipment.
In the eight years since, Glebelands have made carefully considered investments to build up the business, adding three new polytunnels, a covered education area and a compost toilet as well as purchasing a van and a rotavator. An £11,000 zero-interest loan from Unicorn paid for a borehole, saving £2,500 a year in water costs. Glebelands reinvested £15,000 of profits in 2015 to create a custom-built packing shed (complete with living roof) which has streamlined the packing process and will pay for itself over time in increased efficiency.
They have recently expanded through Feeding Stockport, a partnership of organisations working to improve the borough’s food supply, led by Kindling Trust and including Stockport Council. Glebelands stepped in to provide the final, commercial component to the partnership’s vision for the Woodbank Park urban growing site. With demand from Manchester Veg People and Unicorn consistently outstripping supply – the co-op were keen to take advantage of what they describe as “a very rare opportunity to increase production, and an irresistible site”. It now boasts a fairly unique blend of commercial production and community uses, with Kindling Trust’s FarmStart bridging the gap between the two by developing a supported route into farming.
A third of their income is now generated by Manchester Veg People, a new co-operative of buyers and growers getting more organic veg into universities, restaurants and catering outlets. Glebelands are in a position to employ four full time co-op workers, albeit paying themselves the minimum wage – regrettably still the usual scenario for small scale organic food producers. Their two newest recruits came through Kindling’s farm start.
With a further £11,000 grant from Unicorn in March 2016 Glebelands have been able to install an automatic ventilation system in their new Woodbank polytunnels, reducing labour needs, providing optimum conditions for crops and increasing the number of crops they can produce. The increased turnover this generates means that the business continues to become more robust, allows for further investment in infrastructure, and hopefully one day may mean that an above-minimum wage for the growers is a more realistic option.
So why do we do it? What’s in it for us?
With Glebelands the benefits are numerous – we’re directly supporting a key supplier, which strengthens our offer in turn. We work closely with them, and our Veg team participate in their crop planning process (as we do with a few other, organic suppliers in NW). A fresh supply of organic, locally-grown, seasonal fresh vegetables is exactly what our customers want, and the more we can sell the more the market increases for Glebelands. So the more Glebelands thrives, the more we do. It’s a win-win mutually beneficial system that grows the co-operative economy and meets our aims of creating a more sustainable food system.
A recent benefit of our business growth boosting theirs is through compost. The more our in-house food production offer increases, the more fruit and veg scraps we add to our compost, which Glebelands collect from us. The quality of their on site composting is increasing as a result, so their plants continue to thrive and we both benefit.
For other forms of other co-op support, it can give us a warm glow when we help to be a small part of a new co-op enterprise, and increases pride in what we do at Unicorn among our members. It ties us in in practical ways to Principle Six by helping realise the success of the co-operative economy, strengthens our bonds with other co-ops and the co-op movement overall.
So despite the potential risks involved, for us, for the moment, the upsides far outweigh any disadvantages, and we’re proud to be part, even in a small way, of helping to grow the co-operative economy through supporting co-op enterprise.