"Imagine a workplace with no bosses, where everyone has equal pay and an equal say”: in Suma they have been over 40 years operating an equal pay policy. As such, it provides a very good illustration of democratic management in worker cooperatives.
Suma was founded in Leeds, West Yorkshire, in the mid 1970’s, by three friends as a supplier service of wholefoods and vegetarian foods to small wholefood shops throughout the North of England. At the beginning, the main concern was to make healthy vegetarian alternatives available to the highly processed supermarket foods of the time. Suma was the first to bring organic canned tomatoes and organic canned beans to the UK market, and the first to bring in 100% recycled toilet roll and kitchen paper. In the 1980s, it launched the UK’s first vegan sunflower spread.
From local to global communities
“Originally, our core market was a network of co-operatively run wholefood shops” remembered Geoff Price in an interview to Coop News. Geoff joined Suma 35 years ago, making him the current longest-serving member. “We also sold to food groups – people and communities who wanted to eat healthily but couldn’t find what they wanted in the main stores, so clubbed together with friends to get a delivery. We still service those groups, but have also evolved into serving ex-pats, we’ve dabbled with the multiples, we have a presence in the Co-op.”
“As one of the UK’s biggest worker co-ops, we’re keen to show that fairness, transparency and sustainability can go hand in hand with commercial success.”
The ingredients of a successful business were all there since the beginning. Suma today is a national distributor, the largest independent, of vegetarian foods in the UK and a significant exporter to all parts of the world. Customers include independent retailers, food buying cooperatives, small supermarket chains, the consumer cooperative “Cooperative group supermarkets” and various institutions such as prisons, schools and hospitals. In 2009, Suma developed in-house an internet shopping site to capture a new and growing market.
Horizontal democracy is not a myth
The cooperative organizes regular tours for both national and international visitors: people are fascinated to see the cooperative working in practice and to meet cooperators in action! According to Bob Cannell, member of the cooperative since the early 80’s, it is a rare opportunity to see what a democratic worker owned and controlled business looks like in action. “People often can’t believe it, but when evidence is in front of them, it’s often a revelatory experience”.
SUMA members are multi-skilled and are doing a range of different duties, running the business without executive management and a board elected by the workers.
“Visitors cannot believe there is no outside management and, during visits, they often ask if there is another building dedicated to it, but not, in SUMA the business is run collectively”, assures Cannell.
A commitment to spread the word
At the heart of SUMA is a whole set of values: integrity, trust, animal welfare, fair-trade, care for the community and the environment. Values of honesty and transparency are at the base of the cooperative relationships with its suppliers, customers and consumers. To minimise food sent to landfill they created a partnerships with food banks and using unsellable items in their canteen. They strive to promote healthy lifestyles through their product listing choices and sharing informative articles and information and by providing tours for business studies students and offering work experience placements for high schools and colleges.
One of today missions of SUMA is to keep passing on the word about workers ownership and opening peoples’ eyes to the potential and possibilities of cooperation. SUMA is a key worker cooperative member of Co-operatives UK, the national association of UK cooperatives. Suma takes actively part in organising and coordinating UK worker cooperatives and sharing workers ownership insights with the consumer cooperatives and other members of Co-operatives UK.
SUMA is affiliated to our member Co-operatives UK, the organization promoting and developing cooperative business in the United Kingdom.The Industrial Common Ownership Movement (ICOM), who merged with Co-operative Union in 2000 to form Co-operatives UK, is one of the founder organisations of CECOP.