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Profile of a Suma Cooperative Member

Rebecca with her amazing coconut brownies, perfected in our Suma canteen

Recently, Suma Member Rebecca was interviewed for Vegetarian Living Magazine about what it’s like to be part of the UK’s biggest worker’s cooperative. Here’s what she said…

What’s your role at Suma and what does a typical week consist of?
Suma is a workers cooperative which means that unlike most ‘straight’ companies, Suma operates a truly democratic system of management that isn’t bound by the conventional notions of hierarchy that can often hinder progress and stand in the way of fairness. We do use an elected Management Committee to implement decisions and business plans, the bigger decisions themselves are made at regular General Meetings with the consent of every cooperative member – there’s no chief executive, no managing director and no company chair.

Another key feature of our structure and working practice is multi-skilling. We encourage members to get involved in more than one area of the business, so individuals will always perform more than one role within the cooperative.

I’ve been at Suma over seven years now and done a wide range of roles in that time. Currently I am part of the elected Management Committee, and am also working as a Buyer. I still like to work in our canteen whenever I can too.

The working week
A typical week, well there isn’t one! Mondays are generally spent in the Buying team assessing stock levels and re-ordering and dealing with various issues that arise. This week I’m meeting with one of my suppliers on Monday to discuss the current range we take from them, how it’s performing and also consider some additions to the range and new products. It’s always interesting to catch up with other people in the wholefoods industry and talk about market trends and how global issues are affecting food availability and production. Right now I seem to be worrying about bees a lot, the honey season has been pretty bad.

Tuesday sees me spend the first half of the day in our weekly Management Committee meeting. There are six of us on the committee and we always have a jam packed agenda. We discuss the current and future Business Plans, working with the coordinators of each department to take Suma forward. We have a number of regular reports submitted which we use to scrutinise performance. Big decisions such as the current project we have to change our Business System are taken at General Meetings with consultation and input from the whole workforce.

Wednesday is back to the Buying office, where we are often inundated with samples from existing and potential suppliers. As we are an entirely vegetarian company we have a fairly strict listing criteria, which means we need to assess whether a product or company will fit in with our strong environmental and social responsibility ethics. Not to mention if it’s a nice product of course! We take great effort to forge working partnerships with other cooperatives to produce our Suma brand products, such as our organic pasta which was developed with Iris worker coop in Italy.

On Thursday this week I worked in our staff canteen. This is one of the most rewarding jobs as feeding the hungry workforce is always very much appreciated. We cook a free lunch for everyone in our vegetarian canteen. Today I took the opportunity to try a new product I had been sent to bake a gluten free cake and get some feedback. The results were mixed, although that could have just been my baking!

Finally it’s Friday and this can be a combination of buying, sales, or even credit control depending on the operational needs of the business that week.

What’s the best bit about working at Suma?

There are so many benefits of working at Suma, the free veggie meals obviously being one as I am vegetarian. In all seriousness though, the best bit for me is knowing that I work for such an ethical organisation that isn’t purely profit driven and that really does make a difference to the local community. That and working with some great people who are passionate about the lifestyle we aim to promote and have become lifelong friends, and almost family, scary!

How does a worker coop compare to a more traditional work environment?

To be honest it is so long since I have worked in what you would call a traditional environment that it’s hard to remember. I think I would find it hard now to work somewhere corporate where so much emphasis is placed on status and power. I love the fact we ultimately all have an equal say and it’s this feeling of fairness no matter what job you do that makes us all work better together. That’s not to say it’s all plain sailing but overall it seems to work, although as we grow we may need to re-asses how we manage ourselves, consulting over 120 people is not easy!

Why is being a vegetarian business important to Suma?

Suma has been entirely vegetarian since its inception over 30 years ago in a student house in Leeds. The reasons are many. One third of the world’s grain is used to feed farmed animals, which in turn becomes dinner for meat eaters in the western world. If all of this grazing land was turned to agriculture and used to grow crops, rather than produce sausages, burgers and steaks, it would be enough to feed the world’s entire population. The farmed animal industry also puts a serious strain on global water supply, and in America alone 50% of water consumed goes towards raising animals for food. Not everyone who works at Suma is a vegetarian, but meat avoiding is a belief held by many. Even buying meat that is sourced locally and reared organically will make a difference.

What are the favourite dishes in the Suma canteen?

Every day the one thing that gets me through whatever stressful situations I’m dealing with is the thought of a healthy delicious cooked lunch. It’s hard to say what the favourite dishes are as we have so many cooks with different styles and signature meals. We use Suma ingredients as much as possible and one of my favourites would have to be Rowena’s savoury flapjack drizzled with Sumas balsamic reduction – food heaven.

A visit from Divine chocolate. It's a tough job, but someone has to sample that giant chocolate bar!

How do you decide what new products Suma should be selling/how do you keep on top of product trends?

This is a constantly evolving picture as new products and ‘superfoods’ come into the market all the time. We keep up to date with trade publications and our sales team are great at letting us know what our customers are asking for, just recently two of our team went to China and got a great insight into what is in demand right now over there. If we see there is a gap somewhere we will try and produce a product that is new and different, ensuring it is sourced as sustainably as possible. For example we recently launched a Fairtrade Peanut Butter which was developed with two projects based in China. It can be hard to know which of the constant new health claims about food will turn out to be passing trends and which will become part of our eating habits; sometimes we have to take risks and see what works. We prefer to support small independent suppliers, as local as possible too.

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