Greenhouse Pioneer: Guy Watson, Riverford

To celebrate Soil Association’s Organic September, we caught up with Guy Watson, the man behind UK’s largest home-delivered organic veg boxes, Riverford.

To show the impressive scale in which Riverford has grown over the years, it all started with Guy delivering boxes of fruit and veg from the back of a car to his friends and family in Devon. 30 years on and theirveg boxes are now delivered to over 100,000 customers across the country. They pride themselves on their strong belief in the benefits and pleasures of fresh, seasonal organic food that are produced and delivered in a way that gives a fair deal to farmers, animals, customers, staff and the environment. Guy’s work hasn’t gone unnoticed as Riverford was recently awarded Ethical Product of the Decade in The Observer’s Ethical Awards 2015 (a regular winner in these Awards for the last 5 years!)

We had the pleasure to interview Guy who let us in on Riverford’s successes so far, the challenges they face and what can we, as individuals, do to make a difference.

Tell us about Riverford- what’s your mission?

Our ultimate aim is to make people feel like the vegetables they eat from our Riverford boxes come from their back garden. Our mission is to help people feel connected with where their fruit and vegetables come from so they have absolute trust that they’re being produced the right way with minimal impact on the environment. Plus it is also great to excite people about cooking with vegetables again!

What motivates you?

Trying to do something genuinely useful and valuable in the world really motivates me. The more original, the better.

What is your greatest achievement to date?

I think it’s our greatest achievement is Riverford still being here after 30 years. Running a successful business with a force for good, reasonable scale without losing sight of our core values is definitely an accomplishment.

What are the challenges you face?

Our main challenge is about not being blown off course by the constant pressure to commercialise what we do and not to be tempted to use short term solutions. Things that work long term are generally more sustainable and better for the environment – and this type of thinking isn’t always the norm for some businesses but I truly believe long-term thinking pays off.

What are you working on that’s getting you fired up and excited?

It’s different every day – we’ve just given away 100,000 of our sunflower crops to our customers in their veg boxes to use as bird seeds. It’s little things like that that I think is really exciting. We’re always looking for original ways of marketing that go beyond our normal channels.

Where do you want to take Riverford next?

We are planning to offer our employees stakeholder opportunities in the next 10-15 years and we will set up some sort of Trust for our employees too. What we don’t want is people who aren’t involved in our business to own it. We will be doing this so we can offer people internally who work for Riverford and are committed to our vision a stake in the business.

What can we, as individuals, do to make a difference?

It really depends on the individual. But I think challenging existing models of behaviour in business is a good one and we should never stop challenging companies about the way they do business. I think discounting is a lazy and unsustainable way of marketing so I think it’s important to challenge these businesses to work in a more sustainable and innovative way.

What’s the coolest project or product you’ve come across?

I have been really impressed by the recent social media campaign #RefugeesWelcome . It’s incredible how that tapped into people’s feelings about the crisis and how quickly it spread across social channels. It made a huge difference to the debate. Social media has become a democratising force and I find that very exciting, plus that campaign goes to show there is a desire out there to do stuff and to live with principles and that shows a much more humane response and behaviour than that of our politicians!

Can you recommend a life- or game-changing book for our readers?

It’s not a book but the TED talk by Dan Pink called ‘The Puzzle of motivation’ is really game-changing. In summary its about the gap between business and motivation and how there is a mismatch between what science knows and what business does. He’s also released a new book called ‘Drive‘ which I’ve been meaning to read – I’ve heard it will transform the way you think about business.

What do you listen to when you’re cooking dinner?

Radio 4 – I’m always learning from it and it’s always a pleasant, gentle noise in the background.

What’s the best advice you’ve ever been given?

Best advice I’ve ever been given is from my Aunt, she said ‘not to demonise my foe.’ which basically means, instead of demonising my enemy, try to understand them and their point of view.

Can you leave us with who’d be your Eco Hero?

Dale Vince from Ecotricity. He’s done things his own way has been very successful with it!

If you’d like to find out more about Riverford and their fruit and veg boxes visit their website or follow them on Twitter.