How to be an ethical co-owner

When employees are keen to ensure we don’t err too far on the side of making money at the expense of environmental sustainability, that’s a sign of ethical ownership, writes Riverford co-owner Richard Turner.

The first anniversary of Riverford becoming employee-owned is a good time to reflect upon how the business has changed, and to look to the future. The first year of employee-ownership was always going to be an important and busy one, as we set in place the bodies that now complement the board of directors in Riverford’s governance structure: the co-owner council and the board of trustees. 

Being one of those elected, of particular interest to me was the election of the co-owner council in October, a significant milestone on our employee ownership journey. With the council, co-owners now have a process by which we can communicate issues we feel are especially important to the board. If we, collectively, feel that our company should be focusing on a specific issue we can make a proposal to the board for spending time and resources on that issue.

This process gives us an extraordinary amount of influence over the future of Riverford, and we hope that it can be a great way to harness our collective wisdom to enable the board to make better, more informed decisions. 

I think the way the council has changed since October gives an insight into the way the wider business has too. Initially council discussions centred around smaller issues as we stretched our wings, and in more recent months, larger questions about how Riverford is run have come to the fore. Those questions come from a more engaged spread of co-owners, more confident in their right to ask such searching questions and, hopefully, more confident in the council getting answers and making a difference. 

In my own constituency I’ve seen gratifying growth in engagement and interest in how the company is run. My colleagues are interested in issues of culture and business outside of their own roles, which I think is great. We’re asking questions about Riverford’s environmental impact, how our ethics affect how we conduct our business, how much we can influence the companies we work with towards making more ethical choices. 

In our June council meeting, I brought some constituents’ questions about Riverford’s environmental impact. Some were queries about the ways in which Riverford cares for the environment, and how we plan to do more in future, but to me the ones that illustrate co-owners’ sense of responsibility were questions like ‘when Riverford has to make a decision that’s a compromise between commercial success and environmental sustainability, how is that decision made and by whom? Where do we draw the line between these two competing pressures?’

By asking these questions we realised we need to be more outspoken about the lengths we go to in caring for our environment, but also that Guy, our founder, did absolutely the right thing by choosing to sell Riverford to its staff. When employees are keen to ensure we don’t err too far on the side of making money at the expense of environmental sustainability, that’s a sign of responsible, ethical ownership. 

Looking to the future, with its enthusiastic and responsible co-owners, I foresee Riverford becoming much more than an organic veg company; as we each become more aware of our capabilities as co-owners Riverford will become an example of how to both run a successful business and do good. 


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