Unicorn Grocery

For many, the jury is still out on the benefits – and price – of organic food. Its detractors often claim its higher price tag is unjustified, sceptical of romanticised notions of health, quality and the ‘naturalness’ of organics. Indeed, in the US, such scepticism has sparked fierce debate, with one USDA report in 2012 showing that 43 per cent of 571 samples labelled organic contained prohibited pesticide residues anyway.

In the UK, the Pesticide Action Network points out that most people wrongly assume that no pesticides are used in organic farming, when in fact the EU has approved 28 chemicals for use (compared to 490 for conventional production). The lobby group does stress, however, that the majority of these organic-approved pesticides “are of low toxicological concern to consumers or the environment”, and are sprayed in smaller volumes than conventional ones.

“Organic farming relies largely on preventative measures to control pests and diseases, therefore pesticide use is significantly lower than in non-organic agriculture,” the organisation explains in a document on its website.

In many cases, this makes organic farming less productive, with more labour and land required to achieve sometimes lower yields. This, combined with the fact that organic food supply tends to be limited compared to demand, inevitably makes organics more expensive. The reality is that the organics supply chain cannot deliver the same economies of scale as conventional produce, accounting for only 3.5 per cent of the total fresh produce market.

One organic retailer doing all it can to drive down the price of organics is Unicorn Grocery, a 21-year-old workers’ co-op in Manchester. “Our entire drive is to make people realise that organic fruit and veg isn’t a luxury purchase,” says the shop’s UK produce buyer Dan Weston. “We’re looking for customers who want to cook from ingredients at an affordable price.”

Brushing off the arguably outdated perception that organic produce is the preserve of the middle class, Weston says the shop has “a really mixed” customer base. “We’re in Chorlton in south Manchester and we’ve definitely got more of a working-class customer base than when I started here,” he adds. “It’s really mixed in terms of ethnicity as well, and it’s a really nice diverse shop floor to work on these days.”

Unicorn’s strategy for keeping a lid on its prices is simple on paper but difficult in practice, Weston says: order slightly less than you need and cut out the middle man by buying direct from growers. “I’m deliberately running out of things because if you push everything to the envelope then you just end up in a vicious cycle of increased waste, squeezed margins and compromised freshness,” he says. “Not trying to keep everything on the shelf all the time is really crucial, but running out of things at the right time is a real skill.”

The trade off is that customers are sometimes left short when a product they came in for is out of stock. There’s usually a substitute, however, and Weston says this challenges customers – in a good way – to “discover something new and find out how to cook with it”.

On the sourcing side, the buyer says that some 90-95 per cent of its produce comes direct from the farm, with the company only “dabbling a little bit” in wholesale. “By cutting out that extra step in the supply chain, it brings down the price at our end and improves the freshness,” Weston says, adding that around 70-75 per cent of the pallets coming through the shop’s doors contain seasonal British produce.

The story is quite different at the major supermarkets, whose organic produce tends to be more expensive than Unicorn’s – something that has undoubtedly worked in the independents’ favour. Weston would like to see this change, however, saying the luxury end pricing of organics “needs to be looked at”. “Unicorn is always looking to be in the same ball park that the supermarkets are in with their conventional prices,” he says.

Despite these criticisms, it cannot be denied that organic fruit has been made more affordable by certain supermarkets, particularly Lidl and Aldi, with the latter stocking a range of at least ten organic fruit and vegetable products since it expanded its organics range in 2015. The price of organics is considerably lower at the German discounters, with a bag of six bananas costing around 20p less at Lidl than at Tesco, and 750g of organic carrots costing 40p less at Aldi than at Sainsbury’s.

The level of promotions in organic lines, particularly fruit, has also increased, according to Finn Cottle, a trade consultant at the Soil Association. “There’s a real drive on organic fruit and promotions are definitely helping with that,” she says. “Organic isn’t a very heavily promoted area, but it’s nice to have some promotions to encourage sales.”

Her concern, if promotions become too frequent, is that it will drive down the everyday low price of organic produce. And she says it looks as though there’s been more inflation on conventional lines than organic ones since the EU referendum. “This is partly because organic packers have been absorbing any cost increases to try to make sure organics aren’t priced too high for the consumer.”

The problem for the big supermarkets is that it is impossible to cut costs in the same way as a small co-op like Unicorn while operating at such scale. “I’m not sure that small orders and sourcing direct from growers would be such a viable alternative for the supermarkets,” says Cottle. “The logistics cost of sourcing directly from farm if you’ve got a national network of stores would prohibit that approach. And similarly, if you’re just preparing smaller orders, it could actually add to your costs.”

Ultimately, one of the things that both Unicorn and the Soil Association stress is the need for consumers to understand what they both call “the true value of food”. In the past few decades, the proportion of income spent on food has fallen considerably, and although this also reflects other factors, such as rising rents and house prices, it cannot be denied that the supermarket price war has changed perceptions of what our food should cost.

“While we’re price-competitive, we don’t engage in a battle to the bottom where you’re paying 31p for a cucumber,” says Weston. “I think that re-educating people about the real value of food is really important. We should question why families are spending less of their income on food, and how sustainable that is.”