Ethics & ethos

Sustainability & climate action

From growing and packing to delivery.

We want to do better than vague claims and greenwash, so we’ve carried out research with the University of Exeter to learn more about Riverford’s sustainability. From never using air freight, to delivering all our fruit and veg in home compostable or paper packaging, here’s what we’re doing to reduce our environmental impact.

Read our Sustainability Report 2020/21

The question of ‘What’s good to eat?’ isn’t a simple one. Our co-owners and customers are concerned about wide-ranging, complex issues of social and environmental sustainability. That’s why we create our annual Sustainability Report – packed with transparent info about Riverford, including an ongoing carbon footprint study. We repeat the report every year, to track how we’re doing against last year’s goals and set targets for the year to come.

Read the latest report to find out about our sustainability achievements and aspirations. This 2021 edition includes our plans to reach Net Zero carbon emissions by 2030, cut plastic packaging, and encourage biodiversity on our own land and beyond. Plus, find out why we're adding our voice to Business Declares and declaring a climate emergency.

Read the full report

(If you have trouble accessing, try this simple PDF version).

Organic farming is kinder to the planet

The principle behind organic farming is that we should learn from and farm in sympathy with nature, rather than suppressing and dominating it. Organic management:

  • Protects natural resources, such as fresh water and healthy soils
  • Encourages wildlife; there is up to 50% more wildlife on organic farms
  • Avoids pollution from artificial chemicals (we use no artificial pesticides or fertilisers).
  • Uses less energy per kg of food produced
  • Captures CO2 emissions in the soil through 'carbon sequestration'

Learn more about organic farming

Agroforestry & tree planting

Trees are an important part of our plans to sequester carbon, protect our soil, and pioneer perennial crop farming in Devon.

In March 2021, our co-owners hand-planted over 800 native trees above our reservoir at Wash Farm, Devon. As well as increasing biodiversity and creating wildlife corridor links, this will sequester a cumulative total of 530 tCO2e (tonnes of CO2 equivalent) by 2050.

We’re also preparing ground for an agroforestry (i.e. forestry plus agriculture) trial area. Planting native fruit and nut trees amongst our field crops will provide a sustainable food source for people and animals. We’ve started with walnut trees – and over the next 20 years, each tree will sequester a whole tonne of carbon.

Many crop plants are annual, surviving for just one season – meaning that the soil has to be re-tilled and sowed with seeds for every harvest. Trees can be harvested year after year, leaving the soil undisturbed. Agroforestry will allow us to protect our soil, while continuing to grow a nutritious crop.

Innovative packaging

Some packaging is a necessary evil. It protects our food, thereby preventing food waste. We can’t do without it entirely, but we have done rigorous research to find the most sustainable solutions.

  • All that can be is packed into our veg boxes loose. Luckily, we have ecologically minded customers who don’t mind trimming off a few tatty outer leaves to save a bag.
  • Leave out your cardboard boxes, and anything you can’t recycle at home. We’ll take it back to the farm to reuse or recycle (each box can be used up to 10 times!).
  • We have changed the majority of our paper bags to paper 'flow-wrap'; this uses thinner paper, and cuts each bag exactly down to size, preventing waste. On average, we're using 60% less paper compared to normal paper bags.
  • All our fruit and veg comes in paper or home compostable packaging, where packaging is needed at all. Home compostable packaging completely biodegrades (breaking down into carbon dioxide, water vapour and organic matter, just like a plant decomposing) in just one year.

Read more about our packaging choices

Celebrating UK produce

Across the year, around 80% of our veg is UK grown. 100% of our meat is British.

Sourcing from small-scale organic growers and makers, predominantly from the UK, is really important to our impact on the environment and local economic development. We’re committed to sourcing as much as possible from independent UK producers.

We do our best to inform and enthuse about what’s in season, and to provide the widest range our climate will allow. We extend seasons using polytunnels that don’t use artificial heat or light, and campaign for little-eaten British veg like cardoons and kohlrabi. For those committed to a truly homegrown, seasonal diet, we offer our 100% UK veg box.

Local isn’t always best!

In an ideal world, we would all eat with our local season. In the real world, however: bananas, citrus, a 12-month supply of tomatoes, peppers and apples… These things can’t be grown naturally in the UK, but have come to be viewed as non-negotiable essentials in most households. Given this reality, we’ve done a lot of research to allow us to make intelligent compromises.

There are two options: growing out-of-season produce at home using artificial heat (generated by burning gas or oil), or importation. In the Riverford Sustainable Development Project, Exeter University concluded that importation by road is by far the greener choice.

Take the example of tomatoes. For every kilo of tomatoes grown in a UK hothouse, 2-3 kilos of C02 are released into the atmosphere. When we can’t grow tomatoes at home without heat, we truck over naturally sun-ripened ones from Spain. Growing tomatoes in the UK with artificial heat would produce anywhere from 2-10 times as much carbon – and sun-ripened toms taste better, too.

No air freight

We never use air freight, which causes 40-50 times the C02 emissions of sea freight. When we can’t use sea freight, we transport via road. Driving from Europe isn’t always as far as it sounds; our farm in France, Le Boutinard, is the same driving distance from our Devon farm as the Fens.

The HGV industry has become very efficient: it is now common practice to buy high spec, high capacity trucks, and backload them so they rarely travel empty. Trucking of imports only accounts for 6% of our total carbon footprint; for comparison, our cardboard veg boxes account for 10%.

Delivering even greener veg

We’re swapping diesel vans to electric vehicles wherever range permits it (some of our more rural routes are too long for the range of electric vehicles at the moment). Van for van, this change will reduce emissions by up to 70%.

As of August 2021, we’ve electrified 11% of our van fleet. All our delivery vans will be 100% electric by 2025.

Here’s what else we do to make sure your delivery is as green as possible:

  • Organising routes to minimise distances. We carefully plan our weekly routes to minimise the distance travelled per drop. That’s why you have a fixed delivery day! We may be less flexible than supermarkets which let you choose a delivery time, but our deliveries are many times more efficient.
  • Fuel efficient vans and drivers. Until we go 100% electric, our vans are Euro 6 compliant (the cleanest diesel vehicles on the road), and use AdBlue, a urea solution added to fuel to further reduce emissions. Our drivers are sent on government-backed SAFE Driver course. This not only improves their safety, but also their efficiency; some show a reduction in fuel use of 10%.
  • Trialling electric cargo bike deliveries in urban areas. These are proving a great alternative to vans, saving carbon as well as cutting air pollution. E-cargo bikes emit 98% less greenhouses gases than diesel vans, with no tailpipe emissions.
  • Home deliveries are more efficient than going shopping in your own car. As a general point, most studies show that the final step, to customers’ doors, is the most energy-consuming stage of food’s journey; although distances are short, loads tend to be small. Exeter University found that because home delivery consolidates many people’s shopping journeys into one, it’s usually more efficient than going shopping in your own car.

Fighting food waste

Research suggests that reducing food waste would be the third most effective solution to fighting climate change. So where do we start to address the problem? At the start of the supply chain: on the farm. In the UK, an estimated 2.5 million tonnes of food are wasted on farms every year.

Selling directly to customers means that we can meticulously plan our boxes’ contents a year or more in advance. We grow the amount we expect to need, and that’s it. Few retailers agree, but we think it’s better to occasionally run out than to routinely overproduce.

We also have wider and more forgiving specs for fruit and veg than supermarkets. On occasions when something simply can’t go out to customers (if it’s too ripe, or damaged) our grade-out system finds a good home for it…

  • Charity donations. We’ve partnered with over ten different charities who distribute surplus fruit and veg. Find out more on our Charity Partnerships hub.
  • Our staff canteens and restaurant. Lots of our grade-out fruit and veg is used in the canteens on our farms, and also dished up at The Riverford Field Kitchen.
  • Free veg for staff! Our staff eat well. Not only do they get subsidised meals at work, but they get free fruit and veg to take home too.
  • The Riverford Dairy herd. Cows love veg! Who knew? Their favourite is broccoli, but they aren’t so keen on oranges. We can’t give them everything though; beetroot makes their milk pink. In total, we divert over 900 tonnes of root veg a year to livestock feed.

Biodiversity action

The UK’s biodiversity is in decline – and in recent years, the single biggest cause has been the intensification of agriculture. Organic is better for wildlife, with up to 30% more biodiversity on organic compared to conventionally farmed land. But this year, we’ve also set out a specific Biodiversity Action Plan to encourage nature on our farms.

Here’s what we’re doing:

  • We’ve commissioned ecologists to conduct baseline surveys of our farms in Devon and Peterborough, looking for bats, birds, and invertebrates. This will give us a picture of the current biodiversity, and highlight where we can make changes for the better.
  • In March 2021, our co-owners hand-planted over 800 native trees above our reservoir at Wash Farm, Devon. As well as increasing biodiversity and creating wildlife corridor links, this will sequester a cumulative total of 530 tCO2e (tonnes of CO2 equivalent) by 2050.
  • Also on our Devon farm, we’re preparing ground for an agroforestry trial area. Planting native fruit and nut trees amongst our field crops will provide food for people and animals, and sequester carbon, as well as improving biodiversity.

Growing with green power

Since 2007, we’ve bought green electricity from Ecotricity; mostly generated by sun and wind, and currently supplied through the National Grid. Ecotricity’s calculations show that with their help, we’ve prevented around 665 tonnes of C02 emissions in the last year alone. It would take nearly 321,000 trees to absorb that much carbon in the same time.

That’s brilliant – but we would rather someone else bought that green electricity, and we generated our own. We hope that within ten years, with the advance of battery technology, we will be able to generate most of our own power from on-farm wind turbines and solar panels. It will be a challenge – but watch this space.

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