The Peoples' Supermarket
Arthur Potts Dawson’s idea was so unexpected he had a TV show made about it. He created The People's Supermarket, a supermarket that is staffed by local residents (members) which keeps costs low and prices affordable. This revolutionary cooperative approach has ethics at its core and also fosters community and builds strong mutually supportive relationships with local producers.
Four years on, the supermarket is thriving and demonstrates that we don’t have to accept chain stores and mass-market products that in many cases come with big environmental and social costs. There are other ways of doing business and feeding our families that can have a whole range of significant positive impacts around the store and out in the fields.
Arthur’s career began in the kitchen. Along his journey he worked as head chef in two of London’s best known restaurants: River Cafe and Fifteen. After about 18 years of high-end chefing Arthur had a kind of “epiphany.” He saw clearly the negative impacts of how the conventional food system and kitchens works - from giving suppliers a bad deal, excessive transport, chemicals and ultimately with excessive waste. He had to do something about it.
Arthur’s solution was to find a way to affordably take cleaner, healthier, more local food to a local urban community whilst dealing with the whole pandora’s box of the complex issues around impacts based on food consumption. He is deeply concerned about the power supermarkets have when they control all aspects of our food supply. His revolutionary approach helps reconnect people with food and how it gets from the growers to our plates.
Supermarkets sell nearly all the food in the U.K. They have highly advanced systems of tweaking their prices to compete with each other, gain market share and expand their operations. Their highly sophisticated methods for maximizing profits often come with costs to suppliers who may get less and less for their products and consumers who can often end up with over-packaged, mediocre products that have been trucked from central warehouses where they have been sat losing nutrients for days, weeks and in the case of apples, sometimes up to an entire year.
The People’s Supermarket has other operating principles and by having close relationships with producers that are geographically nearby can offer fresh, local produce whilst supporting a healthier more sustainable economic model.
Arthur understands that “Food is a wonderful 'bringer' together of people.” The People’s Supermarket now functions as a local community hub where many people know each other and enjoy connection and events.
Arthur describes regular supermarket’s concept of - if you don’t sell it you throw it away - as “criminal.” This only makes sense if your business model is solely about maximising profit. Clearly from the point of view of our overworked farm land or the needs of people on low incomes with little access to healthy food it is a devastatingly missed opportunity. The People’s Kitchen is the next step - cooking up what would become food waste from his supermarket and serving up delicious food at a great and affordable price.
Why this Matters
If you're lucky enough to live near The People’s Supermarket you can drop by and pick up fresh local produce for a great price. You could also enjoy a chat with a neighbour who works there for 4 hours a month in return for cheaper food. If you supply the store you will be appreciative of the stable agreed price and the human-scale operations.
For the rest of us The People’s Supermarket presents an innovative, inspiring, disruptive and brilliant new business model to supply people with quality food. It demonstrates how, by collaborating in new ways, we can find economic, social and environmental triple wins - where all of us do better.
It is a depressing notion that supermarkets will always be so ubiquitous and powerful simply because economies of scale means they can sell produce cheaper. The People’s Supermarket offers another way - perhaps in the future all supermarkets can be vibrant community hubs with positive impacts that stretch right up along the supply chain to the person growing cabbages? How different would our world be then?
The success of this new approach suggests people are not just motivated by two-for-one deals and the cheapest possible food but also concerned with ethics, quality and the experience they have at the point of sale. If enough of us begin to seek out and choose these new business enterprises with ethics at their core a very new type of world will emerge. We cannot accuse the supermarkets of being to blame for society’s problems if that is where we spend our money. Supply and demand is a two way street.
How can you get involved.
We don't have to be passive consumers of mass-manufactured, low quality food. Up and down the country people are producing great food without excessive use of fossil fuel inputs, selling it locally and getting it to a committed new generation of chefs who want the health of the land to be centre of the plate. We can join in with the exciting changes happening by making discerning choices and keeping in mind that every pound we spend is a vote for the type of world that we want.
Interestingly, The People’s Supermarket model requires consumers to get involved in the process of its operations. It appears that we can make our economies more vibrant and local again - if we ourselves are prepared to get involved. We are in a symbiotic relationship with the economy we live within. If we watch adverts and shop in supermarkets we are prone to become the kind of intellectually and physically flabby passive consumers who sit around the television while nature dies off outside the window.
Whether or not we shop in the People’s Supermarket we can learn from its ambition and achievements. Each of us has to take responsibility for our ethical impacts. If we spend money in supermarkets than their huge carbon footprints, waste streams and economic skullduggery are on us too. Our local communities are crying out for new economic opportunities to supply useful services in ethical ways whilst fostering community. Anyone of us can start something new that can really make a difference.
Director & Producer: Robbie Lockie | Videographer & Editor: Lewis Noll | Article: Matt Mellen