Sustainable living at the local (community) shop
In this extract from Defra’s recent report Getting the Message Across, the case study of Brockweir and Hewelsfield Community Owned Shop illustrates how a community can work together to ensure provision of a vital service while also inspiring sustainable living.
The case study was compiled with the support of shop manager Alison Macklin.
Brockweir and Hewelsfield Community Owned Shop
For many years the villages of Brockweir and Hewelsfield each had a general store. By the millennium both had closed and the community discussed the idea of a community shop. A committee set about planning, fundraising and visiting existing community shops for ideas. The shop opened in a purpose built building in 2004. The aims of the new shop were to be not-for-profit with any surplus going back into the community, to create an outlet for local food, to run a café and to be environmentally neutral. Eight years later the shop has achieved all these objectives, continues to thrive and has deservedly won a number of prestigious awards. In 2011 the shop was the winner of the BBC Radio 4 Food Awards – Best Local Food Retailer.
Brockweir and Hewelsfield Community Owned Shop celebrates its BBC Radio 4 Food Award
The shop is a social enterprise with a legal structure of Industrial and Provident Society for the benefit of the community. Its income streams come from selling goods, running the café and renting out meeting space. Each year it has made a profit, albeit a small one, ranging from breakeven to £3,000. Profits are reinvested back into the business with any surplus used for community projects.
How does the enterprise approach behaviour change?
Behaviour change has been an implicit part of what the enterprise does from the beginning. This is evidenced in their documentation and business reports which are available from their website. Sustainable behaviours have always been seen as an important element of their USP (unique selling point). Their building was constructed from local oak, is well insulated, has PV panels on the roof, a ground source heat pump and rainwater butts. The shop has always sold eco-products and is committed to practising what it preaches. The shop uses energy saving light bulbs, recycled napkins and toilet rolls and has a dishwasher that recycles water all day. They see themselves as influencing both by example as well as more proactively in ways such as their involvement in the Greener Together programme and eco talks at the shop.
How does the enterprise’s “community” affect what it does?
It sees itself as one cornerstone of community life and that it is important to support and work with the others – hall and church and parish – to ensure that none of them fail. They are complementary and all supporting lives lived locally. One example of this is the key role the shop has played in the play area and allotment development. Many people, each with a sense of ownership and ability to influence what happens, are involved with this social enterprise. Individuals are involved in different ways – there are 8 on the management committee, 2 FTE (full time equivalent) staff, 40 bond-holders, 60 members who pay an annual subscription, 55 volunteers and not forgetting the all important customers. This adds up to about 120 people with direct involvement in the enterprise – all in a village with a population of 500. These groups all have the ability to influence and sustainable behaviour is one of the topics discussed. A structured approach to feedback makes this process transparent and effective and this level of involvement gives strong potential for influence at a local level.
The shop is also able to influence a wider audience. There are currently 270 community-owned shops in the UK and Brockweir has been an inspiration and a model for many new shops starting up. It frequently hosts visits from communities thinking of setting up a shop. Other groups come to see their eco initiatives and learn from their experiences.
Evidence of impact
The shop can demonstrate and evidence impact across nearly all of Defra’s sustainable headline behaviours.
Eco-improving your home
In 2009 the enterprise took part in the Greener Together project with 60 people pledging to make sustainable behaviour changes in their daily lives. The shop acted as the local coordinator as it saw the work as central to its sustainable behaviour beliefs. It felt that as a trusted and empowering organisation it was able to persuade individuals to get involved. Following this project two new initiatives are being spun off. The land behind the shop has been leased to the community for allotments. The plot provides allotments – some worked by individuals and others are community ones with produce for the shop. The shop has also initiated a series of eco talks with topics including energy efficiency in the home and saving water.
Using energy and water wisely
The shop, as in other areas of sustainable behaviour shows first by example. There are blocks in the toilet to reduce water usage, rain water butts that are used by the allotments and the eco-building is well insulated. Longer term they would like to replace their chillers with eco ones. In 2011 they moved the chiller condensers to the outside as an interim step.
Extending the life of things
Again the shop is influencing by example. There is a team of volunteers for maintenance/repairs, customers are encouraged to bring in unwanted items and the shop has a book swop shelf in the café. All the office equipment was donated and the beautiful parquet flooring in the shop was found in a skip in Exeter. A volunteer in her 70s lovingly cleaned every block ready for reuse.
Cooking and managing a sustainable and healthier diet
There has been a focus on local food from the start. This has been developed over the last four years with the help of the Look for Local scheme part of the Making Local Food Work project.
The shop now supports about 25 local producers and local food accounts for 25% of shop sales. The origin of the fruit and vegetables is shown on their sales board and there are posters on seasonality. Any produce “past its best” goes to the café where it can be turned into a tasty dish such as spicy parsnip soup. The shop has arrangements with private and commercial orchards to take their misshapen apples. This means they can offer them at a cheaper price, can stock more unusual varieties and stock tasty apples.
Feedback is encouraged and often covers sustainable issues. There are monthly volunteer meetings which feed into the monthly management committee meeting and customers are encouraged to feedback informally. Through this process there have been recent debates on green beans (and the relative merits of local, organic or supporting undeveloped economies). Similarly there have been discussions comparing organic lettuce from Spain versus local lettuce from 1 mile away. In this way the shop acts as a hub for information exchange and potential to influence behaviour change.
Choosing eco-products and services
The shop acts out its own beliefs by using and stocking ecoproducts such as cleaning materials and light bulbs.
Like many rural communities Brockweir is poorly served by public transport. Alison believes that the shop means that individuals can reduce their trips to a supermarket (a 16 mile return journey) to perhaps once or twice a month for the basics with the rest purchased from them.
Travel becomes a very pertinent issue in bad weather. In the snowy winters of 2009 and 2010 the shop was able to ensure that customers, and especially the vulnerable, had essential deliveries. Volunteers delivered by skis, quadbikes and tractors. Last Christmas the turkeys were delivered by sledge.
Using and future-proofing outdoor space
Since opening the shop has played an important role in extending the use of the land around it. The field now has community allotments and a play area for young children and teenagers. The play equipment is made of local wood, the children were involved in its design and there were workshops so that they could help build it. A key part was involving the recipients so as to try and minimise any vandalism in the future. The teenagers get a shelter to meet in and a zip wire and the younger children play equipment. The partnership with the shop means that there is a café to go to and the shop can keep an informal eye on what is going on. The shop has supported the allotment initiative by allowing access, providing water from their rain butts and putting up with lots of muddy boots! In return the shop receives some very local and fresh produce.
Potential for Replication
The community shop sector has reached a high level of penetration with 270 shops across the UK and it is estimated that when a village shop closes 5% of them will manage to set up a community owned enterprise [note]. The community owned shop model is being replicated and the sector continues to grow with 44 new shops in the last two years. It is also true that once established very few fail (11 known examples ever). There is currently limited replication of shops with an implicit focus on sustainable behaviours such as seen at Brockweir.
Awareness of Defra’s behaviour work
The shop was not aware of Defra’s behaviour work. Defra helped with initial funding for the build eight years ago and this is what Defra meant to them. The enterprise took part in the Greener Living project managed by Cooperatives UK but didn’t realise that Defra’s sustainable behaviour work informed this.
What have the challenges been and what learning can be taken from these challenges?
In the early days of development there was quite a lot of anti feeling against the enterprise. It was felt to be too big, would take trade away and there was a hidden agenda. There was also a perceived split of demographics between the older residents and the incomers. There was a fear it would be a yuppie shop. Eight years later the shop is successfully trading, continues to broaden its reach and is an inspiration to others.
Current challenges are the economic climate and time. Time is a major barrier. An organisation with 40+ volunteers doing their different shifts, with their different idiosyncrasies and skills means that people management is a very time-consuming part of the business. It is difficult to find time to plan, to think and to create.
What are the enterprise’s plans for the future?
The immediate priority for the shop is to improve profits. The shop has paid back its mortgage and the majority of its bondholders so will soon be debt free. But even so profits of £1-2,000 per annum do not leave much cushion and with the general economic downturn the business must concentrate on the business side of the model. The shop will be measuring basket size and basket value and trying to understand how both of these can be increased.
What are the barriers (including barriers to evidencing impact)? How could they be overcome?
There are no resources for measuring impacts in any formal way. Guidance and advice on doing this would help but time would always be a significant barrier.
The shop sees their role in sustainable behaviour as all about “making small steps and making them easy to achieve”. Sometimes help might be needed to make big steps smaller and make hard steps easier. Alison commented on the value of grass root organisations working with an intermediary organisation, such as the Plunkett Foundation or Coops UK, which provides the link to policy organisations like Defra.
She felt it an effective way of moving information from policy to grass-roots and back the other way. From her perspective policy work is often written in language that is unfamiliar and off-putting and information is asked for that is not easy to access. The intermediaries can straddle both ends helping with communication and process.
Aside from government, who/what else do you think could help you develop as an enterprise and to measure impacts?
Alison identified the value of social enterprise intermediaries such as Plunkett Foundation, local support from their rural community council and specialist advice from organisations such as Taste of the West and the tourism sector.
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