‘When we whistle, you jump’. Those were the words spat out by a supermarket buyer 30 years ago before putting the phone down on me; my mistake was to suggest an alternative day for an appointment. Such ritualistic abuse stems from an imbalance of power between buyer and seller, combined with an aggressive culture where buyers are promoted largely on their ability to generate margin per foot of shelf space.
It’s ultimately driven by a model of capitalism where distant shareholders demand returns without taking responsibility for, or interest in, how they are achieved. Things may have improved marginally since, but only because virtually all small and medium sized suppliers have been driven out of business, leaving only the larger more powerful players.
Today Riverford is itself a large buyer, bringing the danger of a slow slide into the norms of distrustful, short-term deal making. Dehumanising the relationship makes it easier to abuse; one reason supermarket buyers change categories so frequently. Fortunately, our history and being growers ourselves help us appreciate both sides of the relationship including the realities of growing and harvesting in all weathers, without an arsenal of pesticides and fertilisers to plaster over mistakes and misfortunes.
We also know and like our growers and producers, many of whom have been friends for years, and believe business should be enjoyable as far as possible. But there is always the commercial temptation to squeeze suppliers for short term gain, so, as we became employee owned and I renounced control, protection of suppliers was written into our founding documents.
Last month, after much consultation with suppliers and co-owners, this was crystalised into a Supplier Charter laying out, as specifically as possible, what we can expect of each other; how product specifications are created; how prices will be set; when payment will be made; and how disputes will be settled (critically via a third party ombudsman).
I am hugely proud that we have done this and, when the time comes, I will retire knowing our founding values are safe. This is a public document; for those with the time and interest the charter can be read here.