If you wander down Bread Street you’ll stumble into the focal point of the next revolution. Modern consumer capitalism feeds us, clothes us, washes us and moulds us. But at the back of our heads, there’s the creeping sensation that it’s killing us. We need an alternative to the fast-paced, shallow culture of buy, use briefly and without joy; discard and re-buy. The proliferation of sharing communities in Edinburgh – and throughout the world – perhaps presents an alternative.
The Shrub Co-operative was founded in 2013 by a group of students, appalled at the rampant food waste they saw in Edinburgh and the parallel tragedies of food poverty and homelessness. It has now grown into a 500 member movement with over 100 active volunteers, mainly drawn from Edinburgh’s student body. Membership costs £1 a month or you can volunteer.
They collect food waste which would otherwise be discarded for having passed its ‘use-by’ date from 30 businesses in Edinburgh; 5 supermarkets, and 25 small restaurants and cafes. The Bread Street café has a relaxing, welcoming atmosphere. It has that stylishly run-down look which Brew Dog has yet to effectively imitate.
Individuals have left their mark. Plants grow on the window sill in little plastic pots; people lounge with their laptops on armchairs and sofas replete with beautifully stitched cushions. This site contains a wall of books obviously geared to a student clientele and racks of surprisingly nice shirts going for £3. Adjacent to these is the food sharing hub.
Its coordinator Laurie King seemed to embody the laid back feel of the place. Involved in the project for 18 months, he said that the ‘grand vision’ of the co-op was a world without waste. He’d been inspired to get involved by Scotland’s appalling prevalence of food waste. I talked to him about the co-op’s decision-making structure. Consensus was the golden word and all decisions had to be unanimous. Doesn’t that slow you down? Well, yes, but it works well.
The food-sharing hub wants to create ‘access to excess;’ it wasn’t easy to get the supermarkets on board initially. But after the first agreed, the others soon followed. The publicity that it generated spread the word, and supermarkets, he said, always want to be seen as ‘doing their bit.’
It seemed that the Shrub has managed to harness the usually facile rhetoric of corporate ‘social responsibility’ to do something actually useful. Access to the food is on a ‘pay as you feel’ basis, so it plays a crucial role in the city’s social welfare. Volunteering also plays an important role in helping people back into work.
Laurie said that ideally, the food sharing hub wouldn’t have to exist. Supermarkets would operate their own zero-waste policy. It struck me that the co-op provides food more accessibly and cheaply than the supermarkets could ever do themselves.
Similarly, the supermarkets play a crucial role in forging and financing the supply networks that bring food into this part of the city in the first place. Perhaps there is a place for both. Perhaps we need both. The rise of ‘sharing communities’ is a wider phenomenon than this. Those of you who make use of the Meadows Share will understand what I mean.
In Edinburgh, we also have the Forrest and New Leaf Cafés. The Shrub is definitely worth a visit (open Wednesday to Saturday, 12 till 5). Volunteering is a great way to get involved, meet new people and make a difference. I spoke to Iva Jericevic, a former volunteer at the co-op. Volunteering spread through her friend group by word of mouth and getting involved had been a “good time overall.” It seems there might be far worse ways to spend your free time.
Image credits: Martin Fisch via Flickr