Christopher Dawson of Clearspring in West London
"The sustainability of any endeavour or concept depends on organic principles, yin and yang, movement and rest. The same applies to agriculture. No rules, no game."
Clearspring is a UK company, established in the 1980s, specialising in premium quality Japanese, Oriental and European foods. Christopher bought the company in 1993 and since then has dramatically increased sales – the company is now a worldwide distributor of certified organic and traditional foods, that are ethically sourced from and supportive of producer communities, promote good health and are environmentally sustainable.
Christopher’s lifelong commitment to, and expert knowledge of, Japan’s traditional food culture was officially recognised in 2007, when he received the Award for Overseas Promotion of Japanese Food from the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries of Japan, for his distinguished contribution to the promotion of Japanese organic food worldwide.
Can you give a short history of how you got to where you are now, including why and when you 'went organic'?
I first became interested in organic agricultural techniques and the benefits of a vegetarian diet when I was 18. I grew up in New Zealand, but this interest brought me to London, where I settled and opened the East West Natural Foods Store in Old Street in 1977.
I first visited Japan in 1979, and moved there in 1980 to work for Mitoku, the country's largest exporter of traditional and natural foods. I worked with them on developing products for overseas markets and helped producers become compliant with EU organic certification.
I bought Clearspring in 1993 which was then a wholesaler with one London shop. We now distribute over 150 products from 10 different countries around the world, have 15 wholesale customers in the UK, and further wholesale customers in more than 32 countries worldwide.
Our goal at Clearspring is to get organic food back on the dining table, so that people can enjoy the same quality of foods as their grandparents did. We want to develop the demand for organic foods and encourage the cultivation of organic crops by farmers - we always work directly with our producers, building long-term partnerships of ethical trade that support sustainable organic farming and benefit local communities.
Can you describe your typical day?
I’m usually up at 6.00am and help with breakfast and lunch boxes for the children. I then check my e-mails and the exchange rates, before heading out to be at the office by 8:30am.
I contact suppliers in Japan before their day closes at 10.00am UK time and then have various meetings throughout the day with my staff.
My day is punctuated by a game of ping pong at 12:30pm and a brisk walk in the park. The afternoon can involve any or all of the following: sales meetings, new product development meetings or going over the budget.
I try to have dinner at home with my family as often as possible.
Organic principles - why do they matter?
The sustainability of any endeavour or concept depends on organic principles, yin and yang, movement and rest. The same applies to agriculture. No rules, no game.
What does the Soil Association mean to you?
Independent third party organic certification is necessary, just as chartered accountants are needed to conduct an audit. The Soil Association does a thorough job and has a good reputation, hence we are pleased to work with them and have their logo on our Clearspring packaging.
What is your greatest achievement?
Together with my wife, bringing up four children on organic vegetarian food. Food is their medicine. This has inspired me to make my life work one of distributing and promoting certified organic food.
What’s your vision for the future?
For every Clearspring branded food to be certified by the Soil Association by 2012. To reach 50 countries by 2012 with the Clearspring brand. We’re already in 32.
How can the organic market be improved?
We need to emphasise the social, economic and political benefits of organic agriculture. For instance, growing and harvesting your own or your family’s organic food can be a lot of fun! It provides ample opportunities for employment, including seasonal work. It makes each country more self sufficient.
What is the most important lesson life has taught you?
Gratitude for all the people who have helped me on the way. From all situations that gave me a chance and challenges to grow - life is but an ongoing lesson - you just have to learn from each lesson, to move to next level.
What would you have done differently?
Devoted all my commercial activities to the Clearspring brand from day one rather than thinking we needed to distribute third party brands to build our brand.
Who or what is your biggest inspiration?
My mother - she told me to ‘walk tall’ - i.e. be confident in what I am doing and not easily swayed by opinions from others.
What other organic ventures do you admire – and why?
My suppliers - their commitment to quality and organic principles drives me to promote their foods.
What is the biggest threat to what you do?
The brainwashing of the public into believing that GM foods and chemical agriculture are necessary.
What do you love most about what you do?
Being with my suppliers and discussing what more can be done. And being with our Clearspring team - their commitment enables me to get on with my chairman and purchasing role.
What's the main benefit of being organic for you?
Having a network of suppliers and friends throughout the world.
What is the key to your success?
Knowing that everything changes. Accordingly there’s no need to despair about anything.
What keeps you awake at night?
I don’t have nightmares, but exchange rate movements and bank charges annoy me.
What's the best thing about organic growing?
Discovering that nature is so abundant and forgiving.
What single thing would most improve your life?
A £2 million fund and/or a bank overdraft to finance the import of organic food from Japan and Asia.
What do you find most frustrating about what you do?
Not having this fund/overdraft yet!
Any unusual hobbies?
Having maps of the world everywhere possible around me
How can we get more people to buy organic?
Warn the public that pesticides are destroying our fragile ecosystem, polluting our water supplies, killing off friendly predators and damaging the health of our children, our future generation.
Supermarkets - good or bad?
Convenient for the customer, but they can both make or break suppliers overnight.
What's the best thing about organic food?
It gives people health and results in sustainable agriculture.
What is your favourite meal?
My wife cooking seasonal vegetables together wholegrain rice or sweet millet.
If I was Prime Minister I would...
…provide genuine low interest rate loans for SMEs and a reasonable interest rate on savings accounts, to encourage people to save.
The world would be a better place if...
…government supported local organic agriculture and the propagation and use of heirloom grains and vegetables.
…every school had lessons in organic agriculture and an agricultural holding from which the crops could be used in the school kitchens.
I'd like to be remembered for...
…my commitment to helping many suppliers around the world to go organic by selling their products under the Clearspring brand.
When were you happiest?
That’s relative! I try to be happy all the time, even under threat from supermarkets, exchange rates and banks.
What is your favourite word?
Challenge! I like running uphill!
What would be your 'Desert Island' luxury?
Sitting in an onsen (a Japanese hot spring pool) with my wife playing the piano in the background.
Is the customer always right?
Not when they demand ripe tomatoes mid-winter!
To find out more about Clearspring visit www.clearspring.co.uk