Five pounds of ethics, please

'Britain's first green supermarket' fails to deliver the goods already sold in specialist shops, argues Emily Green
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The Independent Online
Organic. The word sounds earthy, gritty, rooted. So why is it that a new wave of shops, supposedly specialising in organic food and various green gear, bear names spacier than that of the Starship Enterprise? Last week, I reported in these pages about one of them, a self-styled "revolutionary natural food supermarket" in west London called Planet Organic. This week, the subject is Out of this World, which calls itself "Britain's first green supermarket chain".

So far, Out of this World is a chain with one link, a link very much in this world - in Bristol, England, United Kingdom, Planet Earth. To be more exact, it is in Clifton, close to the university and to plenty of types who could resonably be expected to support a progressive enterprise. The owner is one Richard Adams, described in his press release as former founder and managing director of Traidcraft and the magazine New Consumer. "Richard sees Out of this World outlets as a focal point for the local community committed to ever higher social, environmental and ethical standards," gushes the press release. "Out of this World is a co-operative, therefore its customers are also its owners. Richard Adams is determined that customers, or members as they are known, have a real say in what products are stocked and help to shape the company's policies on topical and local issues."

You can become a "member" at the till with a minimum pounds 5 fee to belong for a lifetime. Members are also invited to participate rather more enthusiastically, arranging direct debits for pounds 5 monthly, or pounds 15 quarterly, until they have paid pounds 250. This may or may not produce a return on the investment, or help save the world, or both, depending on the success of the chain. The solicitation of membership fees is part of a greater scheme designed to finance the chain, which plans to open a shop in Newcastle before the new year, and a total of eight shops before the end of 1996.

If this report sounds a shade sceptical, it is for several reasons. First, its subject is, after all, putting a handsome premium on decency (I'm good. Buy me. Be good, too). Second, Out of this World seems to have more in common with an elaborate financial scheme than a traditional co-operative. Co-ops, one fondly imagines, grow out of grass-roots movements. Did Out of this World grow out of a local organic movement? There is very little to indicate that this is the case.

It is a smart shop, with modern fittings and glass frontage. At first glance, it resembles those new-wave emporia stocked with brightly coloured folkloric fittings for city homes. There are candlesticks and so on, along with greetings cards featuring primitive art, unbleached cotton T-shirts for more than pounds 10 a go, and a good range of environmentally friendly cleaning and home-care products. It's also not a bad gift shop - just the place for those in search of a toast rack with a zebra-stripe glaze.

Yet gifts are not supposed to be the point. According to the press release, at least 70 per cent of the stock is food, with an emphasis on local suppliers. This reads well, but the shelves tell a less appetising story. Yes, there were some dairy products from West Country farmers, some yoghurt from Somerset, an unappetising plastic-wrapped pasty filled with pasta, tomato, garlic and herbs from Bath. But the mottled, drying fennel bulbs were from Italy, the bread from Cumbria and even the eggs were from Lancashire.

Worst, languishing in the bottom of a warm fridge with a faulty light and motor was a range of organic meat. Unlike at a proper butcher's, there was no specialist staff. Just the meat itself, vacuum-packed and sweltering in its own red juices. The animals whose mortal remains sat in this fridge may have lived happily, but, if this is their fate, they died in vain.

Vegetables fared little better. Pre-packed salad sat mouldering in plastic. Celery was dehydrating. Leeks were ragged old soldiers. Brussels sprouts were ready for a school dinner. Cabbages were plastic-wrapped. Best, and these were really beautiful, was a tray of fresh white cauliflowers.

The food that survives this shop best is not fresh - rice crackers, coffee, dried beans, flour. That said, even the staples need more thought. Olive oils were badly chosen. Present was the unpalatable Hellenic oil; missing were two superb organic oils - the Greek make Mani and Spanish brand L'Estornell. Many of the products are over-packaged. Worst in this regard was the wild mushroom pate sold in a squeeze at pounds 1.78 for 200g.

The moral of this two-week look at new-wave food shops? Support real food suppliers, preferably specialists with farm-gate knowledge, rather than bandwagon money-spinners. To Out of this World, I say this - there is nothing ethical about treating food badly.

Below, we compare meat prices at Out of this World to those charged by AS Portwine and Son of Covent Garden. The organic meat sold at Out of this World was vacuum-packed and sold with no specialist staff from a warm fridge with faulty lighting.

By contrast, staff at Portwine are the most knowledgeable butchers in Britain. The earliest recording of Portwine Butchers of Seven Dials is 1760. Portwine prices are for meats from free-range stock raised without chemicals and prepared for sale without additives.

Cut Out of Portwine

this World

lamb chops pounds 10.97/kg pounds 9.80/kg

minced lamb pounds 7.22/kg pounds 6.61/kg

braising steak pounds 9.44/kg pounds 7.28/kg

topside pounds 9.63/kg pounds 9.76/kg

mince pounds 6.27/kg pounds 6.61/kg

chicken leg pounds 4.14/kg pounds 4.39/kg

gammon joint pounds 6.27/kg pounds 6.61-

pounds 7.10/kg