Has the RHS derailed itself?

Every now and again, something happens which really riles me. The usually placid me gets very hot under the collar! And today has seen one of those “nows”!

The Royal Horticultural Society (RHS), of which I’m a member, has, it would seem, joined up somehow with Interflora to promote a Valentine’s bouquet (at nearly £200 a time) which includes imported stems of flowers. Now I was under the, clearly mistaken, impression that the RHS was supposed to be promoting environmentally friendly gardening. They try to persuade us not to use peat (I’ve been peat free since Geoff Hamilton introduced me to coir and that’s some years ago), to consider the environment, to be responsible.

So when I saw a tweet from Interflora, linking to an advert for this bouquet, and realising that some of the stems in it had to be imported, I was surprised that the RHS logo was part of the advertisement. So I tweeted the RHS to ask about their involvement. Surprise, surprise! The RHS are being quiet.

Later in the day, I discovered that a friend, Sara Venn, had blogged about this so, rather than repeat everything, please read the article on her The Physic Blogger. The comments are also illuminating.

But, as I said, the RHS were too busy promoting British horticulture to respond to my tweet so I went a step further and, as a member, asked them to explain themselves:

“The website, at http://www.rhs.org.uk/About-Us/Who-we-are/Governance-and-decision-making/Charitable-purpose includes the strategy objective:

‘To transform our environmental performance, credentials and culture:

Issues of sustainability and resource consumption are foremost in the minds of UK gardeners and we consider it essential for the RHS to reflect this, represent these concerns and provide relevant advice on how gardening can meet the challenge and help tackle the causes of climate change.’

Will you please tell me how your involvement in the production of a Valentine’s bouquet by Interflora, including imported unseasonal flowers and ignoring the fact that UK-based growers currently have cut flowers available which are in-season here, do not involve the transportation overhead of importation and will have been grown in known conditions, is consistent with this objective. Or is it a case that the RHS is now more concerned with commercialising its operation to achieve income that with promoting British horticulture?

If the income from allowing the RHS logo to be associated with something which is neither “environmentally friendly” nor promotes UK growers (who create UK jobs!) is more important, then the RHS has become an organisation of which I no longer wish to be a member.

Please refrain from preaching to me about not using peat until you get your own house in order.

Incidentally, I am NOT a commercial plant grower and have been peat free for quite a few years. But, in my view at least, your authority has been weakened and you need to do a fair bit of soul searching.”

I suppose it’s a case of an organisation preaching one thing and practising another. Yes, the RHS needs income to support its activities.

BUT ALL THE INCOME IN THE WORLD IS OF NO VALUE IF IT COMPROMISES ITS PRINCIPLES TO ACHIEVE IT!

My RHS membership card is perilously close to a pair of scissors. I’ll wait to see how they respond.

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6 thoughts on “Has the RHS derailed itself?

  1. It isn’t necessary to know a person well or indeed even be accurate in having expectations. I think I shouldn’t have mentioned it in my previous post.

    I so do not wish to work at the RHS Press Office (not exactly an easy job bearing in mind they don’t make the decisions, and I did point out questionable use of survey data not long ago on a discussion on the Thinkingardens website), I was just putting forward the positive things that the RHS do to balance against the negative ones you were mentioning; I think because I find the positives outweigh the negatives. You are right that when it compromises its principles it lessens its authority, but I was thinking of it in a proportional way not an absolute way (more rights than wrongs). But you are right, yes.

    Interflora were indeed wrong to suggest their flowers were British grown when they couldn’t guarantee it. I hadn’t realised they were effectively a web/phone operator service (with only 230 staff) for over 2000 small businesses in the UK.

    If the RHS use less involvement with corporations as you suggest, then I imagine they will have less money to carry out their charitable functions (I haven’t checked up enough on the details, though perhaps there are alternatives as you suggest) and they would then have to cut back their charitable work. I think they are trying to make themselves financially more independent by appealing to a broader group of people, recruiting more members, and therefore raising more revenue from membership – hence the free garden offers. Again perhaps there are other ways to appeal to people than free garden entry.

    You make a good case for people being angry and pressuring companies into changing things and everyone seems very happy with the outcome of the RHS/Interflora issue as far as I can see, so I will be pragmatic and rethink that one.

    I had a look at how big the companies involved were and was surprised. The RHS generally has an annual income of around £64 million. Interflora UK has a turnover of about £124 million. Dorling Kindersley, who the RHS create many books with, is part of Penguin Random House which will apparently generate revenues of about £2.5 billion. Twitter, which both Interflora and the RHS use, is a puzzling American corporation seemingly worth £5 billion in 2011, but with a revenue in 2012 of only £193 million and yet apparently making a loss in 2013 of about £400 million.

    Thank you for posting – it’s been interesting to think about.

  2. Now that reply was written more as I would have expected you to write, which was why I was surprised at your initial post.

    The issue of how charities are funded is not straight forward. Looking at the RHS annual report 2012/13 RHS income from Trading was approx £20 million, with trading costs of about £15.5 million. This generates say £4.5 million that can then be put back into the charitable works of the RHS. I think you are not against the RHS making income from trading, indeed many members enjoy the aspect of shopping on a trip out to one of the RHS gardens, but that some aspects of it you don’t feel are appropriate to the RHS charitable remit particularly the case with the Interflora bouquet. The RHS pointed out that the bouquet was specifically designed to be educational. So the bouquet passes on an educational criterion but not the more environmental one of airmiles. You are saying that it is better not to offer a Valentine’s bouquet if there is not an equivalent UK replacement. If we extend this in principle, then the RHS should only purchase items for resale that have grown/made within the UK. No bananas, no oranges (including marmalade), no olive oil, no books printed in China or indeed Italy – it becomes difficult and yes they appear extreme examples. My point here is that retail choice is a grey area, not one which is easy to split into black and white. There will always be choices made that someone within the 400,000 membership will feel are wrong. Equally there will always be choices the RHS make that people who aren’t members, and don’t financially support the charity, think are wrong too.

    To balance that decision on Interflora (and the other more ‘business’-like things that you feel are misguided) it is important to look at the charitable things the RHS does. They answered 80,000 Horticultural queries in 2012/13 – I used that service with a difficult question & it was an excellent answer. They run Britain in Bloom, the biggest community horticulture programme we have. Their gardens inform and delight (1.4 million visitors). They have one of the finest collections of horticultural literature in the world. Education in schools as well as exams for professional development. They set the standard in Botanical Art. I could add more. Not only do they do these things, they have an impressive commitment to excellence; they do them all very well. I think because in the main they operate so professionally and efficiently people think these things are simple to do, so when they notice something they feel is awry, it jars and stands out.

    I did read last night the other blog you suggested, but felt that the issues involved were too complex for a reply I could make.

    With regard to making changes within an organisation such as the RHS, a polite, calmly worded letter or email detailing the issue and, if possible, the ways in which it can be resolved have worked for me in the past. This way the recipient can make a more thoughtful decision based on the evidence provided within the letter/email and any research they may do, and not feel pressured into making an instant reply which would not allow time for sensible consideration. It is possible to achieve a ‘victory’ on a single issue if you force people to change, but if you put a point so it changes the way they think, then you have the potential to change their future decisions and make more of a difference; it’s just harder to do 🙂 

    1. Two questions: (1) why would you expect me to write in any particular way and (2) are you after a job in the RHS press office? In relation to (1) you do not know me (as far as I am aware) and so, inter alia, would not know that I have had dealings with the Charity Commission over time and have a fair knowledge of charitable funding issues. But let’s not complicate the matter.

      You state “You are saying that it is better not to offer a Valentine’s bouquet if there is not an equivalent UK replacement.” Totally wrong. The RHS is (I hope) perfectly aware that there ARE loads of UK “replacements” (if it is not then it has no business existing!). My point is that it should be promoting those and not the importation of flowers. To promote, or be seen to promote, what it has promoted weakens its authority. How can it preach responsibility for the environment when it promotes importation of unseasonal blooms. Separately, Interflora were threatened with Trading Standards involvement if they did not remove the “British Grown” indicators. They removed them. Arguably, the anger of British growers, which has grabbed the headlines, may well be a minor issue. In general, those who have been most vociferous in their criticism of the RHS are not growers.

      I will grant you that someone in the RHS PR department made a monumental cock-up in not making sure that Interflora would undertake its promotion in conjunction with the RHS press release. That said, though, the underlying issue remains. The RHS sold out to to a corporate. And I can point you to a number of blog posts if you want! The RHS has, in this instance, subordinated its main purpose in life to short term financial gain. It has well and truly shot itself in the foot.

      You list a lot of the RHS’s achievements. I doubt that anyone who shares my critical view of this latest issue would, for a second, dispute any of those. But, and this is the repetitive BUT, when it compromises its principles, it lessens its authority. It starts saying “Do what I say, not what I do”. And you cannot refute that.

      Let’s look at history. We now have “RHS Partner Gardens.” Until a couple of years ago, we had “RHS Recommended Gardens.” Why did the RHS recommend them? Were they centres of excellence? Were they better than other places? No! They were recommended because they would grant free admission to an RHS member (and recoup the cost in tea etc sales). So the RHS recommended them and the members got something back for their subscription – a freebie (which, instead of paying £40+ you could get for the price of the May edition of Gardeners’ World Magazine. Or you could use National Trust membership).

      Something within the RHS needs to change. Where and what that is only those within the organisation can say. We mere mortals don’t know enough. The crunch point is that the Society cannot preach its message of sustainability, responsibility, etc., unless it observes itself the standards which it promotes. Simple, incontrovertible truth.

      Incidentally, the last time I got riled like this was just before the London Olympics 2012. Royal Mail had announced that whilst the Olympian gold medal winners would be recognised by the issue of a commemorative individual stamp, the Paralympian winners would have to make do with a set of “group hugs”. It’s surprising what can be achieved with just a 140 character tweet. If you don’t remember, Royal Mail issued individual commemorative stamps for the Paralympian gold medal winners. It took just 8 days to achieve that change with all the logistics involved!

  3. If you read the emails the RHS sent you this year on 16th January and 4th December 2013 you will see that the RHS are promoting seasonal English flowers from the Tregothnan Estate including a Valentine’s bouquet of Tulips for £18.95. You could at anytime in the last two months have praised the RHS for promoting seasonal English flowers if you thought it was important, or even bought a bouquet. I suspect you didn’t read the emails closely.

    I couldn’t find a mention of the Interflora offer on the RHS website but I did find a mention of the Tregothnan offer.

    The RHS Twitter feed retweeted a Tweet from Interflora, once, to £52k followers. One other person had retweeted it. I didn’t look to see if they had Tweeted the Tregothnan offer but you could if you wish.

    The February issue of The Garden mentions neither promotion that I could see.

    As more people would receive an email (they have around 400k) than see a Tweet, I would suggest that the RHS promoted seasonal English flowers more widely than the other offer. You can check yourself to see if you agree.

    I think it’s really good that you feel so passionately about the importance of buying seasonal UK cutflowers, but think about how you feel reading this and then imagine what someone at the RHS feels like when they get your letter. None of us are perfect, we all make mistakes.

    1. Hi Martin.

      Thanks for taking the time to write such a thoughtful reply. I am aware of the other products which the RHS promotes. But the key difference is that promotions were, as you infer, to its membership via email. I picked up this bouquet offer not via the RHS but via advertising by Interflora – the promotion with which the RHS is associated is to the wider public. And many of the objections to it have come from outside the RHS. The Society might care to reflect on why people who are directly involved in the horticultural trade choose not to join.

      Further, an international organisation such as Interflora carries clout; has resources. The small British growers have neither. And the image created to the wider world is that the RHS is happy to hop into bed with money. Whilst it may be totally impractical to make an effective arrangement with a number of independent growers, it would have been very easy indeed to courteously refuse to hop into bed with Interflora. Further, whilst the advert indicates which stems are British grown*, I wonder whether Interflora can guarantee the source, given that theirs is essentially a franchise operation and it is for individual florists to source their stock from wherever they choose.

      In case you are interested another take, from another RHS member, can be found at http://rareplantsnursery.wordpress.com/2014/02/06/charity-or-big-business/.

      And I completely agree that we all make mistakes. In my time I’ve made a few and have been on the receiving end of some pretty vitriolic flack. How I felt was immaterial; the flack was justified and I held my hand up. But I am an individual; the RHS is an organisation and, within an organisation, there should be systems in place to pick up mistakes before they escape. And, I suggest, this “mistake” is symptomatic of a trend within the RHS to subordinate its charitable purpose to the drive to raise income; to be a business rather than a charity.

      *At the time of the original tweet, the indications of British grown stems DID NOT form part of the advert. Those indicators were added later in the day, apparently in response to the storm which erupted.

      1. Adding to the footnote in my last reply, I now understand that Interflora will be removing the “British grown” indicators from their advertisement by close of business today.

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