When Sue and Seager Mason decided to sell the Organic Green Grocer on the corner of Grove and Tasman Streets, a business they had spent 23 years running, many regular customers realised they would miss not just the Masons but the store; so rather than just sitting by and waiting for something to happen they decided there was an opportunity to develop an ownership model that engaged the community that had been so loyal to the Masons over the years.
The result was the establishment of the Nelson Organic Co-op which the public could support by purchasing a membership or a supporters shareholder investment package. In return members get a discount on every purchase they make with the discount getting bigger as they spend more, right up to a 20% for bulk purchases once a month.
The Co-op then purchased the Green Grocer business from the Masons and I think this is an interesting ownership model, not unlike the membership based organisation that rescued, and now own, The Boatshed on Wakefield Quay all those years ago.
It goes without saying that running a business by committee has its challenges so I had a chat with Debs Martin, the Chairperson, last week to find out more about the business and how the ownership model is working so far.
“For us it is more than just a business, it is an interesting interface between social enterprise, business and being part of the community. Take me, for example, I am a volunteer as well as a member, and we also employ four part time staff.
“Part of building our business is expanding that staff and volunteer base so we can continue to create a community around organic food, and everything else that goes with it.
“One of the reasons we joined with the Environment Centre here at Ecoland in Vanguard Street is to help create that community. While we offer different things we are also very similar in our outlook on sustainability, the Environment Centre runs the e-waste initiative and at our counter we can receive those items and people can collect the recycled electronic items they have bought online.
As I wandered around the store it was difficult to differentiate between the various businesses working together in the space, items Martin told me are being sold by the Environment Centre, like metal lunchboxes and carry bags to replace single use plastic, are on the shelves beside the organic produce, “they have a focus on products for the home that are environmentally friendly and we have a focus on food products but they are all very much interlinked.
As part of the Nelson Organic Co-op developing a community of like-minded enterprises they help Loaves and Fishes, the low cost lunch service, “they are straight across the road from us and the nature of their service means they don’t have things like eftpos so we sell food tickets for them. We try as much as we can to provide a social good around what we do, as well as selling organic produce.
“Because we are also located with Kai Rescue who collect surplus food from supermarkets and distribute it to organisations that provide free or very cheap meals, it just seems to be a really good fit for everyone.”
Becoming a shareholder, or owner as the co-op likes to call them, is really easy, there is a one-off cost of $365 to buy a household share and that entitles you to all the discounts and bulk buying services they offer.
Martin told me many people are time-poor and aren’t able to volunteer so choose to become supporting shareholders as their way of helping the co-op exist and grow, these supporting shareholders don’t receive any more benefit than a household shareholder, “they might be someone who has extra money and supports our concept, we needed a few supporting shareholders to get the organisation going because we had to buy an existing business. We’re also open to more to help with ongoing capital costs.
“Our aim is to be able to pay a dividend to our owners, but not have to pay a dividend, we would rather put as much surplus as we can back into providing more affordable organic foods and products, but of course we need to be profitable and have some savings so we can grow the enterprise.”
With this structure they have resilience in their business ownership model, if one person leaves as a shareholder or committee member the business just carries on, they have gone plastic bag free as much as they can, “we don’t hand out plastic bags and we don’t charge for paper bags, people are choosing not to even ask for plastic bags anymore and are bringing their own bags and containers to refill.”
Martin told me the volunteers are really important to them but she says they have found the co-op has become an important part of their lives too, “some of our volunteers are looking for something meaningful to do and many live alone so enjoy the social interaction at the store, it’s an important part of their social life.”
The Nelson Organic Co-op would love to see people take the next step of thinking of organics as a way of life when they are ready too, “considering where our food comes from and making it affordable is important but if I was to take one outcome to focus on it would be this – think about organics as a way of life, it isn’t about going to the supermarket and buying an organic product wrapped in plastic.
It is about making organics mainstream again, the whole community used to be organic before we started spraying chemicals on the land, it is about healthy eating and being careful about what we put in our bodies but it’s also about how we live and how we can reduce our impact on the environment.
When I visited I was surprised at the wide range of affordable organic products and produce they have in the store, anyone can shop at the Nelson Organic Co-op and anyone can join as a owner or supporting shareholder, their website has everything you need to now about the Co-op and how to join. www.nelsonorganiccoop.nz