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Beyond The People’s Supermarket

We caught up with Arthur Potts Dawson, co-founder of The People’s Supermarket to talk lessons learned and why since the innovative Channel 4 documentary, he’s turned his attention to food issues on a global scale

Every two years, usually without fail, Arthur Potts Dawson will get a call from a reporter asking him about sustainability. The call will often correspond with a sustainability trend and despite fads, reporters and trendy menu options changing, Arthur will say the same thing: We’ve got big problems, we need to change, this is how. 

Today, I am that reporter and today, he is telling me how.

 Starting out in restaurants working alongside the likes of the Roux brothers, Hugh Fernley-Whittingstall and Pierre Koffman, it was the Channel 4 documentary The People’s Supermarket chronicling the social food initiative of the same name that catapulted Potts Dawson into the country’s consciousness. 

Painfully ahead of its time, the documentary highlighted issues of food waste, ethics, healthy eating and social inclusivity, providing a living, breathing alternative to big chain supermarket excess. The Lamb’s Conduit Street store still operates to this day with around a thousand members It’s not a money spinner, but it survives and Potts Dawson reflects on it in a transformative manner.

“It’s a great series, I mean I haven’t re-watched it. It came out, I was too busy to look at it, they gave me the DVDs and I stuck them on a shelf. We were addressing food waste, I was climbing into bins. [The food waste at large supermarkets] still goes on, and it is ridiculous. Now they just lock their doors.” He tells me, with a sigh that suggests he gets asked the same questions every two years and very little changes.

You can’t blame him, after all, he’s already shown everyone what to do. Strike up good relations with producers and take the part of the crop that others won’t. Build a feeling of community, get people involved and allow them their say. Educate on food and help people to understand its worth. Use waste as an advantage. The People’s Kitchen was set up within the same site in order to turn would-be waste into deli-style products that can be a ready meal-style option. Emphasise healthy, ethical and good value food.

The initiative drew plaudits, the country watched on, but the revolution failed to materialize. Not through fault of trying. “I think what The People’s Supermarket did was it came in with a concept that challenged the norm and the norm is a capitalist economy. They all looked at it, snubbed their noses at it and realized that it was no competition because ultimately, it not being designed to make money meant that it was only ever going to be a narrative on social sustainability and community food issues.” Says Arthur.

“So other supermarkets didn’t particularly pay heed. Although they did all come in and see us. We had all the big names walking around the shop, with their mobile phones saying, ‘Nah, it looks like Russia in here, don’t worry about it.’ It was funny to see. Literally managers from the local supermarkets, still with their jackets on.”

Ultimately, the big four supermarkets continued and still continue, business as usual to the planet’s detriment. “The British supermarkets are the best in the world at doing what they do, getting the customer what they think the customers want at a very low price but you’ve got to realise that it’s not sustainable. They’re making money by forcing prices down in the field, and the field is the thing that’s taking the hit, and the planet is taking the pressure from these supermarkets.” He says.

The planet as a whole was Arthur’s next logical next step after seeing the devastating issues on a local level. Arthur is first to forward the idea that we need governmental change, but his is an urgency that transcends a potential 65 million on an island in the sea. “In ten years time if we’re still doing what we’re doing and the agricultural sector are still doing what they’re doing, the planet is unsustainable. And I’m looking at it from a planetary perspective.” He says, before expanding.

“I’m working with all the big companies now, the IKEAs, the Unilevers, large-scale big impact companies and when you look at it from a planetary perspective, it’s all very well looking at it from a 65 million but I’m now working with chefs who come from Indonesia, 260 million people, the capital Jakarta is 26 odd million, Nigeria – 180 million, the capital 21 million. We’re talking about vast amounts of people not thinking sustainably, we’re talking billions across the planet looking to improve the way they live.”

What Arthur is saying makes for grim reading, obviously. It’s one thing looking at England, but as rapidly expanding powerhouse economies like China and India drag themselves out of poverty (just like we did) and their consumption levels reach those of the west, the extent of the problems at hand are colossal. Arthur will readily admit to being the eternal optimist, but everyone has to be realistic about what is happening. 

His work now lies in consultation and education, working with large companies and notably the United Nations World Food Programme and their Chef’s Manifesto initiative. The manifesto, which he helped to write, includes eight thematic areas to provide sustainable actions for people going forward. The initiative ties into 17 global goals written by 194 countries on sustainability. Action hubs are set to be launched worldwide, from New York to India, South Africa to Copenhagen.

I would say our conversation ends full circle, but it doesn’t. We chat about the inability of the government, the grip of big finance and how truthfully, it’s a government that should be leading people. I ask him if he found The People’s Supermarket rewarding and he says yes after a pause. I ask him what the biggest lesson was away from the food and he tells me.

“People are so used to choice. We’ve got a situation on the planet now where you can have anything you want, whenever you want it for not very much money.” He says, before continuing.

“That’s the situation we’re living with in London and as a result we had to manage people, not to control them, but to influence them in a positive way to live their life and live more sustainably and positively. At the end of the day, you’ve got to agree on something.”

Words by Davey BRETT
Image Credits by Fancy Crave