Safia talks to Guy and Geetie about the organic movement and the importance of Fair Trade.
Interview by Safia with Geetie Singh, founder of the organic pub, Duke of Cambridge and Trustee of the People Tree Foundation
Safia: As one of the key players in the organic movement, what would you say are the major similarities between the organic movement and the Fair Trade movement.
Geetie: My entire involvement with the organic movement is about trying to make positive change; about having a positive effect on society and the environment. The same is true of my involvement with the Fair Trade movement. I buy as much Fair Trade as possible for the pub – tea and coffee, spices and wine.
Safia: How about in your own life; what do you do to make your lifestyle and wardrobe more sustainable?
Geetie: As far as food is concerned I always buy organic, local and seasonal. I have never bought from supermarkets. In London there are loads of farmers markets, so there is no excuse for not finding an alternative to the supermarket – it is incredibly easy.
However, things are a bit different with fashion. I have bought in charity shops, as well as vintage markets, I also buy hand made and home made as much as possible. Until fairly recently, it has been hard to apply the same kind of principles that I apply to food to fashion. But now, People Tree’s range is stunning – you can dress head to toe in ‘new’ and still be ethical. I have an absolute philosophy which I apply to my daughter, Mabel – organic, Fair Trade, home made, second hand and she doesn’t have anything else ! I apply that to my own wardrobe 80% of the time. For the rest, I try to buy good quality that will last forever. I never buy Top Shop or any of those high street brands where you haven’t got a clue where or how the clothes have been made.
Safia: As you are coming to Fair Trade from the organic movement, are you most interested in organic cotton, locally grown, the environmental side of things, or does the idea of hand weaving, hand embroidery, hand knitting also excite you – that is to say, the craft, livelihoods the social side of what People Tree does?
Geetie: Organic cotton is really important to me. If things were just Fair Trade with no thought of their impact on the environment, I would see that as a massive compromise. However, quality of material, hand skills and detailing is also very important to me; I am very passionate about fabrics and textures, I like to feel things when I buy them. You can see and feel quite quickly when something is good quality, when you have developed an eye for it. I always pride myself on being able the walk into a charity shop and choose the best stuff very quickly.
Safia: Can you tell us about one of your favourite textiles you have in your home that you treasure? Is there a People Tree piece you particularly like because of its hand crafted nature?
Geetie: People Tree clothes are so beautifully made, it’s hard to pick out one particular piece – however, I would say that I really love your hand knits – they feel so hand made! At home, I have some gorgeous pieces that have been handed down through my family. I have some lovely blankets, that came from my great grandmother lying over an armchair in the corner of my bedroom – no one is allowed to touch them! I made a blind out of a piece of material from my Indian granny. At the end of the bed is my granny’s shawl that she use to wear in bed. Thrown over that is my great aunt Margaret’s cashmere shawl. So – it’s as if I have all my grannies represented in beautiful pieces of material.
Safia: Why did you become involved with the People Tree Foundation as a Trustee?
Geetie: I am completely blown away by the way you and your team run People Tree. I am so impressed by your business model and the positive impact you have on the world. Being a trustee I’ve learnt a lot about how effective individuals can actually be. My hope is that we can support the Foundation to fund more Fair Trade and attract more fashion businesses to act responsibly.
Interview by Safia with Guy Watson, Founder of Riverford Farms, Organic Produce.
Safia: What brought you to the organic movement?
Guy: It was an emerging market. I was a young man wanting to start my own business and it looked like a good prospect. What’s more, from a personal perspective, I did not want to use pesticides. Over the years my commitment to it has grown and grown.
Safia: Why didn’t you want to use pesticides?
Guy: My brother had been in hospital with pesticide poisoning; also, as young man, I had made myself very ill by using pesticides on crops. I simply didn’t want to handle those chemicals anymore.
Safia: Riverford Farms is now a very successful business, however, in the beginning it must have been quite small and niche – what was the turing point of that success?
Guy: At the start, I sold vegetables to local shops mainly because they were fresh and tasted better rather than because they were organic. Over time, I got better at it and made fewer mistakes. The market began to develop, it became easier to sell organic produce and get a premium for produce. The business started in 1986, by about 1993 things were easier and then it snow-balled from 1998-2007 – this was a period of astronomical growth when the whole organic food market took off.
Safia: What do you think lead to consumer awareness and their desire to buy organic food?
Guy: I think that people had been looking for change for some time – there was a growing distrust of the way food was produced and a desire for something better. We were lucky – we filled that gap and there really wasn’t any competition in the early days. That is different now.
Safia: Yes – now you can easily buy organic food in the supermarkets – what impact has that had on Riverford Organic Farms? What difference does it make to you that people now have the choice to shop for organic in the supermarkets?
Guy: I don’t see what we do as connected in any way with organic food sold in the supermarket; if is over packaged and very anonymous – no one knows who grew it or where it came from. A lot of supermarket organics are grown in specialist, controlled sites for appearance rather than flavour. Often they don’t taste any different from conventional vegetables – I feel that simply being ‘organic’ isn’t enough on its own – produce also has to taste better.
Take the humble carrot for example. We have put a lot of effort into trying to find a better tasting carrot variety – I grew almost every commercial variety and every old fashioned variety and did a taste test. Generally speaking taste tests are not very conclusive, but in this case the results were overwhelming – the Nairobi carrots which is 50% of the UK market tested foul! Everyone agreed, even the growers, but they continued to grow them because they are robust (that is to say resistant to mechanical harvesting, bagging and handling) a good shape and produce a high yield. Sadly, the farmers could not get any more money for a growing a better tasting carrot and as they are simply trying to make a living, they had no choice but to grow Nairobi. At Riverford, we decided to grow a carrot called Junior – people came from miles around to buy it, but it was more expensive.
Safia: So that’s why your carrots taste so good! There are parallels with the cotton growing industry and in Fair Trade fashion. At People Tree we are constantly trying to change this ‘race to the bottom’ in the name of profit.
Guy: Yes – like you, my aim is to make good food and organic food available to all – I don’t want it to be an elitist thing. In order to do that I have to grow hybrid varieties – these bring huge benefits in terms of a quick, robust and uniform harvest with an acceptable shelf life. If I only grew heirloom varieties, I wouldn’t be in business. However, one has to know where to draw the line – sadly there is constant erosion in the industry and standards drop more and more as business chase short term profit. I refuse to buy a peach nowadays – they are simply grown for shelf life and they are always horrid – tomatoes the same – the ones that come in from Spain have unbelievably thick skins so they survive shipping and then can exist in our supermarkets for week. At Riverford, we put an emphasis on flavour, we pick as ripe as possible, but things have to ship and sell quickly.
Safia: What do you see are the similarities between the organic movement and the Fair Trade movement.
Guy: Both are trying to use the market to create a better world, We are trying to use business in a positive way by bringing ethical and environmental benefits to farming. It is fraught with difficulty, but it’s better than doing nothing.
Safia: Do you think we could use legislation to give business like ours a better chance to compete with products made in a way that exploits people or the environment?
Guy: I can’t see how it can be legislated for – government are far too slow to act, even when there are pretty clear alarm bells ringing.
Safia: Never the less – we have survived and here you are wearing a People Tree hand woven shirt and trousers !
Guy: I love the feeling of your clothes, I love the feeling of the fabric.