Craig Sams may have decided to sell his company Green & Black’s to Cadbury Schweppes last year, but this has far from ended his links with the organic movement. An organic pioneer of unarguable pedigree, Sams sees stern challenges ahead for the organic movement but plenty of opportunity too. He spoke with Chris Rochester.
As one of Britain’s most respected pioneers, Craig Sams has not been one to shy away from tough and possibly controversial decisions. As founder of Whole Earth, Green & Black’s, chair of the Soil Association and more recently the proud proprietor of Judges, an organic bakery, his organic credentials are impeccable, but arguably the boldest move of his career was his decision last year to sell Green & Black’s to Cadbury Schweppes.
Although the sale surprised many in the organic sector, Sams appears to have no regrets. “We were optimistic that everything would work out well because of the attitude they took long before the actual date of sale” Sams says. “They’d been helping extensively in Belize with our Maya Gold project to extend the capacity of the farmers there. We had support from them that enabled us and the Mayan growers to achieve results that neither of us would have been able to on our own.”
Sams sees the relationship between Green & Black’s and Cadbury Schweppes as symbiotic, with Green & Black’s’ expertise in fairtrade, organic, and premium chocolate being complemented by Cadbury’s corporate professionalism. He says Cadbury views Green & Black’s as a long-term investment, and managing director Ward Crawford is “sympathetic to our values”. Crawford actually owns his own organic smallholding in Devon, and in that has something in common with Sams who has himself developed a small organic farm and orchard.
According to Sams, Cadbury has thoroughly embraced the organic ethos at Green & Black’s, which may come as a surprise to the sceptics. “Paradoxically you will see a more rootsy, committed face to the brand than you saw three years ago when it was all soft-tone ads of posh-looking environments,” he says. “People have nothing to fear, nothing has changed; we’re still operating on the same basis.”
Sams explains candidly that the deal included no secrecy or confidentiality agreement. If he was unhappy with the way the company he has “spent the best years of his life” creating was being run, he would be completely free to say so publicly, and he would do so. But happily, he adds, that is not the case.
Indeed, he points to some specific initiatives since the acquisition as evidence of Cadbury’s commitment to the Green & Black’s ethos. These range from making sure that the teabags and milk in the office are organic to sorting out issues about insulation and energy to make Green & Black’s a completely sustainable, ‘green’ company to the core.
Underlining his satisfaction with the direction Green & Black’s is taking under Cadbury’s ownership, Sams has remained closely involved with the company. “I’m president of Green & Black’s with all those responsibilities but I’m more actively involved with the American end of things. People are only just getting it in the States about organic and fairtrade, but the slow food movement has really taken off and if there’s a slow chocolate brand it’s probably Green & Black’s, so I’m working with our PR people to maximise educational opportunities and position ourselves as the authoritative chocolate just as we are here.”
Green & Black’s is a shining beacon in the progress of the organic movement, with which, as chair of the Soil Association, Sams retains strong links. “There are two things that drive the organic movement. One is awareness, but far more important is availability. Education and awareness-raising is where the Soil Association does a great job and on the availability side we’ve worked with supermarkets and the independent sector to get them to really put their toe in the water.”
Sams also refutes the criticism that organic food is too expensive. “People spend more on mobile phones than they do on food. I read yesterday that people spend more in restaurants and on takeaways than they do on food to cook at home, so it ain’t about money.”
However, the challenge of convincing more British farmers to convert to organic remains a tough one. Sams explains that although conversion takes two years, getting the land to the point where you can farm it organically takes considerably longer and needs hefty investment. “When you’ve robbed the capital of your soil for ten, twenty or forty years you have to reinvest and that takes money and it’s a damned site more money than just twenty pounds an acre from some government department.”
There is also an educational barrier to overcome. Sams believes over-reliance on pesticides has led to a decline in traditional farming skills and know-how. “They’ve lost the skills and confidence to take the risks without chemicals and how to optimise that risk to get the yield,” says Sams. “Mixed farming is the way to do that, monoculture isn’t and we’re locked in this monoculture system.”
And while UK farmers prevaricate about switching to organic, the opportunities are being taken by overseas producers. “I think we’ll see British farmers going organic but it’s going to take time and we’ll see foreigners fill the gap while British farmers sit on the fence.” In particular, Sams expects to see a significant amount of organic produce entering the UK from Bulgaria and Romania after those countries join the EU. “Germany’s biggest organic food company Rapunzel has massive organic farming projects in Romania and lots of other people are investing in eastern Europe because it’s good land, it hasn’t had the fertility bashed out of it.”
One challenge facing British farmers looking to go organic is the lack of a processing infrastructure for organic produce, Sams explains. “If you grow carrots in Cambridgeshire you grade out the perfect ones for the supermarkets, the second grade goes to Nine Elms, and the rest go to some canning factory that slices, dices or whatever. Every carrot ends up in something. When you grow organic carrots that processing infrastructure isn’t there and that’s where the organic market is beginning to catch up.”
However, Sams sees a certain irony here. The mainstream processed food sector is contracting, leading to the closure of factories that could, he believes, be making all kinds of organic products with minimal adjustment. This casual observation of what might be quite a lucrative business opportunity epitomises Sams, who has furthered the organic movement by creating sound business propositions. He is not only an organic pioneer but more crucially an organic entrepreneur, who has shown that in a sector requiring copious amounts of natural fertiliser, where there’s muck there’s brass.