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Chapter 6 of "Short Circuit" - page 5

On Smith's advice, a questionnaire was circulated to test the strength of local support for retaining the shop and determined that 80% of the 140 households wanted it to survive. Then 6,500 was raised from 120 villagers by selling 50 shop bonds and 10 membership subscriptions to the Talaton Village Shop Association, a registered co-operative . "One motive to contribute which is often overlooked is that the value of people's houses in villages with shops is higher than in those without" Smith says. The village group then rented the shop premises which had been stripped to a shell and volunteer carpenters, plumbers and painters fitted them out. The balance of the money was used to buy stock, fittings, a cash register and cold cabinets. Thirty-five women now run the shop as volunteers, some doing as little as two hours a month.

Before it re-opened, the Talaton association reckoned that its shop needed to take 1,500 a week to survive. In fact, Letcombe Bassett survives on a fifth or a sixth of that level of business. "We're only turning over between 250-300 a week because we only open for an hour each day" says Anne Shone, who acts as co-ordinator. "However, we do serve as a meeting place for the village which I think is much more important than the amount of goods we sell."

Smith agrees. "Community shops are never going to take on the big supermarkets - some of them turn over less in a year than many supermarkets turn over in a day. However, they play an important role that out-of-town superstores can never fulfil. They are focal points and meeting places as well as being an important source of basic foods and household goods. Often they also stock something else that is lacking in most supermarkets - the best of local goods."

Click for 2002 update on ViRSA by Peter Jones, the current Director

In Ireland, where a much higher proportion of retail business remains in local hands, remarkably good results have been achieved by simply alerting people to what they stand to lose if they switch too much of their shopping to chain stores. Perhaps the most successful 'shop local' campaign is Communities Under Threat, which was launched in County Mayo in April 1993 by Brenda McNicholas62, a radiographer by profession and the mother of six children aged between eight and twenty-two who simply describes herself as a housewife in her campaign literature. 'I became involved through our local Integrated Resource Development (IRD) compnay in Kiltimagh, whose function is to use local resources and the initiative of local people to boost the local economy and help create jobs. At the first meeting I attended, there was a discussion on job losses, businesses closing and the leakage of money from the local economy because people were earnign their money locally and spending it elsewhere. We felt that if the local economy wasn't supported, then talk of local development was pointless. We got an interested group together from around Mayo, and CUT began."

McNicholas, who works unpaid although her printing and other expenses are paid by Mayo companies, including a big farmers' co-op, NCF, is normally invited to begin a campaign in a town by its chamber of commerce or a group of shop-owners. She holds a public meeting and then leaves behind a pack of specimen posters, speaking notes, circulars and leaflets which the local committee can use. One set of notes is for the local clergy - 'most of whom address the matter in church'. There is also a set of specimen news items for the next five issues of the parish newsletter. Other speaking notes are for talks to retailers, secondary schoolchildren and to the general public. All are very similar and make the point that 75 spent in the local economy generates 110-worth of business there because it passes from hand to hand, creating jobs and keeping the town alive. Money spent with a chain store on the other hand, is immediately lost and does nothing for the area. 'The quality of life we have in our small towns and communities around the west of Ireland is second-to-none - no hustle and bustle, no traffic jams, and a safe place in which to rear our children,' one leaflet says. 'Our towns and communities are the very essence of our country. We should support them, burture and treasure them. But do we?....It should be the aim of every town to be as self-sufficient as possible...if all local services are supported, then you have a thriving economy, which not only creates jobs but also attracts new businesses and new people to live there'.

There are other ways of providing sales outlets for local products, of course. One of the best, a market under the auspices of the Women's Institutes in Britain or the Irish Countrywomen's Association in Ireland, is described in the next panel. Another approach is to set up a co-operative which buys foodstuffs in bulk from wholesalers and producers and distributes it amongst the members. The Dublin Food Co-operative Society Ltd. works on these lines. It was set up in 1983 after Eoin Dinan wrote to a number of people he had met in the anti-nuclear movement's successful campaign to stop the Irish government building an atomic power station in Co. Wexford, inviting them to a meeting in a friend's flat to discuss setting up an organisation which would make it possible 'to shop in an ecologically sound way' and 'promote the rational use of the Earth's resources'.

Strict rules make produce markets work (click for panel from original book)

Pauric Cannon, who is now the co-op's co-ordinator, was one of the sixteen people who attended. "We had become increasingly aware of the critical link between a clean environment, nutritious food and healthy people" he wrote in an article written to mark the co-op's tenth anniversary 63. "A wholefood consumer-owned co-op committed to organically grown food would, we firmly believed, provide a down-to-earth way of addressing the environmental threat."

The meeting had been well planned and everyone there was given a photo-copied list of forty food products from which they could order. The idea was that if each person paid for whatever they wanted in advance and their individual orders were amalgamated, not only would the group be able to buy wholesale but, by paying on the nail, would get the best possible discount from the supplier. A short time later, the first batch of wholefoods was delivered and the group began to meet every month in a room on the second floor of a vegetarian restaurant to divide up what they had ordered. "All the food was weighed, packed and orders collated and assembled by members organised on the basis of a voluntary help-rota" Cannon writes.

Saturday morning at the Dublin Food Co-op. May 1996 (photo: Larry Boland)
Eventually, however, when membership reached forty, it became just too much work to carry sacks of rice and beans up four flights of narrow stairs and the co-op rented a small groundfloor room elsewhere until the regular queues of members along the pavement meant they had to move again. In 1987, it moved for a third time to the large hall on Pearse Street it still rents on Saturday mornings. By this time it had 200 members and was holding fortnightly rather than monthly advance-order-collection days.Turnover was only 7,000 a year, however.

Sales reached 100,000 a year around the time of its tenth birthday in 1993 and members began to grow restive about still having to order in advance. "With over 500 members, the law of large numbers must be starting to apply" one wrote in the co-op's Newsletter. "I would bet that the amount of rice and wheatgerm bought each week varies very little. With five or fifty members, pre-ordering is essential but with the current number's purchasing power I suggest that it is largely redundant." The chairperson's reply casts an interesting light on the co-op's information systems and finances. "The [advance order system] is the only means of assessing the order requirements for the wholesaler" he wrote. "We usually have at least 2,000-worth of produce left over after each Collection Day.... We are unable to pay for goods until they are sold, so we are unable to avail of the suppliers' discounts for prompt payment." In other words, after ten years trading, the co-op had not amassed enough capital even to finance the carry-over of 2,000-worth of stock. This was because, in the interests of giving members the cheapest possible prices, the mark-up to cover operating costs had been set so low that the operation barely broke even, as the accounts show. In 1991, for example, the year's surplus was a mere 40. On the other hand, a survey showed that supermarket prices were 42% higher than the co-op's for an identical selection of goods.

The minimum-possible price policy not only cost the co-op suppliers' discounts but meant that it lacked sufficient capital to run itself properly. "I don't think that the average member of the co-ordinating committee has any idea of the problems we face and amount of unnecessary work that has to be done just because we're not properly set up" Pauric Cannon told me in mid 1995. "We're finding it increasingly difficult to operate the co-op at its present size because of the small storage space in our present premises and the difficulty of getting supplies in and out of the building. We'd like a building with enough space for storing and handling food which would meet food storage standards." As the co-op was planning to send out ready made-up orders to 'co-op clubs' - satellite groups of members who found it inconvenient or impossible to call in the pick them up - the need for suitable accommodation was particularly pressing. Cannon was also upset because the committee had decided to hold collection days every week rather than every fortnight, which meant twice the amount of work setting up in the hall and then putting things away again for, at that time, the same amount of business. "Weekly collections have damaged the co-op from the social point of view, too" he said. "People no longer come every collection day so you can't be sure of meeting someone."

When I contacted him six months later, however, he was much more optimistic. The co-op had had a financial crisis since we last spoke and had given itself such a fright that it had increased the mark-ups on the goods it handled. "We now charge 10% on fair-trade products like Campaign tea and coffee" he told me, "20% on essentials like rice and pulses, and up to 30% on luxuries. These rates are 3% to 4% higher than they were a few months ago." As a result, finances were much improved and the co-op even had 5,000 in a special capital account to spend on equipment. However, they were no nearer getting a better building and he did not think that it was realistic for them to raise the money to for one though higher margins. "The mark-up will be put back down again as soon as the crisis is over" he said. "We're trying to set up an ethical investment organisation. This will be independent of the co-op but we're hoping that the co-op will be the recipient of one of its first loans so we can get a building" he said. Other things were going well, too. Advance ordering had been abandoned, membership was over 600, sales had increased by enough to make the weekly collection days worthwhile ("We're doing over 3,000-worth of business a week") and four co-op clubs were in operation, two of which were outside Dublin.

Over the years the co-op has established friendly links with the giant Seikatsu Consumer Co-op in Japan which began in 1965 when a housewife persuaded 200 women to buy their milk collectively and now supplies over 220,000 households with a high proportion of their food. Apart from the disparity of scale, however, there are two significant differences between the organisations. One is that Seikatsu members, 99.9% of whom are women, pay the equivalent of 6 a month to belong to it until they have made a total investment of 1,500. As a result, in 1995 their co-op was capitalised at over 100m., the equivalent of 450 per member, a sum which has enabled it to employ 800 full-time workers, again mostly women, manufacturing, growing or delivering a wide range of products which are always of high quality though not particularly cheap. Members of the Dublin co-op, on the other hand, pay only 4 a year for membership and expect low prices. As a result, their organisation has very little capital per member and only one employee, Pauric Cannon.

The other difference is social and here Dublin scores much better. Seikatsu members are divided into groups called 'han' of between six and thirteen people which place a collective order once a month for delivery to it a week later. Thus, while there is a lot of social interaction among members of a han, they may have no contact with other Seikatsu members although the co-op 's regional offices do organise visits and social activities. In Dublin by contrast the range of people the average member unavoidably meets by buying through the co-op is much greater, if only because of the numbers present on collection day and the fact that members do not rush in, take their goods and hurry out again as they would at a supermarket. Collections are a time for meeting friends and the refreshment area is often the most crowded part of the hall. In addition, if a member joins one of the seven teams of forty people which help weigh out orders in advance and operate the check-outs on a rota basis, he or she will build up a cameraderie with people they would otherwise have never come across. They will also meet organic growers and craftsworkers who sell from stands in the hall and representatives of organisations like Greenpeace and Amnesty often put up a display. "We may be ahead [of Seikatsu] as far as the social aspects are concerned" Cannon says cautiously. "They are more removed from their members. Nevertheless, we've learned a lot from them, particularly about stock control and picking up point-of-sale data. Did you know that seven of them came over here and we got a write-up in their magazine?"

For many members, in fact, there is a close correlation between the Dublin co-op and their community. "People have a basic need to feel thay they belong to something" Cannon says. "Many people join a church for that but when I go to church I never get to meet anybody. Here, we're trying to become more aware that we're part of the whole community of nature by emphasising the links between food and the natural world."

Cannon used to be a property valuer 'lubricating the wheels of the capitalist system' before the co-op entered his life twelve years ago. Does he regret the time he's given it? "Not at all" he says."I get a tremendous sense of satisfaction. It's really the people aspect, the range of people I've come into contact with, not just the Pearse Street community but people in Spain, Greece, the UK, the US and Japan. We're all brothers and sisters and it's wonderful to realise we're connected somehow, all working for the same thing."

Further Information: (last updated October 2002)

PRESERVATION OF GENETIC RESOURCES

Heritage Seed Library, Genetic Resources Dept., HDRA, Ryton Organic Gardens, Ryton-on-Dunsmore, Coventry, CV8 3LG. Tel. +44 (0)24 7630 3517, fax +44 (0)24 7663 9229, e-mail enquiry@hdra.org.uk. A year's membership of the library costs 21 (+5 if you live outside the UK) and includes a subscription to The Organic Way, the library's attractive and informative newsletter.

Genetic Resources Action International (GRAIN), Girona 25, pral., E-08010, Barcelona, Spain. Tel +34 933011381, fax +34 933011627, e-mail grain@grain.org. GRAIN works for the sustainable conservation and use of agricultural biodiversity based on local knowledge and people's control over genetic resources. GRAIN currently has two e-mail lists on the subject of biodiversity which can be subscribed to, and you can also subsribe online to its quarterly newletter, Seedling, which is especially strong on conservation work in non-industrialised countries.

LOW EXTERNAL-INPUT AGRICULTURE:

The Soil Association, Bristol House, 40-56 Victoria Street, Bristol BS1 6BY, UK, tel +44 (0)117 929 0661, fax +44 (0)117 925 2504, e-mail info@soilassociation.org, is the key organic agriculture organisation in the UK. Supporters receive a quarterly magazine, Living Earth, for their 24 annual subscription. Membership for farmers costs 76.13 per year, and includes access to a telephone helpdesk and the quarterly Organic Farming magazine.

In Ireland, there are two mainstream organic organisations, the Irish Organic Farmers and Growers' Association, IOFGA, Harbour Building, harbour Road, Kilbeggan, Co. Westmeath, tel +353 (0)506 32563, fax +353 (0)506 32063, e-mail info@irishorganic.ie and the Organic Trust, Vernon House, 2 Vernon Avenue, Clontarf, Dublin 3, Ireland. Tel/fax +353 1 8530271, e-mail organic@iol.ie.

COMMUNITY SUPPORTED AGRICULTURE

In Britain, contact the Soil Association, address as above.

Community Supported Agriculture of North America has established the Robyn Van En Center for CSA Resources, which "offers a variety of services to existing and new CSA farmers and shareholders nationally". These services include technical assistance, links to existing CSAs and information about events and conferences. The Center's address is Wilson College, Fulton Center for Sustainable Living, 1015 Phildelphia Ave., Chambersburg, PA 17201, tel +1 717 2644141 ext 3352, fax +1 717 264 1578, e-mail info@csacenter.org.

RETAIL CO-OPERATIVES

The Dublin Food Co-operative Society Ltd., Carmicheal House, North Brunswick Street, Dublin 7. Tel. +353 (0)1 873 0451, fax +353 (0)1 873 0452, e-mail

The Seikatsu Club Consumers' Co-operative Union, 3-2-28, Mikasaka, Setagaya-ku, Tokyo, Japan. Tel. +81 3 3706 0036, fax +81 3 3427 9401. It has several publications in English, including a book, I Among Others, (Seikatsu Club Seikyo Kanagawa, Yokohama, 1991) which analyses the movement at a theoretical and practical level.

Chapter 6 footnotes

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Short Circuit by Richard Douthwaite: links within this site

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