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Ethical business

Guy’s news: Discount marketing; our quiet revolution

How can a bank offer you £150 to open an account; a broadband company offer a rock bottom introductory tariff; a veg box supplier offer your fourth box free; a supermarket £20 off your first delivery? Answer: by making someone else pay for it, through inflated prices for existing customers, squeezing farmers or paying staff less. It is the model which almost all subscription businesses work to. If you can be bothered to be a ‘savvy shopper’ and spend your life forever switching suppliers you can do pretty well out of it, but as the service providers know full well, most of us are just too busy; or maybe we find a world where trust equates to “sucker” so dispiriting that we would rather just ignore it and get duped. There is even a new profession of data analysts, complete with predictive algorithms, working out what level of abuse of existing customers’ loyalty will yield the best growth and profit. It makes my blood boil; all the more because for a while we became part of it, for which I apologise.

I am convinced that most people, most of the time are happy to pay a fair price; what it costs to make something in a competent and efficient manner with due respect for people and the environment, plus a modest profit. This is the basis upon which Riverford was founded 30 years ago, but while we have always paid our fellow farmers fairly and worked with them for the long term, more recently we dipped our toes into the cesspool of discount marketing, being persuaded that this was the only way to compete. Two years ago I could bear it no longer. I declared I would rather go bust than follow this path of abusing the trust of our most loyal customers; it turned out most staff agreed. We have since stopped offering discounts, stopped paying dubious companies to knock on doors, stopped using voucher sites and significantly cut back on leafleting and advertising. Instead we are concentrating on growing good veg, looking after our existing customers, and have taken all sales back in-house through our own staff who know our veg and our values. The results would not satisfy a venture capitalist investor but we are sufficiently reassured to declare that we will never offer anything to a new customer that we don’t offer to existing ones. That may sound tame, but in an industry racing to the bottom, it is a quiet revolution.

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    Guy Singh-Watson

    Self-confessed veg nerd, Guy Singh-Watson has over the last 30 years taken Riverford from one man and a wheelbarrow delivering homegrown organic veg to friends, to a national veg box scheme delivering to around 50,000 customers a week. Guy is an opinionated and admired figure in the world of organic farming, who still spends more time in the fields than in the boardroom. Twice awarded BBC Radio 4 Farmer of the Year, Guy is passionate about sharing with others the organic farming and business knowledge he has accumulated over the last three decades. His video rants have provided a powerful platform to do this, with a video on pesticides going viral on Facebook to reach 5.6 million views and 91,000 shares. His weekly veg box newsletters connect customers to the farm with refreshingly honest accounts of the trials and tribulations of producing organic food, and the occasional rant about farming, ethical and business issues he feels strongly about. In June 2018, Guy handed over the reins of Riverford to its staff, choosing employee ownership as the model that will protect Riverford's ethical values forever and ensure the security of its employees.  

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