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

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Derek Antrobus and the Vegetarian Movement in Salford

Ask people what they know about vegetarianism and probably the first thing they’ll tell you is that it was invented by middle-class hippies in the 1960s. What many people don’t realise is that the modern vegetarian movement in Britain all started in a tiny church in the working-class, gritty, industrial town of Salford. Arwa Aburawa spoke to Derek Antrobus- a vegetarian of 40 years and a Salford City Councillor – who also charted the history of the Salford church in his book ‘A Guiltless Feast’, to find out how and why vegetarianism flourished in the working-class community of Salford.

What sparked your interest in the vegetarian movement?

As a teenager I loved the works of the playwright George Bernard Shaw, who is a great vegetarian, and I used a lot of his work as propaganda for vegetarianism. In the late 1980s, there was a food programme on vegetarianism and how it had increased over time and it just mentioned that wasn’t it amazing that all this had happened from a little church in Salford about which nothing is known. So, I am a vegetarian, it all started in Salford and nobody knows about it, I thought to myself I just have to find out more!

What was the context which allowed this church/vegetarian movement to flourish in Salford?

Well, there were a number of factors. One is that it was a period of rapid urbanisation and so people could come together in the city. There is a theory within historical geography that whereas people may be isolated and seen as rather quite odd in their own village community, in a city they can meet other people like themselves. So, the city become this powerhouse of innovation where there are many opportunities and different ways to look at life.

A second factor was industrialisation, as during this period people were no longer working on the land and no longer slaughtering their animals. Animals were being slaughtered elsewhere and then brought into the city and so it wasn’t a part of everyday life and the idea of having animals as meat became more remote for people. At that time, of course, you got the Romantic movement with people longing for the countryside and so although people were predominantly meat eaters, animals and nature became romanticised. So that may have been an obvious background to why people were choosing to be vegetarians as there was belief that it was wrong to harm nature.

A third reason was the ideological and philosophical chaos that was Manchester. As Lancashire was so far from London, the dominant ways to think never quite reached into society and so people were always experimenting with ways to practice their religion. The last reason is the coincidence of personalities which were brought into this environment and promoted vegetarianism.

What was the role of these key personalities for the success of the movement?

There were an early group of vegetarians who were grouped around the evangelicals, which was a group of people who challenged the complacency- as they saw it- of the Church of England. People like John Wesley are the best known. One of John Wesley’s friends was John Byrom, who lived in Kersal and was vegetarian throughout his life and the Clowes family who were relatives of John Byrom also shared his ideas.

The Clowes were interested in nature and challenged the established church by saying that all nature was connected in some way. John Bryom, who had a great love of nature, shared this with his close cousin who was the translator of the Swedish mystic, Emanuel Swedenborg. So already in Salford society these ideas were floating around and it was because of John Clowes, who promoted the ideas of Swedenborg which focused on the wholeness of nature, that William Cowherd came to Salford.

Cowherd was born in the Lake District, trained to be a priest and shared the belief in the oneness and the wholeness of nature and that god inhabited every living thing. So, for him to kill a animal was to kill a part of god which was a sin.

Whereas people like Clowes were traditional Church of England and vegetarianism was at the margins of their beliefs, Cowherd made it central to his belief. He broke away from the Church of England, joined the Swedenborgians, but broke away from them because they weren’t strong enough, as he thought, on vegetarianism. Eventually he established his own denomination, the Bible Christians Church, by preaching a sermon in his church on King’s Street on January 28th 1809. From that moment, he commanded his congregation not to eat meat and that was the first time that there was an institution in Britain dedicated to vegetarianism.

Was Cowherd the first to bring the message of vegetarianism to the Working Classes?

Very much so. Cowherd tried to relate vegetarianism to some of the issues they were dealing with such as industrialisation and urbanisation. One way he did this was through the politics of liberation because the logical conclusion of a belief that there is a bit of god in everyone is that everyone is equal and everything is of equal value. And so, the Bible Christians argued for workers’ rights, they were some of the foremost opponents to slavery and they extended this belief of liberation to the animal world.

The only thing I have not been able to find, although there must be something, is on women’s rights. I find that really surprising, especially considering the politics of the group, because they were very much aligned with people like John Stuart Mill, who wrote tracts on feminist ideas. So that may be simply due to the paucity of the material available rather than an omission from their ideology and I think it’s just an area which needs further research.

Another way that Cowherd brought vegetarianism to the working classes was the ideology of self-improvement which was really powerful in 19th century Britain. All sorts of arguments come out in vegetarian tracts which state that if you didn’t eat meat you would save money which you could then spend on more self-improving, cultural activities. You’d be more mild-mannered and there was a real belief that eating meat made you violent – so you wouldn’t be wasting your time in drunken, violent brawls but rather you would be able to spend more time in civilised pursuits. There was also a belief that meat actually weakened you and that vegetarians were stronger and could work harder and earn more money.

What were reactions to vegetarianism in Salford?

By all accounts, Cowherd was an incredibly attractive, charismatic figure, which is reflected in the fact that his congregation adopted vegetarianism and tee-totalism. Apparently one of the men who went to his congregation on that January morning in 1809 went back to his home and threw away the dinner his wife had cooked because it had meat in it.

Apart from his congregation, there were some people who thought he was mad, he was mocked and there was a rival chapel who used to refer to his chapel as the Beefeaters Chapel just to irritate him. But despite all that, when Cowherd died in 1816, not long after he established his church, there was a lot of respect for him because of the wider work that he did.

Cowherd ran a school from the church, its dome doubled up as an observatory where he taught science, he opened up his library to the public and he ran a soup kitchen. A big issue for people at that time was being buried as it was very costly to be buried in a churchyard and he offered free burials at his church which would have really had a big impact on a working class family. Cowherd was even known locally as Dr Cowherd because he provided free medical services. So he did manage to attract a significant working class congregation at the Church and it was a home for these primitive social services which earned him respect in the wider community.

Once Cowherd passed away, Joseph Brotherton took over the church and made himself known in the district as someone who attacked those charities which were ‘feeding the trustees and ignoring the poor.’ He was also involved in local politics and was even elected the member of parliament for Salford in 1832 after the great reform act, when Salford got its first MP. William Harvey, Brotherton’s brother in-law, was the mayor of Salford and other members of the congregation were councillors and so they were well respected in the community. They were also part of the great radical movement in Manchester organised around nascent liberalism and free trade, at a time when liberalism as an ideology wasn’t well developed and so it was a mixture of working class radicalism and liberal elitism.

Can you tell us a little about the transition away from the Bible Christians to the secular Vegetarian Society which is now based in Altrincham?

Joseph Brotherton chaired a meeting on Bridge Street, where his statue now stands, to establish the Vegetarian Society in 1847. Ironically, another group involved were the Alcott House Concordium named after William Alcott, who was an American philosopher and a follower of Robert Owen the Co-operator. It was quite different to the Bible Church but if you look into the history, Alcott was converted to vegetarianism by a group of missionaries from the church in Salford who went out and established a church in Philadelphia. So although one was a socialist, secular movement and the other a religious movement, in fact the two got their ideas from the same source!

So they joined forces to promote vegetarianism and the church provided the early support and William Harvey was even elected as the president of the Society at one point so that link lasted for around 50 years. Its actually astounding how popular vegetarianism was in Manchester at the turn of the century. Where Primark now stands on Piccadilly, there was a vegetarian restaurant owned by the Vegetarian Society which had two dining halls, meeting rooms, a lecture theatre, billiards – everything you would get in a Victorian gentleman’s club- but right in the heart of Manchester and only serving vegetarian food.

Round the corner, there was another vegetarian café and also a group of vegetarian cafés run by Fredrick Smallman who had around 8 cafés dotted across Manchester at one point. Now to what point people were signed up vegetarians or they thought ‘well there’s a cheap meal’ is hard to tell but there was clearly wide support. It certainly was not as odd as when it first started and it was not seen as unusual to be vegetarian.

By the early 1900s the Bible Christian Church lost a lot of its members and few of its congregation practised vegetarianism. Whether that was to do with wealth, the falling cost of meat, the way the food economy worked, ideological changes in beliefs with liberalism and egalitarianism diverging, we can’t be sure. But the church dissipated and even the vegetarian movement went through problems with tensions between the Manchester base and the London Vegetarian Society. It seems to me that it was not until the second half of the 20th century that the society was revived with a whole new set of beliefs.

Article by Arwa Aburawa