The hypocritical stance of the UK’s ‘ethical companies’.

By Aleksander Boyd

London 10 Nov. 04 – Last November my wife and I decided to launch our business. Having arrived in the UK in 2.000 from our native Venezuela, we thought that the time was ripe to start our own venture, considering that South American natural and organic products were badly represented. So we set out to create Vida Organica, a concept which encapsulates our beliefs, way of living and ethics. The first tough decision we had to make was that of devising the strategies to tackle this new and exciting market. The favoured choice was to participate in an exhibition at the Olympia Hall organized by the people from Natural & Organic Products Europe. By so doing, we reckoned that visitors, wholesalers and retailers alike would fell in love with our innovative range of products presented and imported for the first time in the UK. How naďve of us…

The show went well, should levels of interest shown and feedback from those adventurous enough to sample our products be taken into account. However we did not manage to close any deals. The first awkward and unexpected question we were presented with was “which wholesaler or retailer stock your products?” Quite frankly we did not know what to say for starters, owing to our innocent belief that indeed we were the wholesalers! Nonetheless I sort of ‘took advantage’ of the situation and went around the fair to try and meet with the buyers of the major wholesaling companies. They were of course too busy to engage with some newcomer with a three product range from South America, so due more to compassion than to sheer commercial interest some of them traded business cards with me and stated, rather hypocritically I must add, that they would be keen to receive samples and pricing at a latter stage to explore the possibilities.

Based on that premise, we sent samples and information to Suma, Tree of Life, Infinity Foods, The Health Store, Essential Trading Coop, Goodness Foods… in sum to all the major players in the organic and natural products distribution market. Much to our surprise not even one of them had the courtesy to say that they could not be bothered to check upon our samples. What’s more they showed a common denial argument that goes as “oh sorry I haven’t been able to get back at you, can’t meet this week/month, call me in x days…” Time and again all used the same reasoning in repetitive occasions.

A breakthrough came from Pret-a-Manger, someone was interested in pursuing some business with us. Conditions and much homework were set which we diligently did. When all the aspects were ready for them to make an ‘informed decision’ we received an email repeating a version of the aforementioned argument. So what do we do then? Incredibly enough the organizers of the fair sent a form in which one could assess the degree of success of the event, imagine what I wrote in that piece of paper… The company also keeps sending this magazine where one can read always the same people, going on about the same themes and of course promoting the same products; it’s an echo chamber or variations of a theme, i.e. Craig Sams promoting his Green’s & Blacks or his Nomato range or his son’s tacky imitation of Innocent smoothies, or the importance of sporting this or that certificate from the Soil Association or the Fair Trade, ungullible humbug.

Eight months had passed and a friend suggested that we should contact the ‘ethical companies’ and shockingly we found out that Sainsbury’s, Tesco and others were among them. “What a bloody joke!” I commented to my wife upon learning that fact “who is going to buy into that nonsense of those conglomerates being ethical? They are anything but!” Anyway, there are many things a couple of Venezuelans need to learn about ‘ethics’ when dealing with UK’s businesses.

Certainly no UK resident, whether ethical or otherwise, can lecture us about the realities of South America. Trade systems and commercial practices are very much in tune across Europe and equally similar are the labour, financial and governmental conditions in South America. Thus a producer of marmalades from Brazil is likely to encounter the same official obstacles and hassle to set up shop as a honey producer would do in Argentina or a fruit pulp processor in Colombia. Once all these hurdles have been surpassed, Lat Am producers and their representatives in these regions have to face a mountain of strict regulations that, far from encouraging and facilitating trade, arrest in most cases a fruitful and sustainable economic advancement. Enter now the ethical companies and the self appointed experts in land use, ecology and so on and you have a recipe for augmenting poverty, unemployment and environmental destruction in developing countries. It’s nothing but a scam. Pedro Perez produces good chocolate in Cepe, alas he can not sell his produce to Londoners at reasonable prices for there is so much red tape, middlemen and bureaucracy along the path that his once commercially attractive chocolate turns out to be more expensive than Michel Cluizel’s bars. How sad and ironic.

We haven’t abandon our original idea though, more committed than ever we have found new and exciting products from Argentina, Venezuela, Colombia, Mexico, The Dominican Republic and Peru. Whether the ‘ethical people’ want to distribute our products or not makes no difference. It’ll take us a tad longer to introduce our exotic delicacies to the unaware but we will do so.