Wholefood pioneer Suma sets out sustainability goals in annual report

The co-op has sustainability goals based around six key areas: Net zero, zero waste, nature, decent work, healthy and sustainable diets, and education and engagement

In recent years, sustainability has been rising up the agenda for the food industry – but what about those for whom sustainability has been a core part of the way they have done business from the beginning?

Suma Wholefoods is a co-operative retailer that supplies over 7,000 responsibly sourced vegan and vegetarian products to businesses and customers across the UK and internationally.  

Founded in 1975 by Reg Taylor, and converted to a worker co-op two years later, Suma’s aim was to provide healthy food to communities in the North of England via a network of independent co-ops and buying groups. 

Co-operative member Sophie Ziegler-Jones draws parallels between Suma and the Rochdale Pioneers’ early motivations. “Whilst Suma wasn’t a co-op when it was initially thought of, [Reg] wanted to provide food that was otherwise unavailable that he was passionate about.” This, she says mirrors “the initial historical aim of the Rochdale co-op: to create fair access to good quality, adulterated food for all.”

Ziegler-Jones adds that while Suma has been vegetarian ever since the beginning, “veganism and vegetarianism have gone from being slightly quirky and unusual to being absolutely mainstream. The only thing that’s changed in 46 years is the availability of products, an understanding of the market and demand.”

Suma sustainability reporting coordinator, Ben Pearson, planting trees on behalf of Suma with local organisation Treesponsibility

Suma was a pioneer of wholefoods, sourcing items that were difficult to get hold of in the 1970s, such as lentils and chickpeas. It was also the first to bring organic canned tomatoes and beans to the UK market and, in the 1980s, launched the UK’s first vegan sunflower spread.

Despite being a leader in many of the areas we now link to the sustainability agenda, Suma has only recently begun to measure and share this work, in the form of a sustainability strategy and annual report, launched last month. 

“Our sustainability strategy is officially new, but it’s not a new way of working for us. We’ve just formalised it,” explains Ziegler-Jones.

There are a number of reasons why Suma has chosen to formalise its sustainability strategy now, including the urgency of the climate crisis.

A central aim of the strategy is to set some measurable targets Suma can work towards, says Ben Pearson, Suma’s sustainability reporting coordinator, such as the business’s scope one, two and three carbon emissions. Scope one refers to Suma’s direct emissions from owned sources, two refers to its indirect emissions from purchased energy, and three to indirect emissions that occur in Suma’s value chain. So far Suma has had its scope one and two emissions verified, and is working towards the verification of its scope three emissions so that they can be tracked over time.

“For a starting point, we’re getting some usable data that we can use to set net zero targets that are in line with science,” says Pearson. 

The initial report states: “We understand that society increasingly expects transparency from businesses on their environmental, social and governance performance, supported by accurate and data-driven reporting on their impacts. We know we must begin to effectively communicate what we do in this area therefore we will publish an annual sustainability report to show our progress each year towards our 2030 goals.”

Suma’s 2030 Sustainability Goals fall under six key areas: net zero, zero waste, nature, decent work, healthy and sustainable diets and education and engagement. 

Suma aims to reach Net Zero greenhouse gases (GHGs) for scope one and two emissions by 2035, and decarbonise its truck fleet by 2023, by switching to electric and alternative fuel vehicles. The organisation is also adding its voice to Business Declares, a network of businesses that are declaring a climate and ecological emergency, and committing to create, publish and implement a Climate Action Plan explaining what actions will be taken toward achieving net zero targets and biodiversity improvements, and to publish progress annually. 

Among other things, Suma aims to be a zero waste to landfill business by 2030, with all its own-brand packaging made from at least 30% recycled materials, and plans to increase its percentage of organic own-brand products to 75%. As part of its decent work goals, it’s working towards B-Corp status, aiming to support living wages throughout its supply chain by 2030. 

The strategy has been developed in partnership with its worker members, explains Pearson. 

“It was really collaborative. The fact that we all have an equal say made us want to get every member’s opinion.”

The sustainability team engaged with Suma’s members at the co-op’s quarterly general meetings, Q&A sessions and workshops, as well as through a survey.

“It did take us a while to make [the strategy], because of all these consultations … but I’m kind of glad it’s taken a while because it shows that we have put in the effort and taken the time to make one that’s worthwhile.”

Looking outside of the co-op, a key part of Suma’s work is its adherence to principle six, co-operation among co-ops. Ziegler-Jones explains that they work with many small co-ops from overseas, who supply Suma with products such as coconut, jackfruit and coffee; and in turn, Suma supplies UK retail co-ops with a range of products from its vegan convenience range.

Another central part of Suma’s sustainability considerations, which has been the case since it started, is its meat free status. According to the vegetarian society, eating a meat-free diet creates 2.5 times less carbon emissions than an average diet containing meat.

Ziegler-Jones says, this is an “absolutely integral” element of Suma’s work, adding: “A lot of people are eating less meat and more vegetarian and vegan food, just because it’s there, it’s tasty, it’s delicious, it’s accessible. And also, it’s certainly cheaper in many instances. So in the middle of a cost-of-living crisis, it’s a good opportunity for people to save some money as well as eat really healthily.”

Suma has often been at the forefront of innovation when it comes to meat-free and plant-based foods and recently won an award for its new vegan, gluten-free and organic Edamame Hummus. New products on the horizon include a crowdsourced “chicken” soup, which was called for  by Suma customers during a Veganuary hamper competition this year, as well as an expansion of the canned convenience range. 

Despite the fact that many of the elements of Suma’s activity regarding sustainability and responsible consumption are becoming more widely accepted across the food industry, Pearson says that it is Suma’s co-operative status that more easily enables this kind of forward thinking and action. While the decision making process can take longer in a co-op, co-ops are on the whole able to adapt to changing challenges swiftly as members bring issues forward. 

“I think co-ops are quite quick to adapt because they are a member run. We can vote on things and agree things in general meetings and shift our direction, while maintaining our long standing values… [co-ops] have the responsibility to respond to changes quickly and to lead.”