Sustainability - interview of the month
Georgina Fulton – owner of the Elmely Nature Reserve and Farm. Elmley is a family run farm with approximately 700 cattle grazing the pasture each year. In 1991 Natural England designated Elmley a National Nature Reserve for it’s importance in breeding wandering and over-wintering birds. Together with her husband Gareth they have also created a unique experience with the wonderful and luxurious rooms in converted old Sheppards' huts, as well as in a newly restored Georgian farm house. We are talking to Georgina about sustainability, as it is at the heart of everything they do.
The Initiative: You and Gareth have taken Elmley over 5 years ago, what has brought you there? How has this happened?
Georgina Fulton: Yes, we have joined just over 6 years ago. It is a family farm, it belongs to my parents, so I have really been a part of it for the whole of my life. However, in terms of being here and working here, yes – it’s been the last few years.
TI: What was the final aspect that made you move down and dedicate your life to the farm? Have you always had it in you, did you know the time will come one day?
GF: Yes, of course. Farming is very much generational industry so it is quite normal for people to go back to the farm. There are not that many other industries where people would step away for some time, while still having an eye on moving back. That said we did set off with a different careers and things like that. The main thing that brought us back was the idea for setting up our own business, we wanted a career change and were quite passionate about doing it. Therefore it was in our own interest, we saw an opportunity in developing the farm and we thought we could generate a good business. We knew we would want to bring new things on, the funding would change. The farming incomes had been at risk for quite a while and farm had to diversify.
TI: What comes first nowadays? Reserve, beef farm or retreat? What is the proportion? What is Elmely primarily?
GF: The three elements go completely in hand, none of the elements could work without the other ones. The conservation and the management of the wildlife, conservation and the farming work very much in hand. The cattle graze the land and they are essentially a habitat too. They graze the grass and keep the habitat in good condition, for the insects, for the flora, and especially for the breeding birds. The nature reserve would not work without farm - obviously the cattle needs to graze, so they wouldn’t work without the nature reserve - they work completely in hand. Likewise with the tourism side of things, what you refer to as a retreat - that wouldn’t be there without the farming, and the wildlife, when on the other hand, the income generated by this side of business allows us to support the reserve and the cattle, so the three very much work equally.
TI: What does sustainability mean for you?
GF: It’s completely intricate, especially when it became such an important way of running a business nowadays. In hospitality it looks completely different when running a hotel in London and you need to implement new sustainable practices. For us it is just the way we operate. We are a nature reserve, we are a farm so it has never been a conscious decision to chose sustainable way. For example, the farm itself Is far away from electricity, we are 2 miles to the nearest mains point, so we have to generate our own power. And because of that we have to be as sustainable as possible, our power usage has to be as low as possible, and we need to be conscious of how we generate and store our electricity. We have huge amount of solar panels and we store the energy in our battery packs. This decision was made by necessity. Sustainability for us is absolutely crucial. We need to have minimal environmental impact as possible. If our guests caused disturbance and damage the wildlife, we would be taking away what people come here for. So we are very strict with communicating this to those who stay with us. We create an opportunity for our guests to experience a rare thing, staying within a nature reserve, and not many people in UK realise it, and it is actually one of our biggest problems. People lack awareness of what wildlife there is in UK, and without that awareness and understanding, they are not going to value it or work to preserve it. We very much have gone on route to attract people who would never really come to a nature reserve. Once they are here, they can’t walk away not being touched by what they experienced. We are a small establishment but we are playing a role in educating and raising awareness of wildlife and to experience a sustainable way of life. People don’t need to have tellies and huge amount of power. We are telling people to slow down and they appreciate that. And you know, these are small steps. We are not a hotel, we don’t change towels on every day basis but we offer really good service, and we are doing it in sustainable way. We have large bottles of toiletries, we have a fixed day and set menu, the huts are made in the uk using sustainable wood, the houses were renovated sustainably, including the ventilation that keeps the energy loss to minimum. We have furnished our rooms with British crafted furniture. We operate sustainably, and to be fair, being a nature reserve, it would be bonkers to do it any other way. It is the part of how we live.
TI: Is there one way for running a sustainable business? There is so many different ideas today on what is the most important – CO2 emissions in general which are often broken down into many sub elements such as meat consumption, carbon miles, green energy. Then we have the plastics and waste in general (zero waste policy); environmental impact of businesses i.e. water consumption. Finally product sourcing – locality, supporting own community – so is there one way for creating sustainable business, or does it have to be shaped for individual needs and traits of each business model?
GF: It’s quite a tricky question. By the nature of who we are and where we are, it is natural to us and because we have created Elmley from the scratch. It was natural for us to put the sustainability up front. I think it would be different if you were running a city centre hotel that would have been there for 18 years, where you would have to be fighting against the systems already in place. This would be probably a lot trickier. We are the nature reserve, so we have guests who are walking in expecting luxury but they don’t need it to be on the same level as they would demand somewhere else. They understand we run things differently, if you were running hotel in a city, you could turn people off by things like the number of towels given. We are very lucky we could have set up a place with own rules and being able to educate our guests at the same time.
TI: So would you say it is more or less difficult to run a sustainable hotel in the country side as opposed to the city?
GF: Its not easier, as some of the expectations are still much more difficult for us to meet. It’s a wild place, and it is a nature reserve, guests expect that level of sustainability with luxury at the same time. Whereas when you are in town people don’t necessarily expect it to such an extent. Our job is actually about educating the guest on what they accept. Here people would actually get shocked if we got many mini bottles of toiletries or if we were changing towels everyday, I think actually people could be getting upset by it. If you were in a town, people could get upset because there isn’t that many mini bottles of toiletries, or the towels aren’t changed daily, it’s also a case of expectations. And then in terms of carbon emissions, because we are remote we do have guests who travel out to get things so the only way for cutting it down is to try to keep people in. We had to come up with a way to cater on a high standard without having own restaurant – so now we can provide great tasty meals and this way we are reducing the traffic in and out. In the urban environment, very often people can simply walk to a restaurant for dinner or for a drink. We have created an honesty bar here, we offer treatments. Bigger groups can have barn set up for games or dvd’s. As we are a remote farm, everything is a bit more difficult on practical level, it is not easy to generate your own electricity and it is very expensive, but we are not in the city centre and we have to obtain power. So it is not maybe easier, but it is a little bit more real, there are always challenges here.
TI: Let’s touch on the other part of your business – farming. Beef farming is a very sensitive and controversial subject nowadays, the world is really divided into two ways (the world of people who care obviously). One half would say we should ditch cattle farming and the other part who believe eliminating cattle is a ridiculous idea, and the animals are critical to sustain ecosystems. The second group supports more holistic ways and going back to the roots of farming - integrating animals with the nature. Does this conflict affect you at al? It this issue difficult for you guys to manage?
GF: I am really pleased you asked that, as this is such a current issue and unfortunately I believe media covers it totally inappropriately. The issue we are facing in nature today, is not with beef production on a small, family farm scale. The problems starts with farming on industrial scale, on huge farms, where the cattle is fed on soy based products, where the industry is causing deforestation. Soy is hugely carbon intensive and causing huge problems for the soil. But here in UK, we there isn’t that many businesses based on this model. In UK the way that even larger farms, but particularly in here, cattle are grazed extensively. And when the cattle grazes the pastures, they are actually protect the wildlife in many ways and the actual co2 emissions are not high. I see veganism as an easy way to make you think you are doing well for the environment, but actually most people who are vegan, are eating avocados, almonds and many other products that are not seasonal or local, and which are farmed in non-sustainable ways. It’s ridiculous, eating processed vegan meat made with soy – and these things are horrific for the environment, far worse in terms of food miles, carbon emissions, and sustainably they are far far worse when compared to eating reasonable amount of locally produced meat that supports ethical farming. Even during the Oscars few weeks ago, people were served an all vegan lunch, but no one made a fuss about everyone flying there on private jets. I would always say don’t eat the mass produced meats from Americas, eat thoughtfully, eat sustainably, don’t eat strawberries and blueberries in December, eat seasonable, local food. Don’t buy pre-packaged processed ready meals, even if they are vegan, packaging and shipping around the world is not sustainable. It is far easier just to give up meat to clear the consciousness, but continue with other unethical practices. It is easier to say to people give up eating meat for couple of weeks but still go for holidays super far away several times a year. It is easier to give up meat than to start thinking about f. ex. about the way we move about.
TI: How much more expensive do you think it is to run a sustainable business? Is sustainability driving your prices?
GF: For us it is quite hard to make the comparisons because we evidently just live another way, as it is, for example, with generating our own electricity. We have to do it sustainably, we have to think about the amounts of energy we use. This being so deeply rooted in everything we do, it is very difficult to compare the costs with the alternative solutions. The other thing is that although we are very sustainable we are still operating a real luxury experience. Although we are not a hotel as such, we will still provide exceptional quality – the beds are beautifully comfortable, coffee is great, provided by sustainable local roasters, and we are equipped with all really good quality furnishing and accessories. At the same time we have to be sustainable as well. However, our higher prices reflect the level of service we provide which is a bit separate to the sustainable side of things. Ten, fifteen years ago, the sort of eco tourism was associated with things a little bit more set aback. You had to be more basic to be sustainable and this is not very much the case now. You can provide luxury in a sustainable way, so your pricing gets absorbed because you are charging higher for giving more. I think this is the way we are looking at it, we are not going to charge premium for being sustainable, it wouldn’t be fair on the consumer, our guests won’t pay more just because it’s more environmental, but because of they are happy with level of experience they receive, and because of the quality. However, being sustainable does keep your costs are actually lower in some specific ways. If you are buying larger bottles of toiletries, it is going to be cheaper than having mini plastic ones, when you operate a set menu, then you have less food waste and less wasted resources. So there is a balance back, if you are doing things sustainably it does help keeping some of your costs down so you may spend more on your, for example our cushions and our fabrics will be much more expensive. We have used ones made locally with organic linen, organic dyes, which are much more expensive, but also being a crucial part of the experience.
TI: Do you think there is a chance for change? Will guests become ready to pay more for sustainable practices?
FG: That is a really good question, I probably look at things through quite a different lens. We have a huge and diverse market. I imagine, if you look at luxury hotels in Dubai or whatever, paying the amount of money for luxury is not such an issue for them. Our guests don’t mind it either, but the others see us as a one of treat, something you do on a special occasion. There are also guests, who wouldn’t choose to stay with us, if the company wasn’t paying for them, so I don’t know – it is a difficult thing. I would like to think people will become more likely to pay for ethical, sustainable practices, but I think the market says something else.
TI: Are your guests aware of your ethos and values? How many of your guests chose your place because of your values? And how many come unaware and you educate them?
GF: Our clientele is a complete mix . One of the most interesting and inspiring things about working here is the diversity of our market. We have seen guests who literally live 2 miles down the road, but we also accommodate wealthy businessman or 20 years olds from North London. All different ages, all different backgrounds, all different places from where they come from. Some of our guests would come because they are they are drawn by the sustainability and the nature, but equally we have a lot of guests who think we look quite cool and they come for that reason. We actually haven’t marketed ourselves much as sustainable, but as a place where you can have a really amazing experience, and then eventually we will get the sustainable message there. So our reach is also getting to different sort of people, however we do really want to push our message a bit stronger in near future. We are actually redoing our websites at the moment. A lot of people who come to us, wouldn’t know we generate our own electricity, they wouldn’t know so much about other things we do for the environment. A lot of our business is within corporate clients and weddings and these groups choose us for different reasons. Sustainability is actually the 4th reason for choice of the venue, so we need to get a lot better ourselves in terms of marketing of what we do and how we do it. As I have just said earlier here, so far we have sort of done it very naturally, we haven’t really put much thought in it. That saying there isn’t yet that many people who come here because we are sustainable and others aren’t, most of our guests come here for the experience itself, then they learn about our ethos.
TI: Is sustainability and eco-friendly the same from your point of view, or shall we look at these two aspects differently?
GF: I always think sustainability is, and we haven’t really touch on this as yet, about the local community but also about how you treat your customers and your staff. You can only be fully sustainable when you create a happy family safe place to work and to flourish in, and build relationships with the local community. So sustainability is a little bit broader and has a little more depth to it. Eco-friendly can be added a little bit like a wash to things, you can have an eco-friendly paper, and you can use it in a sustainable way. Eco friendly relates to products, when sustainability is an attitude.