Organic Articles: Organic Hero

The Organic Consultancy

Organic Food

Simon Wright of O&F Consulting, London – Organic Hero Of the Month

This article originally appeared on the Soil Association Website during March 2008

What do you do?
Since 1986 I have worked to develop the market for organic and Fairtrade food and drink. O&F Consulting works in partnership with ingredient suppliers, own-label manufacturers, producers of major brands, supermarkets, independent retailers, government departments and trade bodies. I am chair of the Soil Association Ethically Traded Organic Standards Committee and a member of the Soil Association Standards Board.

Can you give a short history of how you got to where you are now, including why and when you ‘went organic’?
I am a Food Scientist/Technologist (think Beaker from the Muppets – white coat with lots of pens in top pocket) and spent my early years in new product development with companies such as Nestle, United Biscuits and Unilever Sweden. This was in the late 80’s and most of my work seemed to be about reformulating recipes to make them cheaper. I had also read “E is for Additives” by Maurice Hanssen and was beginning to have grave doubts about some of the ingredients with which I was working.

I had read about organic food beginning to happen in the US so I approached the only company in the UK doing processed organic food (Whole Earth) and persuaded the owner Craig Sams to employ me. After 9 successful years at Whole Earth (during which time I helped develop the now uber-successful Green & Black’s range) I left Whole Earth to set up my own consultancy business, which was then well-placed to advise the larger companies with whom I had started my career when they wanted to get into organic and Fair Trade.

Can you describe a typical day in your life?

If I am in the office it revolves around responding to the needs of my clients by telephone and email plus planning what I am going to do next or writing up what I have just done. If I am out of the office I could be visiting a shop, delivering staff training, brainstorming with a marketing department, schmoozing a journalist, attending a Soil Association Standards Board meeting, judging some food awards (eating) or networking (drinking)!

Who are your customers and where are they?

In size they range from the UK’s premier supermarket to a one-person start up in Oxford. In geographical spread they have included the UK, Germany, France, Holland, the USA and Africa. In terms of types of business, I have worked with commercial companies, NGOs, certification bodies, governments and farmers associations.

Organic principles – why do they matter?
Without principles we are nothing, everyone just trying to sell stuff cheaper than everyone else. Being organic is our statement that we want to be the best, not the cheapest. I support the Soil Association standards because I recognise the amount of time and care that has gone into developing them to be the most stringent food standards anywhere in the world.

What does the Soil Association mean to you?

A source of great pleasure to work with such massively committed individuals working hard to bring about real and sustained change to the way we grow, process and market food.

What is your greatest achievement?
I am proud that I helped develop both Green & Black’s and Divine, the premier organic and Fairtrade chocolates respectively. I also helped develop Juniper Green Organic Gin (the world’s first) so I am definitely doing my bit for a healthier planet!

How do you plan to progress in the future? What is your vision?

Over the last 11 years I have been asked repeatedly how I have planned my business to take advantage of the phenomenal growth in the market for organic and Fairtrade food and drink. The answer is that I haven’t – I never dreamt that organic and Fairtrade would become so popular, I thought they were going to stay strictly niche, but I had a gut-feeling that these were the areas in which I wanted to work. So the success of my business is down to a combination of luck and belief.

If you were starting all over again, what would you do differently?
Not sign to Polydor records

What is the most important lesson life has taught you?
Noel Coward said “Work is more fun than having fun”. I say “Only work on stuff you believe in”.

Who or what’s your biggest inspiration?
Keith Richards.

What is the key to your success?
I believe in what I am doing.

What do you love most about what you do?
No two days are the same.

What keeps you awake at night?

Not much.

What single thing would most improve your life?
Love Makes Sweet Music by the Soft Machine on the original 7″ vinyl single

What do you find most frustrating about what you do?

Rapid turnover amongst supermarket buyers means that mistakes get repeated.

Any unusual hobbies or past careers?

  • I was lead singer in the band Trash (www.myspace.com/trashpunk) who despite having a record contract with Polydor managed to have one of the most unsuccessful musical careers ever – to the point where we had a documentary made about our lack of success last year (DVD copies have been ruthlessly surpressed, but I have one). To this day I am a huge music fan and rabid record collector, particularly of 7″ singles, of which I have about 650. I write reviews and articles for the worlds most obscure music magazine “Bucketfull of Brains’ (www.bucketfullofbrains.com).
  • I am a composting adviser for the London Borough of Wandsworth, providing email and telephone advice for people in the borough who are having trouble with their compost bins.

How can the organic market be improved?
Make sure the attacks on the integrity of organic standards are refuted.

How can we get more people to buy organic?
We already have 2/3 of the country buying something organic – the challenge is to get them to buy different sorts of products, and encourage them to buy full baskets of organic.

What’s the main benefit of being organic for you?

It gives us a badge, something we can show consumers which sums up all the good things we do – on biodiversity, the environment, food miles, air-freight, artificial additives, health, taste, provenance, local sourcing, employment, sustainability, climate change, avoiding GM. Organic is the best option for food production because it provides all these benefits in one easy-to-market package that is underpinned by legislation.

What other organic ventures do you admire and why?
My book ‘The Handbook of Organic & Fair Trade Marketing’ (Blackwells) contains case histories of some of my favourite companies – Yeo Valley, Green & Black’s, Clipper, Duchy, Sainsbury’s So Organic and Abel & Cole plus contributions from the Soil Association and the Fairtrade Foundation. For more info:
www.blackwellpublishing.com/book.asp?ref=9781405150583&site=

Supermarkets – good or bad?

I am with Patrick Holden on this – Supermarkets Are Us. If we don’t like them we need to lobby them to change.

What is the biggest threat to what you do?
“Cheap” food.

What’s the best thing about organic farms?

Songbirds.

What’s the best thing about organic food?

It’s yummy.

What is your favourite meal?

Organic cheese & pickle sandwiches washed down with Fleury biodynamic champagne.

If I was Prime Minister I would…

Abolish food subsidies.

The world would be a better place if…
people didn’t drop litter or chewing gum

I’d like to be remembered for…

helping people get interested in what they eat and drink and where it comes from.

When were you happiest?

May 5th 2004 (date of my wedding in Florence).

What is your greatest fear?

Spandau Ballet revival.

What is your favourite word?

Ghastly.

What would be your ‘Desert Island’ luxury?
My 650 singles and a solar-powered Dansette.

Is the customer always right?

Of course!

For more information about O&F consulting please visit
www.organicandfair.com