Interview with Lee Holdstock
Dive into the complexities of the organics industry, and learn how the Soil Association is advocating for supply chain transparency, sustainable practices, and consumer awareness.
Founded in 1946, the Soil Association is a charitable non-governmental organisation campaigning for better farming, food, and land use in the United Kingdom. In 1973, the Soil Association set up a subsidiary business called Soil Association Certification, making it one of the first organic certifiers in Europe. Today, as the largest organic certifier in the UK, the Soil Association is accredited with certifying around 70% of food processors in the nation. From bringing high-quality foods to the public sector to pushing for reforms in the agriculture industry, the Soil Association is a pioneer in the UK’s organic movement.
Lee Holdstock has worked for the Soil Association for 20 years. The passionate campaigner, creative communicator, and highly knowledgeable business developer shared insights into the organics industry’s challenges, successes, and complexities with us.
Hi Lee! Tell us about your position as a Trade Relations Manager at the Soil Association. What do your day-to-day tasks encompass? What projects are you currently working on?
As part of the Soil Association’s work in supporting our licensees and its contribution to growing a wider organic movement, we have a business development and trade support function based at our HQ in Bristol. My role within this important team is varied but focuses on strategic relationship management for some of the UK’s bigger organic food companies and specific project work around supply chains. To give you an example, we recently produced an organic integrity guide for businesses looking at how they can future-proof their business against risks of fraud or poor mid-business practices in organic as we grow the market globally and supply chains get more complex. I also conduct training for businesses, deliver media and marketing support, and get involved in trade policy, which can involve disseminating policy information or even giving evidence to the government.
Currently, I’m working to help market a complementary scheme for the French and international certifier Ecocert. Last year, the Soil Association became the UK-exclusive auditors for their Fair for Life and For Life schemes.
In what ways is the Soil Association actively contributing to improvements along the (organic) food supply chain in the UK?
Our supply chain integrity work is one aspect. We are also producing market guidance and market data—everything from advertising standards agency guidance on claims you can make around organics. We negotiate these with the UK’s Advertising Standards Authority (ASA). We are responsible for building some significant marketing platforms in the UK. As an example, we were one of the first bodies in the world to have a celebration period and platform called Organic September. Sweden now does the same as does Australia. We also have the festive Organic Market Awards and an Organic Christmas Market campaign. Generally, we do a lot of social media and press work and invite businesses and consumers to be involved in to start the conversation around organics.
My charitable colleagues in our parent organisation work more closely with farmers. A specific example of work we are doing at the beginning of the supply chain to encourage agro-ecological farming techniques would be our Innovative Farmers initiative. Within this framework, we bring together both organic and non-organic farmers who are interested in agroecological solutions and conduct field labs. These are essentially experimental groups of farmers looking at practices and outcomes and sharing some of their thoughts and ideas.
There’s also another side of our organisation which is focused on encouraging better public food procurement, not just of organic foods, but of other ethical marks, such as marine stewardship (MSC) and Fair Trade. Our Food for Life Served Here award is important as food served in hospitals and schools, for example, supports supply chains by bringing some additional volumes and economies of scale to organic in the UK.
What are the biggest challenges the organics market currently faces? And how are different actors along the supply chain working to overcome these?
Starting from the broader challenge, I’m surprised that we don’t see a great deal of difference when we look around Europe in terms of the biggest barriers to purchasing organic. A heavy amount of consumption is still happening within a relatively small percentage of consumers. In the UK, only 1.5% of all food bought is organic. Compared to countries where you have much higher penetration into double-digits, such as Denmark or Switzerland, that’s quite low. When we ask consumers in the UK why they’re not purchasing more organic, there is generally still a lack of clarity and understanding about organic’s benefits. That also relates to the biggest barrier to purchasing, which is the cost. We are repeatedly told that consumers won’t pay more unless they understand why.
We are now finding ourselves in a very interesting time because our latest round of consumer research has shown a significant jump in what we would call “planet-centric” consumer choices in the past 18 months. This is the “Greta Factor”; this is the awareness that plastic is no longer litter but a pollutant. We are uniquely placed at the moment to land organic sustainability credentials with the consumer by clear messaging around how organic contributes towards fighting climate change, reduces chemicals by building soil carbon, mitigates floods, and encourages wildlife. And we’re confident that they do want to make more sustainable choices, so if we can do that, hopefully, we can grow the percentage of the market.
After that, availability is the biggest challenge. The UK’s landscape is quite unique in that nearly two-thirds of our organic sales go through our large multiple retailers. We have a much smaller independent market. The overall lack of availability is partly to do with a lack of ranging in those big retailers. A slow move of market share away from multiple retail—traditional bricks and mortar supermarkets—to online sales is addressing that ranging challenge to a degree.
How has the COVID-19 outbreak affected the Soil Association’s members in recent weeks?
It's very early, but we are already anticipating and observing certain sides of our business slowing down. Conversations with foodservice are almost at a halt because people are not able to go out to eat. We’re seeing sales collapse very quickly, particularly for businesses that are heavily reliant on that channel to sell goods. At the Soil Association, we are trying where we can to work with some of those businesses to see where we can find other routes to market.
Looking at the impact on the market in general, it’s been very busy for food processors that continue to supply supermarkets and sell products online—in fact, online has been extraordinary. We’ve witnessed significant growth in orders with some of our home delivery scheme licensees. Online shopping is very attractive while the public is advised to minimise any trips or visits out of home, and a lot of people are self-isolating. We already had quite a lot of home delivery in the organic sector because we have vegetable box schemes and meat boxes, and these numbers are now rising. This has always been a good way to reach consumers in the UK where retailers aren’t necessarily engaging as well as they are in other countries. In the future, the online delivery businesses that are committed to organics will need to try and retain these newfound customers.
Moving ahead, there is uncertainty about whether players will be able to continue to maintain this level of business sustainably and whether supply chains can support the demand as imports and exports start to become affected. In Europe, shortages of labour due to infection rates climbing affects everything from the availability of staff at ports right through production facilities and growing, so that’s our big concern next. We’ve heard of everything from grassroots and farming organisations trying to create land armies of volunteers and workers from furloughed positions to stories of big horticultural organisations attempting to get special permission from the government to charter airlines to fly in Eastern European labourers. The challenge with getting the public and volunteers onto farms or bringing people across international borders is how to guarantee that that’s going to be safe for people to do. Guidance is not clear on that front at the moment.
In what ways is Brexit impacting the UK’s organics industry?
Brexit is still a challenge in terms of the possibility of regulatory drifts as we might move away from EU standards. The temptation to cut trade deals with other countries would result in a dilution of organic in the UK from a regulatory or statutory point of view. Clearly, people like us [at the Soil Association] will never reduce or dilute our standards. We maintain the right to offer a higher level of standard. Nevertheless, there is a possibility that this dilution or inability to keep up with European regulations, for example, would reduce the confidence of our organic consumers in organic. And this is a major concern for us.
As part of this move away from the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), the UK government is desperate to find ways to reward farmers. There is much talk of public money for the public good. But equally, no one is quite sure how to do it, and the government appears to be coming to the conclusion that measuring the individual contributions, whether it’s carbon, nitrogen run-off, or other environmental variables, are very complicated and very costly. The government is already looking to the environmental land management groups that they consult to find a proxy or an easy way to do this. And of course, we are already there in organics—we are that solution, we are defined in regulation.
Fast-forwarding ten years—what trends and practices do you predict will evolve in the organics market over the next decade?
I would hope to see some extension of the regulated areas to cover some of these non-food areas, such as textiles or health and beauty. I was very much involved in the formation of the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) back in 2001. We have had 20 years of certification of voluntary standards, but you can still sell an organic fabric or health and beauty product without any certification. So I do hope that we would have progressed in that respect.
I think radical transparency will continue to grow as we use more information technology to give consumers clearer views into supply chains. I expect there will be more of an obligatory requirement for organic supply chains to think about social standards and value sharing. We’re seeing standards like BCOR and other areas evolving. These are popular because generation Z and young consumers are very interested in the people in the supply chain. Organic has not yet codified social or worker’s rights into organic regulations, so that is probably going to have to change.
With the increasing level of technology-driven transparency, the challenge will be for certifiers to differentiate themselves. You could argue that one of certifications’ key roles is to maintain integrity in a situation where there is great anonymity—as is the case in our food supply chain. We can be the ears and eyes of the consumer where they are not allowed to tread. With these changes, however, comes the danger that there will be less clear blue water between general best-practices in food and what organic supply chains have to offer. So we must continue to develop and build on organic standards and make them tougher and tougher. In terms of the best possible sustainability, animal welfare, and wildlife-friendly practice, organic has a role to play as a beacon to the rest of the food industry.