I‘ve always worked for ethical businesses. Each has attracted me via a charismatic figurehead‘s sales pitch (let‘s call this character CF). My last attraction had the largest CF I‘ve ever met. When this man speaks, people listen. People look to him for answers, and for entertainment while he‘s giving them. He presents himself as the everyday man whose work is humble. He speaks with angry determination against injustice and with passion for his visions of a better place.
He runs what is called a ‘Community Supported Agriculture‘ (CSA) enterprise. This particular CSA brings together local farmers producing food in a sustainable way (or intending to), and provides them with a growing demand for their produce through a consumer box system. In return, consumers get a much closer relationship with their food source, one they can trust, support, and learn more about.
The CF asked me to help set up a storefront business for this CSA, but as time went on, my role in the enterprise evolved. I‘m a trained chef, a writer, and a food ethicist. I completed my PhD in Philosophy on the subject of urban people‘s relationship to food production. How come it‘s so easy to avoid responsibility toward the places where our food is produced? That was my question. Avoidance was the enemy and I thought I‘d found my friends, finally, in this CSA.
There was plenty to do. I started a catering business, using produce sourced directly from the CSA farmers. I produced preserves from the seconds the farmers couldn‘t otherwise sell. I started marketing the farmers‘ value-added products to our customers, increasing the sales of cheeses, juices and dairy products significantly. And, along with 5 other staff members, I was voted into an organisational position within the business. We were tasked with helping the CSA to become financial sustainable, and to work effectively for the farmers, the customers and the CSA employees. I was happy and ready for the task, loopy almost, with the sense that I‘d finally found a business that measured up to my ethical standards.
One of the first tasks I took on was organising our farmer information. Up to this point, information about our farmers was contained on scraps of paper and in the head of our produce manager (let‘s call him PM). He had direct relationships with the farmers, the exact terms of which were never written down. CF and PM had worked together from the very beginning, building up the enterprise from the involvement of just a few farmers to many dozens. It was unclear to all of us, except CF and PM, how many farmers we actually had on our books, and more importantly, how many were growing their produce organically.
The issue of chemical farming was of intense interest to our customers, many of whom were willing to support farmers to improve their practice from minimal chemical use to organic farming. But still, most were becoming members of this CSA because we were providing them with affordable, local, mostly organic produce. We often told our customers that 80% of our farmers were farming organically, and I wanted to check this figure out, and put a process in place to help the other farmers, the ones that weren‘t farming organically, to better their practice.
So I started talking to the farmers, one by one. This was difficult in itself, as the PM would leave farmers off the lists he would dictate to me, or give me wrong contact details. I put this down to his own scattered process, which worked well enough while the business was small, but had grown unwieldy now we had so many farmers to deal with. So I turned detective, doing my own digging through the businesses invoices and receipts. I called every farmer, around 80 of them, and I asked them what they supplied to us, and what sort of farming practices they used.
I found out there were far fewer organic suppliers than we thought, but there were a lot of farmers describing themselves as ‘low spray‘. There were also some farmers that described themselves as entirely conventional. This seemed a surprise to all of us.
I decided we needed a more detailed method of collecting the farmers‘ data, particularly on the ‘low spray‘ and conventional farmers, so we could see exactly what sort of chemicals they were using, why, how much, and whether there were alternatives to explore. I constructed a detailed questionnaire that I sent to all the farmers. As the surveys started coming back, it became clear that the farmers who described themselves as ‘low spray‘ were really anything but that. It must be hard to admit conventional practice to an organization that‘s priding itself on its largely organic sourcing.
Maybe it‘s my naivety, but I saw this as just another step in the challenge, not a cover up. I figured that PM and CF‘s systems must have gotten away from themselves, and that this was the perfect time to bring transparency and accountability back into play.
PM and CF thought otherwise. Through a series of underhand plays and deceptions, too complex to get into here, I was bad mouthed behind my back to people who mattered and pushed out of my decision-making role. I decided to expose these plays and deceptions, and the reason for them, to the staff of the CSA. As a result, 3 other key members of the business quit in a flurry of anger and disappointment. But the CF never responded directly to my concerns.
Instead, he directed his charismatic voice to the public, describing the steps ‘we‘ were taking to improve the farmers‘ practices. It was a flurry of promises and rating systems, but I knew enough about the state of the situation to see that these promises were impossible to achieve without systemic changes no one was willing, or able, to oversee. The people who were had already quit.
All the people that cared about this issue left the business. The staff that stayed maintained a fierce loyalty to the CF and were eager to distance themselves from the racket we made. I often considered going public with the information I had, but never did. Maybe I‘m a coward? But I‘d experienced the damage a little badmouthing can do, and I was frightened of feeling the full wrath of a man exposed in his hypocrisy.
What I did realize, is that I would never again work for charismatic figurehead. CFs attract people with their words. That‘s one of their gifts. But I am yet to find one who is as passionate about following through on their vision as they are in promulgating it. Perhaps there is also a lesson here, about listening more carefully to the quieter voices, doing their business without the showcasing.
The experience has taught me a lesson that I‘ve been taught many times before but to lesser degrees, and I‘m finally embodying the knowledge. If I want to work for an ethical business, I‘m going to have to build that business myself. So that‘s what I‘m doing now. Slowly, but with a strength and confidence that‘s building. I run a catering business that pays careful attention to the provenance of its supplies, and I write about food, ethics and sourcing at www.thegoodsoup.com. These are the small beginnings, but I do have quiet, hopeful visions for the future.
Hirst, Angela, ‘Levinas separates the (hu)man from the non(hu)man, using hunger, enjoyment and anxiety to illuminate their relationship‘, Cosmos and History (Vol.3, No.1, 2007).
Hirst, Angela, ‘Avoiding ethics in an inner city suburb‘, New Talents 21C 2006 (Australian Public Intellectual Network, 2007).
The name of my business, The Good Soup, comes from an Emmanuel Levinas quote ‘We live from ‘good soup‘…‘
Levinas, Emmanuel, Totality and Infinity, an Essay on Exteriority. Translated by A. Lingis. (Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press, 1961), p.110.