The reality of reaching scale without compromising your values. The Riverford Organics Story with Guy Singh-Watson

The second session of Social Enterprise Futures was billed as a frank and open discussion and the interview with Guy Singh-Watson, founder of Riverford, certainly delivered on this.

Riverford Organic Farmers are now well known for their veg boxes and have seen remarkable growth over the past few years, Guy estimates that a box is delivered to someone every two seconds every working day, but it hasn’t always been this way. Riverford started out as a one man with a wheelbarrow operation which has transformed itself into an employee-owned business supplying 80,000 customers a week and turning over £160m.

Guy joined CEO of Expert Impact and Vice Chair of SEUK, Karen Lynch to talk about the Riverford story focusing on the tension that can exist to grow a business whilst holding onto your values.

What makes Riverford different?

A big reason that Guy set up Riverford was a desire to get away from the “intellectually stimulating but morally bankrupt” corporate world he started working in. He lamented a business environment which denies our humanity stating that “why do we have to be such cold-hearted b******s when we go to work!”.

He wanted to challenge the neo-liberal capitalist assumption that to get things done you have to act out of your own self-interest. What perhaps best reflects this is the 2018 decision to make the company employee-owned with Riverford’s 1,100 staff now owning 76% of the company. Of course another substantial aspect of what makes Riverford different is its commitment to sustainable agricultural practices – Guy stating that farming and the processes associated with it result in around 50% of all greenhouse gas emissions. 

Challenges of reaching scale

“If you’re under pressure commercially it becomes hard to sometimes do the things you want to do”

It’s definitely not all been plain sailing growing Riverford from a small project to a business turning over millions and Guy did not share way from the real challenges this journey entailed.

The bigger the business grew the more staff it employed and this of course required putting in place adequate systems and processes to ensure people were treated in a respectful way. Guy was open and honest that initially, they got things wrong, that staff welfare was neglected and even that up until 5 years ago there was a macho culture within the business.

Some would wonder whether these are things that could have been addressed sooner and it was surprising that the company only just started paying people the Living Wage but what was clear in Guy’s interview was a desire to learn from past mistakes and put in place systems to empower staff and ensure the organisation’s values are actually reflected in its actions. What it showed was how, even for a business wanting to do things differently, commercial pressures can often get in the way.

What is holding the social enterprise back in going for growth?

A rather controversial part of the discussion centred on the question of what is preventing social enterprises from scaling up. Guy believes that there are too many businesses professing to be driven by their values but which are “not sufficiently able to do the things they actually do well.”

Social entrepreneurs can and do often fall into the trap of starting up a business motivated by a social or environmental goal but without the business acumen or skills needed to create a commercially viable business. Guy stressed that you “can’t deliver on your values unless you’re really good at what you do”. Whilst this certainly rings true, research has consistently shown that social enterprises outperform other businesses when it comes to both growth and innovation. 44% grew their turnover last year in the midst of a global pandemic and 66% introduced a new product or service.

How do we get businesses to act more ethically?

Guy was passionate about the need to call out bad business practices particularly with regard to environmental harm. He believes that self-regulation regarding climate commitments is a sham and in the need for a fossil fuel/carbon tax. He also berated the large-scale representation of fossil fuel companies at the COP26 Summit in Glasgow.

Where he ended was that he saw real value in the ability of social enterprises to do things differently. Whilst he did not mention the sector much during the session you got the feeling that the social enterprise model to him is the counter to the self-centred, shareholder value driven corporate model he had come to despise. His final comments to the sector being “You can prove that as human beings we are more noble than just greed and self-interest.”