‘If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it.’ Though true and useful up to a point, this oversimplification can too easily morph into ‘if you can’t measure it, it isn’t worth having’, or even ‘it doesn’t exist’. The dogma has caused a huge amount of suffering and societal damage over its 40-year rule. I prefer ‘if something doesn’t feel right, it probably isn’t.’
There is no doubt that numbers are easier to manage than feelings and beliefs, but the best policymakers are able to incorporate both into their analysis and decision making; after all, most of the numbers we care about are the result of human behaviour, which, despite the economist’s fantasy of human rationality, is largely driven by emotions.
When it comes to environmental and social impacts, we should measure what we can, while not kidding ourselves that everything that matters is included, and while being wary of the distortions that result from a narrow focus on measurables. When the measurement becomes the goal, as it too often does under short-termist, unimaginative management, it ceases to be useful.
With these limitations in mind, we have repeated and improved on our 2006 environmental impact assessment, working again with Exeter University. For those interested, our first annual sustainability report can be read at bit.ly/2YNyU4G, or go to riverford.co.uk/ethics-and-ethos and find ‘Making Riverford sustainable’.
Credit to the author, our own Zac Goodall; it is informative, readable, and only occasionally self-congratulatory. Rightly, the focus of the report is our carbon footprint. As previously, transport is our biggest sin, and the final delivery to the door is the most carbon costly – so we are converting over 70 per cent of our vans to electric by 2023.
But there is also emphasis on packaging. All our fruit and veg will be 100 per cent plastic free by the end of this year; it will cost us a lot, and we don’t expect anyone to follow, but we are doing it anyway. Hidden from view, astronomical quantities of single-use plastic are used in the supply chain, to wrap and stabilise pallets; in our case it is 25 per cent of all plastic use.
Few outsiders see this, but everyone in the business agrees it is unacceptable. This is where measurement is most valuable: in focusing attention on the things that really matter, but are less visible and emotive to customers. We will hang our heads in shame if this figure is not massively reduced