With food shortages and climate change altering how we eat, food footprints have never carried more gravity. Everything we consume has an ecological and sociological price, from the labour needed to make it, to the packaging materials, the oil for transportation, or the chemicals used to enhance products.

But organic, vegetarian and ethical foods can help transform food footprints into fingerprints by rejecting pesticides and chemicals, paying farmers a fair price and reinvesting money into communities. Vegetarian food also takes a lesser toll than raising livestock as more food can be produced per square foot (and plants release oxygen while cows produce the ‘greenhouse gas’ methane).

At Bristol-based wholesaler Essential Trading, judiciously sourced food (along with household and beauty products) is top of the menu. As one of the UK’s largest successful worker co-operatives, it has spent 40 years sourcing, manufacturing and delivering over 6,000 lines of organic, veggie and ethical food to national and international retailers. The organisation also sells directly to consumers through its website www.ethicallyessential.coop.

“We believe that we can use our buying power as ethically-minded consumers to eat our way to a better world,” says Essential’s marketing co-ordinator Eli Sarre.

A wholefood new ball game

Essential began life in the 1970s as two of the original food co-ops – Harvest (a wholefood cash and carry) and Nova (an organic and vegetarian food co-operative) – and the two merged in 1991, forming Essential Trading. Essential has seen many changes – it was among the first UK businesses to offer organic food, for example – but while adapting to new trends, it hasn’t changed its ethos.

“We haven’t shifted according to fashion,” says Sarre. “Our commitment has always been to offer products that are healthy, organic, Fairtrade, vegetarian or vegan and non-GM, and we’ve always aimed to promote awareness of the effect our lifestyle has on ourselves and on our environment. “We actively support co-operatives and community activities, promote healthy eating, oppose the exploitation of animals, and raise awareness of human rights issues. We don’t respond to fads; we just do what we do best.”

Today, all 80 members of Essential have an equal say in how the business is run. “Part of why we are an ethical organisation is because we’re all equal here – there’s one pay structure for all, and it’s a revolutionary and empowering concept,” says Sarre.

Taken on trust

In a world rife with food scares, misleading packaging information and hidden additives, the issue of trust is paramount. We increasingly want to know where food has come from, how it was made, and that a fair price was paid for those who made or grew it.

“The journey of each ingredient from farmer to table is as important as the quality of the food itself,” says Sarre. “We have strict guidelines for our producers and suppliers and every item must meet our stringent requirements.”

Eat to live

Essential is an example of how a good co-operative can thrive, grow and remain resilient when other, more corporate companies crumble. “Recent figures indicate that 13 million people own a share in a UK co-operative and that figure is rising,” says Sarre. “Co-operatives combine self-help with mutual assistance and this heightened awareness of each individual, and their belief in the benefits of working together for a common good, is helping the business model survive the tough economic climate.

“Our sustainable approach has helped regenerate farming land, strengthen communities and provide sustainable futures for farmers, producers and suppliers. After supplying ethical food for 40 years, the issues at the heart of our ethos have thankfully, become global concerns.”