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High velocity retail

I gave a talk at the World Retail Congress in Amsterdam last month, in return for a £2,000 donation to Send a Cow, a charity that helps small-scale family farmers in Uganda. I sensed it would be grim, but was unprepared for the life-sapping banality of so many global brands desperately searching for a pulse of originality in the corporate hell of a conference centre. Neither the conference strapline - 'High velocity retail' - nor the smoke machines, light show, or thudding beat of a ‘90s rave could breathe life into this moribund gathering.

A session on brands ‘craving authenticity’ (no irony detectable) was followed by a faintly uncomfortable Oxford philosophy professor. Looking as if he felt he might have sold his soul to the devil, he explained how we have moved beyond buying stuff, through services and experiences, past brands, and now want ‘meaning’ for our money (again no irony detectable). By this time my wife Geetie, who all along said I shouldn’t accept the invitation, had left in disgust. Despite my mounting revulsion at the cynical manipulation of consumers, I felt I should at least understand what we as a business are up against. 

Stuart Rose, formerly of Marks & Spencer and their eco initiative Plan A, told us that customers expect to buy what they want, where they want, when they want, and now expect to pay what they want for it. Such is the modern e-commerce frenzy, with everyone terrified of the Amazon tsunami sweeping in from the horizon. I was depressed to hear the man known as the ‘good, principled’ face of retail accept that running ever faster to meet the ever less reasonable whims of consumers, whatever the commercial, social and environmental cost, is an inevitable necessity.

Consumerism and excessive choice are at odds with conserving the future of the planet. 

As consumers, do we really want those choices anyway? The choice many of us want, but no speaker offered, is the chance to be part of the solution rather than the problem; we might even make a few sacrifices for that.

A marketing industry, so adept at mining our evolving insecurities and inner discontent to fuel the demand that is killing our planet and our souls, comes close to evil. We should all reject the ‘consumer’ label, with its implications of being passive and manipulated, and rise up to become responsible citizens with the confidence to find meaning in our lives without the medium of brands. My final advice to the audience was to "get the hell out of here while you still have a soul and a pulse".



    7 Months 4 Weeks

    Conferences are the worst. Well done for staying.

    I do worry, though, about the two-tier food system in the UK. We're becoming much better informed about the benefits of organic food, both for the environment and our health. But organic, ethically produced, plastic minimising food is more expensive than the supermarket alternative. There will be many people who understand and believe in the message that organic is better, but can't afford it. If you believe that message, how does it make you feel when you can't live by it?

    People with less money and time deserve the opportunity to make choices they're happy about, and to expect to be able to do that financially. Many families - and single people - don't have the resources to reject brands, to source and cook local ingredients, and to think about how to minimise waste. Many families are too busy, and too skint.

    Rather than turn our backs on the brands, those of us who are lucky enough to have the time and money to do something about it should keep supporting Riverford and local businesses but, importantly, put our efforts into convincing supermarkets/corporations to do better. They're not going anywhere any time soon and nor are the people who need them (me included, I'm afraid). We're (almost) all consumers whether we like it or not. Being a consumer is hugely powerful, and we should use that power to effect change.

    Having said all that, if anyone has any pointers as to how to do this effectively I'd be grateful. I'm not sure how much difference my emails to various customer services departments are making ;)

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    Comments Editor

    7 Months 4 Weeks

    Hi kitchentable thanks for contributing to the debate and raising some really interesting points. You may be interested in this Wicked Leeks article which discusses some of them further:

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    7 Months 2 Weeks

    Using your power as a regular consumer is hugely effective- two of the big four supermarkets have taken heed of all the emails etc and are tentatively moving into to plastic free ( Morrisons) or zero waste(waitrose) foods. Even better is to join campaigns run by the big lobbying groups Greenpeace or Friends of the earth. Meanwhile support local, organic production when you can.

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    anthony roper

    7 Months 3 Weeks

    I agree I don't like the title 'consumer' as though somehow I am their goods to be manipulated. I am a person amongst other titles, dad, citizen etc. anthony roper

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    7 Months 3 Weeks

    Food suppliers seem to be divided into those that want to pull the wool over your eyes (most) and those that don't (Riverford et al). The former may tell you what you are getting in the (increasingly) small print, but they try to convey a message which distracts from that truth. I am always looking to buy from the latter.

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    7 Months 3 Weeks

    I know a lot of people who can afford the higher cost of organic food but bury their heads in the sand, don't think organic is valid, or worse, just don't care - it astounds me. How we change people's attitudes I do not know. My hope is that the young demand better.

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    7 Months 2 Weeks

    Notwithstanding the excellent points about affordability (I found the article here very interesting:, the ever more desperate and frenetic pandering to whatever the consumer might want (or think s/he wants) is incredibly depressing. I'm so thankful that Riverford, and Guy, continue to raise these issues so forcefully and persuasively, and to speak for all of us who do want to be part of the solution, not the problem. And I agree that it is sad, though perhaps not surprising given the stranglehold of the supermarkets, that those who can afford it aren't making the change - or not fast enough.

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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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