Flat pay and an equal say: Greencity Wholefoods

It’s 1978 and Glasgow’s Greencity Wholefoods co-operative is formed – born from the local activist movement with moral, ethical and environmental values at its heart.

From those humble beginnings, splitting sacks of lentils to supply wholefoods to shops, it has grown into a thriving wholesale business with more than £6 million in turnover and the same values at the heart of the 49-member-strong worker co-op.

During those 40 years, a lot has changed and thanks to the recent surge in veganism, Greencity’s business has changed too. Traditionally a supplier to independent health food retailers, the wholesaler increasingly counts restaurants, cafes, delis, schools and farm shops amongst its customers as more plant-based menus appear in eateries everywhere.      

"In most businesses, workers feel they have little control. They’re at the mercy of rich shareholders, so no matter how hard they work, they don’t see the benefits. In a worker co-op, it’s the opposite – if you work hard and the business is successful, the benefits come back to you." Greencity worker-owner Babs Macgregor

Despite the growing demand for organic food, there’s still work to do to promote healthy eating in Glasgow. And that’s why Greencity is behind numerous initiatives to help people learn about food. “We support community gardens and allotments, and we’re sponsoring this year’s Power of Food festival," said longstanding worker-owner Babs Macgregor.

"There’s a disconnect between people and food, and you see people here living on ready meals. So we work at grass roots level, giving talks and cookery demonstrations to reconnect people with food. And it’s really satisfying seeing people getting excited about food and ways of feeding themselves that are healthy and nourishing.”

For Babs and her colleagues, job satisfaction also comes from being directly involved in running the business. She said: “In most businesses, workers feel they have little control. They’re at the mercy of rich shareholders, so no matter how hard they work, they don’t see the benefits. In a worker co-op, it’s the opposite – if you work hard and the business is successful, the benefits come back to you.”

With a flat structure at Greencity, everyone has a say in the way the business is run. “It’s a level playing field,” added worker-owner Craig McCormack. “Because it’s your own business, you think about long-term plans and about developing the business. And if you want to do something, you have to get buy-in from the majority of the members.”

While being a fairer way of working, this can also present challenges. Craig said: “When an indie (independent) supplier is bought out by a multinational, we collectively discuss and decide if we should continue to stock products if they cease to comply with our ethical policies. On the one hand, the brand may be a good seller, but on the other, it’s against what we stand for.

"So they aren’t always easy business decisions to make and with so many people involved in making them, it can be a challenge. But you have to pull together and do the right thing – and it’s satisfying knowing we’re a trusted brand, and that our customers listen to us and follow our lead."

Craig is part of a newer cohort of members who are contributing to Greencity’s continued success in an increasingly competitive market. Part of his role has been to breathe life into the wholesaler’s social media activity. He said: "When I started we didn’t do social media, but to compete you have to change. And we’re doing so much good work at grass roots level, people need to know about it so they can join in and get empowered."

Did you know Greencity Wholefoods features in the Co-op Economy 2018 report? The report reveals that co-op new-starts are almost twice as likely to survive the first five years as other businesses. It also reveals that active membership is at record levels as part fo a compelling argument for more co-ops and more support for exisiting co-ops. Read the full report here.  

So while Greencity still upholds the same values it started with 40 years ago, it’s always moving with the times – and recently had a major IT upgrade. “It was a significant change internally in how our system operates, so getting to grips with it was a real challenge," added Babs.

"But being part of a co-operative means there’s a greater sense of facing challenges together. There’s a social glue in a co-op – the quality of working life is higher. People are very real, and satisfied knowing their contribution is valued. It’s something mainstream companies try to simulate in a forced way, but in a worker co-op, every day is a team building day.”