Suma Wholefoods: Driven by purpose

Dedicated to leaving the planet better than it found it, this wholesaler is determined to do things differently – and what a difference it is making

Picture a business that is positively bursting with goodness and integrity and you have Suma Wholefoods. Not content with its mission to supply everything vegetarian and sustainable, Suma Wholefoods is also the largest equal pay co-operative of its kind in Europe, with a 0% gender pay gap to boot. Having first visited in early 2019, and with the wholesaler having driven continued growth in the intervening five years, Wholesale News returned to find out more.

You would be forgiven for thinking that Suma Wholefoods was founded within the last decade as an answer to the increased popularity of sustainability and ethical thinking but as Suma member Sophie Ziegler-Jones says, “We’re not jumping on the bandwagon, we’ve been driving it for nearly 50 years.”

Based in Elland in West Yorkshire, Suma Wholefoods was established in 1977 by Reg Taylor. Despite having a full-time job, Reg spotted an opportunity for a delivery service of bulk vegetarian provisions and so he started using his work van to deliver grains, pulses and beans across the city after work. He grew his team and then sold the business to his employees and just like that, Suma Wholefoods was born. A workplace with no bosses and no shareholders, where everyone has equal pay and an equal say.


For every member at Suma, the primary objective is for the business to be as ethical and sustainable as possible. “We are effectively a group of individuals who are working together with the aim of doing things better,” says Sophie. “When Suma began back in 1977, we believed that there was a better way to do business and nearly 50 years later, it would seem that we’re doing something right.”

Whereas some corporate businesses rely on financial incentives such as pay rises and promotions, what motivates and empowers the team here at Suma is the ability to work for a truly ethical company while also feeding into decision-making processes.

With nearly 200 members carrying out roles from drivers to designers, it’s no surprise Suma’s growth is continuing at pace. With a turnover of £60m last year, a fleet of 33 vehicles and thousands of loyal customers, the future really is looking bright.

How are those all-important decisions reached? Each team has a coordinator that every employee can approach to discuss suggestions or questions. The coordinators then feed into the area coordinators and area leaders, who liaise with an elected board. A member council has also been implemented to hold the elected board to account, made up of nine co-op members, who are also voted into their positions. It’s a truly democratic setup.

“One of the phrases that we use is that we’re all together better,” continues Sophie. “Everyone has a voice. Everyone has an opportunity to be heard. Who doesn’t want to work for a veggie, vegan, organic, cruelty-free business that’s doing its best to make the world a better place? There’s definitely healthy debate that goes on but it’s really exciting to be able to work somewhere where instead of feeling kowtowed by a boss that you can’t speak up to, you can say whatever you want to anybody and have those debates. Everyone aims to be respectful to each other, which I think is really important.”


When the business launched in the 1970s, vegetarian and veganism didn’t have the selling power that it does today. “Back then it was just what the hippies ate!” says Sophie. As the demand has grown exponentially, so has a greater understanding for what Suma stands for.

Today Suma stocks 7,000 lines, including 2,000 of its own-brand products, spanning food, ALTER/NATIVE hair and body care and Ecoleaf household cleaning products, and everything available is vegetarian, cruelty-free, biodegradable and eco-friendly.

Stocked in both the on- and off-trade across the UK, Suma also has carefully curated an extensive range of other fair trade, sustainably sourced and ethical brand products that meet the company’s strict and transparent buying criteria for the likes of animal welfare, palm oil, BPA, slavery and fair trade, and its suppliers and buying criteria are regularly reviewed.

“All of our buying decisions are based on a strict set of ethics and sustainability principles,” says Sophie. “Our customers trust us to do our homework so they don’t have to. They choose to work with us because they know those all-important quality, sustainability and ethics boxes are being ticked for them.”

What is Sophie particularly excited about when it comes to products? “There is so much to be proud of at the moment. We have an award-winning edamame hummus, two new vegan pestos from Italy, a very new range of five organic kombuchas made locally and our whole Italian pasta range has just been repackaged in biodegradable and recyclable paper, sourced from sustainably managed forests. It’s made by a farming co-operative using traditional slow drying, dye cut methods and 100% renewable energy.”

“We also have some old-school favourites that we have released plant-based versions of, such as mac and cheese, pea and ham soup and chicken soup.”

Suma is also passionate about providing nourishing, tasty and authentic gluten-free and free-from foods. “Free-from and gluten free has always been really important to us,” continues Sophie. “We’ve just released a range of oat pasta which is made in Italy and authentic and ticks so many boxes in terms of sustainability too. It comes in a cardboard box and it’s just delicious!”

It’s clear to see why customers love working with Suma and why its team are so passionate about their business. As Sophie says, “As a co-op we are more than the sum of our parts. When we come together, we create something amazing.”


  1. Co-operative membership is voluntary and open to all workers able and willing to accept the responsibilities of membership.
  2. A co-op is democratic – every member has an equal say in how it’s run and how profits are used.
  3. Every member contributes financially in some way. This could be buying products, working for the co-op, investing in it or deciding how to spend its profits.
  4. A co-op is an independent business, owned and controlled by its members.
  5. A co-op offers education and training to all involved so they can develop the co-op and promote the benefits of co-operation.
  6. It co-operates, works with and supports other co-ops.
  7. A co-op supports the communities it works with.

This feature was originally published in Wholesale News issue 2403, which you can read in full here.

co-operative own brand Sophie Ziegler-Jones Suma Wholefoods sustainability