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Big Business Blues

A lady from the telly called today. She was researching a programme due to be broadcast in the Autumn. The programme will apparently investigate box schemes who swindle their customers by selling them conventionally grown fruit and veg and claim that it is organic so that they can charge lots of money. The lady from the telly was calling me to see if I could give her any information about unscrupulous box schemes such as the one she described.

I was gobsmacked. For possibly the first time in my life (my teacher in primary school nick-named me Chatterbox!!) I was left speechless. I finally came to my senses and let her know what I thought in no uncertain terms: namely that the programme which she was researching is based on absolutely nothing.

I have been in and around the organic industry for many years, and I have never come across a single box scheme that sells counterfeit veg. I have noticed quality and freshness of produce vary, price and variety of fruits waver, taste and juiciness fluctuate, but never a non-organic banana passing off as a bonafide organic one. Not in a box scheme. Never.

Box schemes are by their very nature run by people genuinely committed to purveying the real mccoy. Box schemes are a lot of hard work to run. From getting a strong customer base to finding reliable delivery people, box schemes are far from the easiest kind of business to run. Selecting fine produce, keeping types of veg varied even during the ‘hungry gap’, finding knowledgable people to answer customers calls… And lots of them are not even businesses as such, but are in fact cooperatives.

Making a box scheme work is a labour of love. The only reason in the whole wide world to bother with the palava of running a box scheme is if you are genuinely committed to organic food and farming. If anybody ever had the idea that running a box scheme is an easy route to a quick buck, I’m happy to inform them that they should consider another profession. Box schemes are tricky.

The lady from the telly went a bit quiet and then asked me if I knew of any other rip-offs in the organic world. She wanted to know if I had come across other instances of people selling fake organic items in order to demand a higher premium, i.e. more cash.

This area of concern I think has a little more breadth for truth. The most huge and obvious non-organic pretender in the UK market has to be Organics shampoo and conditioners. Made by the Elida brand name, Organics haircare products are the ones in the green plastic bottles in your supermarket, and they are the market leader. This means that they sell more shampoo and conditioner than any other brand name in the UK. Lots of product.

My guess is that a good precentage of Organics shampoo customers buy this brand because they believe that the product inside the reassuringly green bottles is, in fact, organic. It is not. Not even slightly. Organics shampoo contains a blend of petrochemical compounds, synthetic fragrances and dyes, a particularly dodgy chemical called sodium laurel sulphate and lots of other goo. It does not contain any organic herbs, organic water, or anything else remotely organic. In a recent survey of consumers, 75% of the 2000 people questioned said that they used an organic personal care product on a daily basis. They must have been referring to Elida’s Organics range, and had obviously been misled to believe that their product was organic.

Charlotte Vohtz is the founder of Green People, a company that makes authentic organic personal care products. Their range includes hair and body care, skin care, toothpastes and mouthwashes, ‘happy kids range’, herbal supplements, sun care and home cleaning products. Charlotte believes passionately about the importance of setting standards so that consumers are not misled.

I think the result of the survey speaks for itself! The poor consumer is misled into believing they are using organic products, and probably believe they are being kind to themselves and the environment.

We need to set standards for non-food organic products to ensure use of this word can be protected. Consumers can then look for a symbol like the Soil Association symbol, and know that the ingredients listed as organic truly are organic. The Soil Association are working on new guidelines for personal care products at this very moment. They will hopefully have them finalised by the end of this year.

Until these guidelines have been set, consumers are encouraged to be extremely careful when buying non-food products which claim to be organic. I recommend using ones made by smaller companies who list their ingredients clearly. Products that are sold as ‘natural’, in plainer packaging, or in health food shops are not automatically organic, and often contain an unpleasant chemical called sodium lauryl sulphate. And we will not be able to feel totally confident with products labelled organic until there is a similar legal position towards non-food products as there is for foods. Throughout the European Union, you can be taken to court for a criminal offence if you label a non-organic food as organic. There is a very serious case for making these standards applicable for non-food products.

The Soil Association will be presenting their guidelines to UKROFS and hope that they will be taken on board. Providing they have evidence that it can be implemented, any responsible Government should adopt this policy to prevent customers from being cheated and give them the reassurance that they are buying truly organic products.

Again and again I have been questioned by researchers about the relative price of organic and non-organic foods and products. And every time I try to explain that they are not comparing like with like. Organic food contains about 50% more vitamins, minerals and enzymes, an unquantifiable amount of more flavour, texture, juice and aroma, and protects the environment, water table, hedgerows, wildlife and birds, and butterflies. Agrochemically grown foods are simply an inferior product that irreparably damages our planet. So the extra few pence I pay for each delicious and nutritious apple that I eat is buying me the real thing that my body needs to keep me happy and healthy, not a rubbishy substitute!

Sarah Ratty from Ciel is an fashion visionary, designing wearable, gorgeous clothing made from strictly environmental hi-tech fabrics. I asked her if she had any experiences being undermined by less ethical businesses:

I think every design company has been copied at some point, and we are no exception. We just have to carry on with design integrity and feel flattered by the homage to our designs! But I wish that were receiving the financial benefits, too!

There was a magazine article last year that compared an item of Conscious Earthwear with a similar item from a high street retailer. The magazine then highlighted the difference in price between the two products, and came to the conclusion that the high street item was better value for money. But like all eco-friendly products, we are paying a bit more money for a much better and more desirable thing. Conscious Earthwear clothing is made in the UK by skilled workers on a fair wage from ecologically-sound fabrics. Cheap high street clothes are made in developing countries in unmonitored factories from highly unecological fabrics. So they are cheaper, but at what cost to the people who make them and to the planet?

Sarah has not come across clothes claiming to be ecological unless they are, but as with other areas, she has noticed a trend to wilfully mislead consumers:

I think that clothes don’t so much claim to be eco as be labelled with euphemistic words such as ‘natural’ or ‘natural feel’, especially cotton fabrics. This doesn’t tell the consumer anything about its environmental origin. There isn’t really any consumer body yet. There is the Eco Labelling Board which has labelled some textiles, but not for fashion. There’s also a voluntary environmental agency in Germany for textiles, fibres, blends and fabrics which demand an environmental audit before they can carry the label. This is known as the ‘Oekertext Standard’, but can only apply to fibres or fabrics, not a finished garment or household product as yet. As a company, we try very hard to work with environmentally responsible manufacturers of fabrics. We ask for the eco specification where available, and look at their eco standard when making decisions about which cloth to buy. Because the processing might be more expensive for eco fabrics, it often makes these cloths a more expensive option.

The more that companies buy eco-friendly fabrics, the more inexpensive they will become in the same way as organic food continues to become cheaper as more and more people buy it. Ultimately this means that consumers who buy eco clothing are helping to create a market where everybody will be able to afford to wear green, in many different colours! But irresponsible manufacturers and retailers who continue to mislead the public with dubious descriptions are undermining this progress. Continuing their quest for an eco future, Conscious Earthwear have been collaborating with Solar Century to create a garment that is solar powered:

It utilises solar power through panels which are housed in various pockets which can contain items for the modern professional on the move. The solar panels can generate enough power to supply a walkman, personal organiser and mobile phone. The items we have developed are a ‘Planet Walker’ body warmer in men’s and women’s sizes, and a funky solar bag.

There are many examples of ways in which the big boys are often undermining the organic movement, other than misleading descriptions of non-eco products. Despite the fantastic distribution and marketing possibilities that multiple retailers provide for organic food, supermarkets also have the potential to destroy the UK organic farming movement. Helen Browning OBE is the chairman of the Soil Association and the owner of Eastbrook Farm, one of the UK’s largest organic meat farms. She is the main supplier of organic meats to supermarkets such as Sainsburys, and a distinguished and knowledgable speaker on organic foods and farming, as well as running a meat delivery service and village butcher’s. Nobody knows more about organic food in relation to multiple retailers than Helen Browning and her team.

Helen is very concerned about what she calls the Walmart effect:

In my view, the threat that the takeover of Asda by Walmart last year to the organic sector is really quite substantial. I really am very worried indeed that we are going to see supermarkets fighting to reduce the price of food. That will include organic food to the point which will make it even less profitable for organic farmers to remain in business. It will affect the whole of the UK food industry, and it has already made an impact on the UK organic food industry. It already means that supermarkets are importing organic products even when domestic products are available, and that’s going to happen more and more.

We’re trying to sell organic pork products from Eastbrook Farm to multiple retailers and it’s very difficult to compete on price with Denmark or some other countries. I’m very keen on Danish farmers, but they are being subsidised to a much higher level than we are, and the organic standards vary in different member states. We’re very much in danger of pushing our own organic farmers out of business in a few years time, and trampling the organic sector when it’s still at a very early stage. If in the long term we manage to acheive policy changes that I’d like to see, then these things won’t be quite such an issue. At the moment, I am very worried indeed about this kind of price pressure at a time when we haven’t really established this sector.

The policy changes that Helen and many other organic campaigners would like to see implemented make a lot of environmental and financial sense. There is a huge amount of interest from agrochemical farmers in converting to organic farming methods. The Soil Association’s Organic Conversion Information Scheme attracted enquiries from about 70% of the whole of the UK farming community. The interest to go organic is very well established. The reason why more conventional farmers have not converted their farms to organic systems is simply a matter of money.

All European farmers are subsidised to produce food. The reasoning behind this policy was to prevent food shortages which many Europeans endured during the last century. Subsidising policies were written fifty years ago, and the emphasis was to encourage as much food as possible to be produced to prevent shortages. Over the last thirty years, these policies have resulted in a huge surplus of agrochemically produced foods. Organic farming was not encouraged by these old-fashioned subsidies, and agrochemical farming practices still receive lots of European taxpayers money.

We spend 3 billion pounds every year on subsidising UK agrochemical farms. In real terms, this means that a farmer with a medium sized farm is likely to receive a cheque for about 150,000 pounds every January, before he has produced any foods at all. If this same farmer had the same farm but converted to organic production methods, he would receive on 50,000 pounds in subsidies. The loss of 100,000 pounds every year is putting interested conventional farmers off the idea of going organic. However much they are attracted by all of the countless benefits that organic farming techniques offer, they feel that the loss of this huge amount of money makes conversion unworkable.

Whilst I have some sympathy for conventional farmers facing this difficult dilemma, it is devastating news for the UK organic farming movement and organic consumers. We want more UK grown organic food because it is fresher than imported organic food. Fresher organic food means that it is likely to be higher in vitamins, minerals and enzymes as well as tastier. In order to import fresh produce, much of it is is picked well before it has naturally ripened and then refrigerated. Just as important are considerations about ‘food miles’. This term refers to the amount of distance food travels until it reaches your plate in relation to the amount of energy it has taken to get there. The more trains, planes and automobiles needed to distribute your organic food, the more energy is used. Ultimately this means that we start undermining the ecological benefits of organic farming by polluting the planet with fossil fuel emissions and CFC’s from aeroplanes.

It is a false economy to support conventional farming in the way that European subsidies do. Not only do we spend 3 billion pounds on subsidies to agrochemical farmers every year, we then spend a further 2.3 billion pounds annually cleaning up their mess. This money is spent on pollution management of our waterways and water table, as the poisous chemicals used in conventional farming trickle away from the original fields they are sprayed onto. So UK taxpayers are spending 5.3 billion pounds every year to support a farming system that produces less nutritious and less desirable food than the organic and eco-friendly alternative. And this figure does not include the costs to the NHS of treating illness caused, prolonged or exacerbated by poor diet due to intensively farmed foods.

Helen Browning knows a better way to move into the new century. Helen and a team of scientists and mathematicians at the Soil Association have calculated that it would cost 1.2 billion pounds per year over 5 years to convert all agrochemical farms in the UK to organic farming methods. This represents a huge financial saving to allow UK farmers to cultivate the land in the way which they really would like to. And it means that the UK would produce an abundance of top quality organic produce to be sold to UK consumers like me and you at a fair and reasonable price. And on a global scale, UK organic produce could be exported to countries with more demand for organic food than capability of organic production, just like the UK is today.

So here’s to a future that supports organic farming, organic foods and every other kind of organic product in an ethically successful, truthfully labelled and economical way.


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