In 2006, Riverford completed our first environmental impact assessment with Exeter University. Back then it was hard to get staff interested, and even harder to make the changes recommended.
But we did make changes: we abandoned our well-meaning but ill-judged use of degradable (not compostable) plastic, which research showed to be worse for the environment than conventional plastic.
We stopped buying produce from heated glasshouses, even if local; definitely the right decision, though not always popular with dogmatic advocates of local sourcing. We quit early experiments with biofuels; most are a con and bad for the environment. We became wary of paper and card, even if recycled; carbon footprints were as high or higher than plastic. There was also a lot of unglamorous stuff, like checking for refrigerant leaks. We made a formal commitment never to airfreight.
We even carbon emission labelled our boxes – but, after a year, I had not met a customer who was influenced by it. Given the amount of work, we dropped it, concluding that customers expected us to do the right thing on their behalf, not just give them the info to choose for themselves (arguably an abdication of corporate responsibility).
Personally I became a vocal advocate of unified curbside waste collection across the UK, increasingly frustrated that our politicians and so many companies were more interested in being seen to be doing the right thing, than in the hard graft of actually doing it.
Perhaps our biggest learning was that knee-jerk assumptions are too often wrong. Detailed research is the key to good policies, not quick, headline-grabbing claims about planting trees or forsaking plastic straws. Environmental issues are almost always complex, and the solutions nuanced. The project was certainly worthwhile, but nowhere near enough to stop the ice melting. We need to do so much more.
Since 2006, we have survived recession, failing websites, conversion to employee ownership, the ongoing pandemic – and now, perhaps belatedly, we have completed an expansive update to our environmental assessment. This time, the mood among our co-owners is almost universally “so, what are we going to do about it?” As Tracy Chapman so poignantly sang: “If not now, then when?” She also sang “Finally the tables are starting to turn…” I will write about our response to the new study next week.