Leaving the EU Customs Union on the 1st of January this year has presented many challenges for us at Unicorn. In more than 20 years of trading we have developed relationships with many small-scale farmers across Europe and we pride ourselves on our unique offer of organic fruit and veg.
Our model is based on freshness, quality and minimal waste: produce arrives in store and is on the shelves in a matter of hours; we do not buy quantities larger than those we can comfortably sell in peak condition and we prioritise buying direct from the farm gate to ensure the best price for our customers and growers alike.
Brexit has created new barriers to achieving this mission: orders must now be ready days in advance so customs paperwork can be prepared; our buying power has diminished as we try to buy more volume from fewer producers; we are charged a flat fee for each item of produce we buy and from the 1st January next year we will have to pay extra costs for organic certification. Due to our relatively small scale, Unicorn is disproportionately affected by these costs in comparison to the larger multiple supermarkets.
We approached our local MP Jeff Smith with concerns that the cost of import and export documentation would penalise smaller, independent businesses such as Unicorn:
“the notion that no tariffs means no problem is not the case at all. We still have to deal with agent fees, phytosanitary certificates and organic certificates. The admin fees are the same whether it’s a box of broccoli or a pallet of broccoli.”
Jeff took our case to Oral Questions in Parliament on the 25th March and the conversation has led to talks with members of cabinet, DEFRA and the Border and Protocol Delivery Group. While we are grateful that our message is being heard, the response has been frustrating and limited: we are under no illusions that any help or support is available to businesses of our size.
So far, we have absorbed the additional costs. We’ve delayed our annual wage review with the understanding that Brexit could mean a wage freeze for us for 2021.We’ve been working really hard to make extra efficiencies elsewhere in the business, but there is only so much we can do. Unicorn’s model is simple and easy to understand: with no board members to satisfy, our sales need to cover the cost of goods, our labour and a little extra each year to reinvest back into the business. The uncomfortable truth of Brexit is that this will become a harder reality to achieve in the years ahead.
Affordability and access to good food are matters dear to our heart. We strive to make organic, sustainably-grown ingredients available to a broad customer base and – while paying a fair price to the people producing our food – our aim is to compete with the multiples on price. Please rest assured, we will never compromise on this important goal.
We want Unicorn to outlive us all, to continue serving our community and to demonstrate that a fairer food system is not just feasible, but full of possibility and joy too. While the next few years may not be straightforward, we promise you that we are in this for the long run and we will continue to do all that we can to bolster organic farming both here in the UK and further afield.
Thank you to our amazing customers for your ongoing support, together we will face the challenges ahead.