Unicorn Grocery – 15 years of Fresh Food, Fairtrade & Organic Farming

In 2011, Unicorn Grocery, based in Chorlton, is celebrating 15 years of trade in organic, fairtrade, low-carbon and ethical produce.

Set up in 1996 by a small group of people interested in sustainable food, Unicorn Grocery has flourished over the years and now has a turnover of almost £4 million. Selling everything from local vegetables to Palestinian olive oil, the grocery has become a sustainable alternative to supermarkets. “I think what we wanted to do was to run a shop that sold the kind of things we wanted to buy,” states Debbie Clarke, an environmental campaigner who has worked at Unicorn for 10 years. “[A shop] that had an ethical outlook, that was sourcing things carefully in terms of provenance and nutrition.”

Inspired by a co-operative wholefood shop called Daily Bread in Cambridge, which is run on an ethical and Christian ethos, one of the founders of Unicorn Grocery, Adam York, decided to establish a similar grocery in Manchester. “Although he wasn’t a Christian, he saw value in the way that they were running things and also that it was replicable,” explains Debbie. “He took it on with a secular perspective and looked around for people who were interested in the project in Manchester. There were two people originally, which grew to six, and it took a couple of years planning for it and finding premises, money as well a doing a bit of market research to see if there was an appetite for it.” Finally, in 1996, the Unicorn Grocery Co-operative opened its doors to the public.

As a co-operative, most of the people that work at Unicorn own and run the business – everyone has a flat pay and makes an equal contribution in the running of the business. “I suppose there are loads of reasons why you would want to run a business as a co-op, some are political reasons such as having control in the hands of the workers to more practical reasons because it’s a really good business model,” states Debbie. “For example, the people that are making the decisions are the people that have to put everything into practice- there isn’t that chain of command where you have a distant head office which is barking orders at you when they have no idea how things work on the ground.”

This means that those stacking the shelves aren’t poorly paid workers but rather well-informed members of the co-op who know and understand the policies and ethics of the grocery. Even so, Debbie explains that they do have casual staff to give them a buffer for the fluctuations in how busy they are during the day, week and also the year. “We did try for a little being fully mutual, which means that everyone that worked there was a member, but it left us vulnerable to fluctuations so we have between 5-10% of our hours from casual staff although it’s not something that we want the business to be based around.”

As with all co-operatives, a certain level of compromise and creative tension is also inevitable. Unicorn embraces lots of principles such as vegan and vegetarian lifestyles, a focus on local food, fairtrade and organic growing but sometimes priorities need to be set and difficult decisions made. For example, Unicorn has decided not to have any boycotts in place and they don’t refuse to stock products from any country. Therefore they sell products from China, they occasionally sell products from Israel and they sell some fairtrade products from Zimbabwe as well as products from Iran.

“The question is that if we start cutting out products from countries would we stop selling things from the US?,” asks Debbie. “We don’t think that whole-scale boycotts of countries are the way to deal with poor human rights records or political activity. What we would try and do is focus on the products from those countries that we know are well sourced. For example, we work with an organisation called Kitchen Garden, which consists of small-scale organic farmers from Zimbabwe which we try to promote as part of our recommended range.” Unicorn also sells Palestinian olive oil from Zaytoun, a UK-based not-for-profit company which imports certified Fairtrade olive oil from Palestinian farmers.

“I think the interesting thing is that although we all have different perspectives, we have these guiding principles which say what – fundamentally – the ethics of the business trades on. Everyone respects those and although there are sometimes discussions about what to prioritize, generally we all come to a compromise and use [the guiding principles] to make a decision without causing too much conflict.”

And it’s these guiding principles that have allowed Unicorn to grow over the years. Debbie states there is no way that the shop would have grown to the size it has or accessed the number of customers that it does if they only sold local produce or only fairtrade. “We do compete with supermarkets on price and that’s part of our business model, but to do that you have to work out where that balance is,” says Debbie. Whilst Unicorn Grocery doesn’t air freight any of its stock, they do buy bananas, pineapples, tomatoes and oranges all year round because they accept that it’s what people want and there’s only so much you can do before people just go to Tesco instead. “We do try to focus on local food and push it where possible and we try to educate our customers about seasonality so we can sell seasonal veg from local growers,” adds Debbie.

In 2008, Unicorn bought 21 acres of land to improve their local supply of veg and cut their food miles. They have tenant growers who work the land with the support from Moss Brook Growers and funding from Making Local Food Work. “We did some crop trials in the first year, last year we did more small-scale crops and this year is the first year that has made it into major production. They were funded for the first couple of years but now they have to make it work financially- I’m sure they’ll manage it!”

Unicorn also works with the Kindling Trust which is working to develop a group of veg buyers called Manchester’s Veg People as well as the Glebelands Trust which is an urban market garden based in Sale. They also contribute to the annual Chorlton Food & Drink Festival which promotes the independent food and drink sector.

Indeed, there is a growing appreciation of local, fairtrade and organic food with lots of supermarkets now stocking such products. When I ask Debbie if this means more competition for Unicorn or more customers, she replies that it’s a bit of both. “The supermarkets may sell organic and fairtrade but their business models are inherently unsustainable. A lot of it is based on unfair trade and intensive and unsustainable agriculture so people are aware that we are still a better option. The landscape has changed a lot but over that fifteen year period, the pattern [for Unicorn] has very much been growth. Our turnover started off as something like a couple of thousands and now it’s approaching four million.”

Looking ahead to the future, Unicorn is hoping to build a commercial kitchen to expand on the current small kitchen they have behind they deli where salads are prepared and baked goods are made. “The great thing about that is that it also cuts food miles,” says Debbie. “Instead of bringing in products we can make them ourselves and we can also use gluts to make value-added goods. So if we have too many courgettes in, we can make use of them to make a couple of things.” The grocery is also planning to double-glaze all the windows and is working with the Carbon Co-op to install solar panels which will then sell electricity back to the grid. Clearly, the radical roots of Unicorn are still alive and will continue in the future. As Debbie states, “I hope that we will continue to be challenged to become more sustainable and that we in turn can encourage our customers to become more radical.”

Article by Arwa Aburawa