Business, ethics + corporate drivel

A vegetable-free rant from Guy.

We recently won the Observer’s Best Ethical Online Retailer award for the second year running, adding to our Best Ethical Business and Best Ethical Restaurant awards, so I’ve been asked to write about ethical business. If you just want the fruit and veg and can do without ranting and pontificating, you’d better turn the page now. Though I am proud of these awards, the term ‘ethical business’, for most large, publically quoted companies is an oxymoron.

Over the last few years I have been asked to talk at a number of conferences on ‘business ethics’, ‘values driven business’, ‘corporate social responsibility (CSR)’ and the pursuit of the ‘triple bottom line’; increasingly hideous expressions that have entered business speak. Few of us would take issue with the idea that business might have a purpose beyond maximising short term profit and most would support the consideration of environmental and social issues in decision making. Unfortunately, because actions are more often driven by the needs of brand protection than by a genuine desire to do anything useful, the effects are normally shallow, short term and depressingly ineffectual in bringing about meaningful change. After attending a few such conferences, I have decided it is more fun talking to the WI about slugs on their hostas than pouring my heart out to a roomful of accountants who just don’t get the idea that the starting point for change might be belief rather than profit.

Since Adam Smith published Wealth of Nations in 1776, the basis for business and capitalism has been an assumption that the decisions of rational individuals are driven by personal greed. We have surrendered to this assumption and the resulting competitive forces have shaped the world around us. In the 80s and more recently in the City, it was even declared that ‘greed was good’, since it drove us to an ever more feverish pursuit of wealth.

I am convinced that unfettered greed will destroy all that we hold dear on our planet and is incompatible with ethical business. I am certain that most people are motivated just as much by the desire to do something useful, to master skills, to be involved socially, to share, and that if we just had the confidence to acknowledge and incorporate these desires at work we would have some chance of business serving people, rather than people being slaves to business. Why is it that, when we step out of the door to go to work, we abandon these values and become slaves to greed? Greed has been supported in its all-pervasive hegemony by capitalism, which moves like an amoebic life form in the background; changing shape to move around, engulf, disparage, corrupt, co-opt and subsume anything that might resist it.

The reason for the rant is not a God-fearing, born again summer of Bible study. It is frustration with how public demands for change from business on social and environmental issues have produced nothing but smoke screens. The pervading argument that change will be driven by customer choice is ludicrous; customers just don’t have the time to do the research and become experts on competing claims, and as a result have been cynically fobbed off with emotive greenwash. Take bio fuels, and bio diesel in particular. It took an interested staff member a week of desk research in 2007 to conclude that (with a few exceptions) bio fuels were bad for the environment and liable to contribute to world hunger, and therefore had no place in an ethical business. So, given the resources of supermarkets and our government, why have bio fuels persisted as part of their environmental message for so long?

Perhaps we have been lucky at Riverford in that the support of our customers has given us the freedom to do business in our own way. But it is also having the confidence to question whether greed is synonymous with rationality. Initiatives start with a desire to be genuinely useful: to staff, to customers, to suppliers or to the environment. Of course most must be profitable and many are discarded, but this is very different from seeking profit and then, as a window-dressing afterthought, trying to appear useful. Until we find a way to displace greed as the main motivator in decision making, CSR will stand for a Complete Shame Really in my book. There endeth the rant.

Guy Watson

14 responses to “Business, ethics + corporate drivel

  1. Thank you for the rant-happy to meet you at the barricades

  2. Talk ethics to the WI, not slugs – they can be a very powerful force for change.

    I’m also sure that the reason Riverford is a successful business is that I and many of your customers choose you because of your ethics. It’s rare to find a business that one can trust completely to take a little bit of the decision-making out of our lives. Thank you.

  3. Ranteth on Roy ranteth on, just like a good laugh, ranting can be good for the heart as well.

    In terms of the content, couldn’t agree with you more.

    In my experience, trying to change a habit is not easy, never mind a corporate habit, where, whether we like to or not, making money is the key driver.

    At Prism we have developed a working methodology and ethos that is certainly from our experience slowly changing the corporate perspective and opening eyes to another way of doing business with energy usage and reduction at the heart of a new paradigm.

    Check out our website for more info and thanks for providing great food with an excellent service. The regular delivery from Riverford is the only thing we as a family have not cut back on during these times of pulling the belt in.

    Cheers Peter

  4. Hello again Roy,
    Thought you might be interested in learning about an organisation who are trying to change the ‘paradigm’.
    Check out Compression Thinking by Doc Hall. I met the Doc at Cardiff University earlier in the year as we have talking about about sustainability and culture change.

    Regards Peter

  5. At least you ARE a business. The way education has succumbed to the economic paradigm just fills me with despair on a daily basis.

    And poor old Adam Smith! He believed everything you believed about people not only being motivated by greed, and wrote about it in WoN, but nobody ever seems to notice that bit!

    As Winston Churchill said, “Keep Buggering On”, mate.

  6. Guy, I couldn’t agree with you more. I am constantly perplexed to hear phrases like XYZ have issued a profits warning having only made £100m this year. This is utter insanity. We have to find other ways of marking our success than constant, ever-burgeoning growth.

    Please keep ranting on like this – you are right. My wife and I have been Riverford customers since we got married almost five years ago. We are enormous fans of you and the company and we trust you implicitly to be as good as you can be to the environment; we know you treat your staff well and your treat your suppliers and customers well and that means we can leave that worry to you and buy in confidence. We also know that, like all humans, things are sometimes got wrong – and we trust that when that happens, you’ll tell us

    But above all your veggies taste fantastic, your meat is amazing. Incidentally Jane and the restuarant are fantastic and we get there whenever we can. Your ethos too (less meat, more veg) is right and we’re trying to do our bit on that score.

    5 years on, our Riverford box arrival is still one of the highlights of the week (and we do not lead dull lives!). As we await the arrival of our first child at the end of March, we look forward to introducing ‘it’ to the wonders of the Riverford Veg Box and thank you and the whole team for being such a great company. We know from your newsletters that it is hard work, but from our point of view it is so worthwhile. Over the years, I have come to actually ‘love’ Riverford as a company. Along with John Lewis, I think you’re probably the only other company I feel like that about!

  7. Guy-

    great rant. I really, really miss your more regular rants about anything in the newsletter of a few years ago. Guess as the business grew and advisors appear, it was perhaps suggested not to alienate your customers but I always found it one of the most appealing aspects of being a Riverford customer. I trust Riverord, completely trust. I don’t need to spend a week reading up about anything you may or may not do. I believe you are real people with real views and commitment – because that’s how you are, not because it is how you sell me stuff. Long live real food and real people.

  8. Guy, I was definitely nodding into my coffee reading your article. Wouldn’t it be nice if we didn’t have to rant like this but live in a society where we are not killing ourselves and everything around us for profit. We have been Riverford customers for about eight months – love our veggies, but also completely agree with your views on organic food, nature, business, greed…..capitalism. Riverford, as a business, is a breath of fresh air in this crazy market jungle. Best wishes for the future and keep up the fight for real values.

  9. I just wanted to say thanks for those comments and your support. Most heartening and it gives me strength to carry on resisting the norms of business practice and business speak. We will stick to our guns and do it our own way as so many of you suggest. I suspect I will have annoyed a few with that one; maybe they just quietly cancelled.

    Not sure why the rants have gone out of me. Hard ot stay angry as the years go by. Think I am happier though.


  10. Loved the rant – thanks Guy – and the muscat grapes were a taste sensation, bringing a bit of southern sun to our cloudy days.

  11. Good to read Guy’s ‘rant’ in the newsletter. The right sort of rhetoric to go with my veg! I am fascinated by the fact that nearly everyone I have ever met from the corporate sector has been perfectly nice, wanting to raise money for good causes, or support local people, (or move jobs into the charity sector!). How come lots of perfectly OK people somehow end up combining into a corporate machinery that can be profoundly antisocial and destructive? It seems like the whole is quite different from the sum of its parts…..

  12. Guy. Your blog came to me through a LinkedIn group “Common Purpose”. You are not alone in the way you think, and here in Oxford I have organise a group of like-minded business owners who are giving their time free to mentor others in business. Only owner-managers of course! There is a cultural revolution coming, and it will start from the bottom up. Like me….you are, of course, at the bottom. Keep at it!

  13. Guy, there are many people out there who feel as passionately as you do about ethical food production. ‘War on Want’ is an excellent charity that is also trying to make a difference. They have organised
    a FOOD SOVEREIGNTY DAY on 18th October at the houses of parliament. It is free and open to all. You will no doubt have heard about it – see you there maybe !

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