Suma, based in West Yorkshire, is Europe’s largest equal-wage workers’ cooperative, and the UK’s largest independent supplier of wholefoods. They’ve been trading in ethical produce even longer than Riverford!
The business was founded in 1975 by Reg Taylor. Working in a wholefood shop in Leeds, Reg could see a growing demand for healthy and vegan or vegetarian foods in the north – but all the produce had to be transported from London. At a gathering of whole food shop owners from across the north of England, he suggested they set up a wholefood wholesaling cooperative to supply each other.
The buying network set up shop in the back kitchen of a terraced house in Leeds. In 1977, Reg sold the business to its seven employees. Since then, Suma has only continued to grow, remaining at the forefront of the blossoming wholefood market. They now stock over 7000 items, all 100% vegetarian, and many of them organic, Fairtrade and locally sourced. Their own brand has pioneered many industry firsts: first organic tinned tomatoes, first organic tinned beans, and first 100% recycled toilet roll and paper towel – to name just a few!
It’s not just their product range that’s pioneering. From a little kitchen, to purpose-built modern premises, and from seven co-owners to around 170, much may have changed at Suma – but much remains the same. The cooperative remains fully democratic, with a totally flat management structure.
“We don’t have any bosses or shareholders,” the team say. “We, Suma employees, set the direction of the business. Everyone has an equal say in what we do.”
All decisions are agreed at the general meetings held four to six times a year. This might slow down decision making a little – but Suma are confident that the decision they eventually reach is almost always the right one. Just as there are no line managers to be found, neither is it really possible to pin anyone down to a specific role; everyone shifts about the business from day to day, pitching in wherever a hand is needed.
“We all get paid the same wage, take responsibility and do a range of jobs each week, from truck driving to cooking to accounts,” Suma say. Because authority is shared equally, it benefits the business for everyone to be really informed – not voting on decisions in areas that they don’t have insight into. Just as everyone shares the work, so too do they share the rewards; Suma is thought to be the largest organisation in Europe operating an equal pay policy. Everyone at Suma earns a salary that’s enough to afford a comfortable family life in their local area.
“When you meet someone who works at Suma, you’re meeting a co-owner who knows and cares about the business,” the team say. “Your driver might work in accounts and product development when she’s not out on the road, so she can give you the bigger picture.” In a country that rates so poorly for job satisfaction, where so much human potential is wasted, Suma have long been living proof that there really is is a better way of doing business. And on top of all that, everything they sell is ethically sourced, fairly traded, and fantastic quality.