COVID-19: Lessons Learnt in Sustainability and Resilience
Without overstating it (!), some good things have come out of COVID. We've certainly learned some valuable lessons as a business, as have many others in horticulture.
It's a bit counter-intuitive, but the trade we're in is much less green than you might think. Until recently, the norm for growers was peat based compost, heavy chemical use and heated greenhouses. And those growers would have typically been many miles - and often several countries - away from retailers. Encouraging consumers to move away from this kind of thing was one of the reasons I set the business up.
Some of these things were changing pre-COVID, it's true, but the rate of change has accelerated. Many new - young - customers started asking very sensible questions about where their plants came from and how they were grown. These folk were prepared to pay a premium for plants which were sustainably and more locally grown. The market is moving. This change has also been amplified by Brexit. I'm not making a political point here, but for better or worse it's just more difficult and expensive to get plants into the UK now. COVID related issues have contributed to the problem. Over the last few years we have relied more and more on imported plants and seed, but now that trend is rapidly reversing.
This all means higher prices for growers, more new growers coming into the business and, hopefully, more investment in systems and people here.
And it's not just the plants which have been changing, but all the stuff that goes with them. Plastic is the bane of the business generally and - finally - we all seem to be weening ourselves off it. We've been selling compostable hedge guards this year, and the forest guard equivalent will be available from next season. I can't tell you what a major win this is! We've always used thick paper seed packets, but now use bigger paper bags much more for our larger seed orders, and bioplastic bags for pond plants.
Like many businesses over the last 12 months we've had to work around various disruptions to our supply chains too. Although these are very short compared to most there have still been problems, which we've tackled by making changes to make them even more resilient. We're contract growing some hedge plants next year for the first time (in Yorkshire, before you ask), in order to secure supply and improve our choice of regions where stock originates. This will mean shorter delivery routes too. Like other businesses, these changes have made our operation more environmentally friendly too.
Online horticultural businesses have enjoyed a well documented boom over the last 12 months, but several haven't been able to cope with the volume of orders. After years of low prices their systems are under-resourced and their staffing levels inadequate - they have had to be. Workers overworked normally have been overwhelmed. Everyone is now realising this has to change.
Necessity has driven some really good changes across the industry over the last year. COVID hasn't been all bad.