Tag Archives: rants

Guy’s newsletter: the restraint of greed

A few of you have warned me over the years that while you like the veg, you can do without my “commie rants”. I try to confine my weekly musings to the farm but trying to run a business responsibly is itself a political act, so here’s another.

When, five years ago, I realised the business had grown beyond my management skills, I was fortunate to find my managing director Rob Haward; a man who shares my beliefs. Along with setting up a staff profit-share scheme, Rob and I agreed that no-one in the company, including us, would ever earn more than nine times the lowest wage. This may not seem radical but it was as far as we could go without making recruitment and retention of senior and specialist staff impossible; a typical ratio for a UK company of our size is between 15 and 25:1.

Since the recession began and despite Cameron’s cries of “we are in it together”, the rich-poor pay gap has spiralled out of control; executive pay was 60 times the national average salary in the 1990s, but 180 times that today. Indeed in the USA, since the recession the top 1% have taken a staggering 93% of income growth, and the picture is similar here. Not even the most rabid freemarket advocate could argue that is fair. I found myself musing on all this as a result of listening to Robert Peston’s excellent BBC Radio 4 series The Price of Inequality, but my blood reached boiling point last week with news that HSBC appears to have colluded in tax evasion by the super-rich. Worst of all was the extraordinarily complacent response of Cameron, HMRC and HSBC. Have we really sunk into such collective lethargy where we accept such moral bankruptcy as inevitable? Yet, as Robert Peston asserted to an incredulous billionaire; there are powerful rewards other than money. Given half a chance most of us want to do a good job and contribute to something worthwhile, but those potentially very strong motivations are eroded in the face of greed of the rich and powerful.

Despite all of this and to my immense pride (and my MD’s credit) there is a feeling at Riverford that we really are in it together, and we have never had better or more motivated staff, despite being increasingly out of step with executive pay. The restraint of greed can only start at the top.

Guy Watson

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

why organic?

I know a significant number of customers don’t care whether the box on their doorstep is organic so long as the veg is fresh, tastes good and is reasonably priced. They tend to be male and bemoan the lack of frozen peas in their diet since Riverford got in the door. Many have a suspicion that the whole organic thing is a bit of a fad and perhaps even a con. Had I not grown up on a farm I suspect I might have been one of them, but after 25 years of farming organically I would never go back. As we are in the middle of Organic Fortnight I thought I would say, very briefly, why.

  1. It’s better for you: no pesticide residues, strict control on additives, far fewer antibiotics and arguably better flavour and nutritional value.
  2. Better for animals: the highest standards backed up by law; far higher than free range.
  3. Better for the environment: more biodiversity, particularly in the soil, and about a third less CO2 emissions.
  4. Better for those who work the land: we are not exposed to pesticides.
  5. Better for humanity: organic farming teaches humility in the face of nature. All world rulers should have a veg patch; we would have fewer wars (just my opinion, that one).

I could cite evidence and scientific papers, but I am sure the anti lobby could cite just as many proving the opposite. You will have to make up your own minds. Most conventional growers I meet do not eat the veg they grow commercially; many have their own gardens which they tend, very nearly, organically. To me that says it all.

Guy Watson

Rules, slogans, emotional engagement + philosophy

There is no denying it; the organic market is on the slide. The rate of decline may have slowed from about 15% last year to perhaps 8% (depends on what you are measuring) but it is still slipping. The reason for organic’s fall from favour, according to marketing pundits quoted in last week’s Grocer magazine, is that we have failed to communicate a simple, emotionally engaging message.

Another way of putting it is that we have been too honest and perhaps too ambitious in wanting to solve all the world’s problems. Environmental and ethical issues are never simple. Organic farming embraces more than can be squeezed into a soundbite: the balance of wildlife and biodiversity benefits, animal welfare, absence of pesticide residues in our food, reduced CO2 emissions, severe restrictions on additives and arguably flavour and nutritional quality is just too much to convey in one snappy slogan.

Single issue products, whether fair trade, free range, “pesticide-free” or local, have proved easier to sell, despite their silence on other issues. For example a “free range” chicken may spend next to no time outside, be kept in a shed the size of an aircraft hangar, in a sea of mud with tens of thousands of others at a stocking density double that allowed by the Soil Association, be routinely de-beaked and fed antibiotics. Its rations will be produced with the aid of pesticides and fertilisers but none of this is a barrier to conveying a simple emotionally engaging message. In marketing terms, it takes too many words to explain that organic poultry offers so much more.

I would never claim that organic farming is the only answer, but after twenty five years of unceasingly questioning what we do, I am convinced that it comes closer than anything else. Organic is better regulated and has stood the test of time (since 1946), whilst other wannabe brands and claims have come and gone. Our complex proposition may be hard to convey, but that is because it has so much more to offer. We have our book of rules but behind them is a philosophical commitment, shared by farmers and customers, to finding a better way to happily coexist with 7 billion others without destroying the planet we share; probably too much for a simple marketing slogan but ultimately more durable.

Guy Watson from Riverford in Devon