57) Riverford, scalability, and balance

There has been a lot of discussion on Lesley's blog, recently, about good environmental practice, ethical practice, buying local, buying organic, and selling out.

Riverford organic boxes are one company that's been hotly debated.  They have garnered flak for selling out, for putting thousands of 'food miles' on the roads every year with their lorries, and even for having noisy and inconsiderate drivers.

On the other hand, they were introduced into the conversation because they were one commenter's best chance of getting fresh, organic produce in the middle of London.

As a Riverford customer, I read the discussion with interest, surprise, amusement and, at times, indignation.  I wouldn't say I'm a staunch advocate of Riverford, and they are definitely now a 'big business', but I honestly think they are doing a good job, right now, in the world as it is, right now.  And they are a really good example of the sort of business that will have to grow and flourish before ethical consumerism can become a mainstream choice instead of the niche preserve of the few.

Is it perfect?  No.

In our perfectionism, we get dangerously close to doing nothing at all.  Yes, ideally perhaps we should all live in small, self-sufficient communities where we can trade strawberries for fresh milk over the garden gate, but we don't.  And we can't.  England is not self sufficient  There are too many humans on the soil of this country for there to be enough soil remaining to feed them.

Is it better?  Yes.
Those that have the time and the inclination to grow (a significant amount of) their own produce are actually few and far between.  We only feel like we are many because we talk to our own kind.  We will always go out of our way to become informed, to do our bit, to go above and beyond.  Those that don't give a crap about where their food comes from so long as they can eat cheap chicken for dinner every day actually form the vast majority of this society.  We can't do much about them except wait for the trickle-down effect to permeate the way food is delivered to them, or perhaps hope to spark the occasional epiphany.  The people in the middle are the ones who are crying out for help.  There *are* a lot of them, and they care, but if you don't make it easy for them, they're not going to follow their instincts.  They probably work full time, have children, pets, a home to care for and you don't want to know what else (yes, you might do too.  Everyone organises their priorities differently, and that's the point I'm trying to make).  Their options are usually the local supermarket, the local farmer's market or farm shop, or a veg box.  I don't know about you, but my local supermarket flies its organic green beans in from South Africa, and its mange tout from Israel, and packages them in huge quantities of plastic, to boot.  My local farm shop (though it has an excellent, local butcher's shop attached) turned me off the first time I visited by presenting me with large, suspiciously shiny aubergines at knock-down prices.  In November.

We have become programmed to believe that a big business is necessarily bad.  That becoming a big business entails selling out.  That a big business is necessarily lying to us, and 'spinning' everything they tell us.  But a big business is probably the only type that the harried middle-people can find, and can trust to cater to them in the chaos of their daily merry-go-rounds.  And pretty much every business starts out small, and grows because people like what they do.  Even Starbucks.  Even MacDonalds.  And even Tesco.

I honestly believe that companies like Riverford do their best.  I know they never air freight.  But did you know that hothouse tomatoes in the off-season are just as bad, in terms of carbon emissions, as air-freighted?  So they have chosen to truck tomatoes up from northern Spain which, horrifying as it sounds, is less bad.  The trucks heading up the M5, distressing though they might be if they pass your front door, are less painful than the planes flying in from South Africa (and then the trucks heading out from whereever airport to the supermarkets).  They have pitched their business at the middle-people.  The ones who want to make a difference but who are, as yet, unwilling to accept that fresh tomatoes are actually only available, by nature, three months of the year.

Small changes add up.  They really do.  Maybe it is arrogance to believe we can change, or save the world, but an attitude of responsibility can't hurt, can it?


  • We used to buy from Riverford, but then we swapped to Cofco (www.cofco.co.uk), which is local, and buys from local farmers as much as possible.

    19th June 2009
  • It seems to me that if people don’t support the pretty successful, pretty environmental companies, then they won’t be able to stay in business, and you’ll be left with Tescos.
    It reminds me of the olden days in the punk music scene: if you got a record contract, you were selling out — but how the heck did people on the west coast of Canada ever hear about the Sex Pistols? Guess what, they made records…
    Punk music, fresh tomatoes, whatever…

    19th June 2009
  • It’s such a challenge to be responsible in all these different ways, isn’t it? We have been getting a veg box weekly from a local organic farm who only give you what they grow themselves. It is fresh and healthy and, because it is Scotland, there is a heck of a lot of turnip. We so look forward to the summer months. Then last summer they proudly sent us… a new variety of summer turnip! For the last few weeks we have been taking a break and buying our veg from the supermarket just to get away from the roots, so for now we have no ethical credentials at all.
    I do like kale, though. Don’t mind plenty of locally grown organic kale in my diet!

    20th June 2009
  • Ruth

    I hate the supermarkets flying in veg from around world, and only buy from within Europe as a personal rule. But with my veg box (every other week 70% veg 30% fruit) a lot of it comes from West Wales and although that means that some of it may have travelled further than Riverford’s, but I like knowing that i’m supporting Welsh growers.

    21st June 2009

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