FAQs - ethics & environment
How would you summarise Riverford’s ethical stance?
To give a fair deal to farmers, customers, staff and the environment. This means not going for easy answers (which are nearly always the ones that would be better from a marketing point of view), but looking for an informed and balanced solution – and aiming to take growers, staff and customers with us.
What is Riverford doing about its carbon footprint?
Thinking about it constantly, is the short answer, and taking action in all sorts of unglamorous but important ways. We’ve done this since we started packing boxes in 1986, but our thinking has become a lot more structured recently, after we funded a study with Exeter University. We have set up a website where you can find the long answer about everything from hothouse tomatoes to packaging and transport.
What can customers do to help?
You can help a lot by keeping boxes dry and leaving them out for your vegman/lady to reuse. We aim to get ten deliveries out of each one. Please also leave us out any plastic bag for recycling. You could also introduce friends and neighbours to Riverford – the amount of van rounds is the thing that will have most impact on our carbon footprint.
What is your packaging policy?
We have always minimised packaging, designing re-usable boxes, and only using bags and punnets where necessary to maintain moisture (eg. greens) or protect the product. Our punnets and paper bags are compostable but we’re now asking you to send them back in your returnable boxes, so we can recycle them. For more on this see our environment website.
Why do you want the vegboxes back?
Our boxes are reused on average four times, are made from 95% recycled materials and are recycled at the end of their lives but, surprisingly, still account for 10% of our carbon footprint.
We really need as many boxes back as possible, even if they are damaged. This is the biggest thing you can do to reduce the environmental impact of your veg delivery. When they develop a tear, instead of being condemned to recycling, they go to the field hospital where we apply gaffer tape and send them back into action.
To return your old box fold it down (the bottom goes down, not up) and leave it out for us.
How much of Riverford’s produce is homegrown?
We’ve been growing seasonal organic veg for over 25 years now – it’s at the heart of who we are. Vegboxes are about bringing the best of our fields into your home and encouraging people to rediscover a love for British produce. We don’t want to be so inflexible that we drive people back to the supermarkets, though (there is a demand for tomatoes all year round, for example), so there are times when we need to look for alternatives.
In planning our vegboxes, we prioritise UK grown produce. We also look for the ‘right plant, right place’ (years of experience has taught us, for example, that onions grow best in the drier east of the country at Riverford on Sacrewell Farm than at our farm in drizzly Devon). As the next option to fill the boxes, we look to our growers in Europe, and then further afield for things like bananas and more exotic crops when we need to provide more variety. We work with our growers over the long term and never airfreight any produce.
- In 2012, at the peak of summer, 92% of the veg was Riverford-/homegrown (84% UK; 8% Vendée farm).
- Taking an average across 2012, 77% of the veg was Riverford-/homegrown (71% UK; 6% Vendée farm). This was in a very poor farming year, so normally the figure would be even higher.
- UK grown isn’t always best! For example, the environmental cost of trucking tomatoes over from Southern Europe is much lower than growing them under heated glass in the UK.
- We have a Riverford farm in France so we can grow more crops to plug the ‘hungry gap’ of April/May in the UK, when very little UK veg is ready. The farm is in the Vendée region of France, where the light levels and climate mean that crops are ready about 6 weeks sooner compared with the UK. We can bring them over at very little environmental cost.
- We’ll keep looking for ways to make our range as homegrown as possible, including experimenting with new varieties and giving customers plenty of recipes that celebrate UK fruit and veg.
How does Riverford compare (environmentally) with going to the supermarket?
It is very difficult to give a categorical answer but generally, unless you walk to your supermarket and buy only UK grown, unpackaged produce, your shopping trip usually won’t have a lower environmental impact than having a Riverford box delivered. Most of our customers tell us that shopping with us has helped them reduce their other shopping trips. If we can reduce shopping trips by car by one a month we will have had a significant impact. For more on this see our environment website.
Is paper always better for the environment than plastic?
We’d love to say yes, because we’ve spent years developing our own paper and cardboard boxes, punnets and bags. But we’ve now found that, from the perspective of energy and greenhouse gas emissions, plastic is generally better, often by a factor of two or three. The conclusion is that all disposable packaging is bad. Recycling helps, but only reduces the environmental impact by an average of about half, so it does not make packaging OK. To see how we use packaging see our environment website.
Do you use bio-fuels?
No. With the exception of some used cooking oil (which is only available in very limited volumes), bio-fuels can take as much energy to grow and process as they produce. Some work has shown biodiesel to result in higher levels of exhaust particulates which are particularly damaging to the health of plants and animals, including people. Growing arable crops for fuel competes with food production, often of staple crops relied upon by third world countries. For more on this see our environment website.
Should we all be vegetarians?
There is little doubt that in the developed world we eat more animal products than is good for our health and the environment. Pigs, poultry and intensively produced (grain fed) cows all compete with the world’s poor for grain produced on fertile arable land. In turn, this increases the pressure for deforestation and intensification of production on existing land. For more on this see our environment website.
There is no simple answer to this question. There seem to be a lot of reasons for eating fewer animal products, making sure that we use all the animal (offal and all) and treating them with the respect that they deserve, both when alive and in the kitchen, rather than just wanting them to be cheap.
Is organic agriculture better for the environment?
In almost all cases the answer is yes. Organic farming:
- Promotes biodiversity within fields, in the hedgerows and, most importantly, in the soil
- Uses less energy per kg of food produced. Organic famers don’t use synthetic nitrogen fertiliser that uses huge amounts of fossil fuels to manufacture
- Avoids pollution from pesticides and fertilisers
- Carbon sequestration removes CO2 from the atmosphere and accumulates it as increased levels of organic matter in the soil
- No use of GM
The argument often used against organic farming is that it uses more land to produce the same amount of food and therefore increases pressure to clear forest for agriculture. In simplistic terms this is true in developed countries with highly mechanised monoculture cropping systems. It’s not true of developing countries where complex, integrated organic farming systems using local knowledge and inputs can be many times more productive than monocultures dependent on imported chemical inputs. Within the developed world simple calculations take no account of energy used to make nitrogen. If this energy had to be produced sustainably, for instance from biofuels, organic farming would often be more productive.
Why have you gone back to polythene plastic bags?
We have been working with Exeter University to find the least worst options for our packaging with surprising results: compostable/biodegradable, degradable and starch-based plastics create more environmental problems than they solve. So we’ve abandoned our degradable bags and gone back to plain old oil-based polythene that is recyclable. Leave them out for us in your returnable box and we'll recycle them.
For more on the facts behind this decision see our environmental website