The Labelling on Bags of Compost is Changing – Find Out About The Responsible Sourcing Scheme for Growing Media

The Labelling on Bags of Compost is Changing – Find Out About the Responsible Sourcing Scheme for Growing Media

I’ve been campaigning about the lack of regulation for the labelling of bags of compost for many years, so I was interested to hear that finally, things are changing – a new Responsible Sourcing Scheme (RSS) comes into effect in January 2022.  This scheme has taken the horticultural industry ten years to develop; during this time, vast quantities of peat-based composts have continued to be sold, often to customers who had no idea that they were purchasing peat – thanks to the ambiguous labelling on compost bags and a widespread misconception that peat had already been banned in 2020 (when the government’s meaningless voluntary ban on peat came in).  The imagery and labelling that are currently displayed on packs of compost make these products appear very environmentally friendly – many customers are unaware that using peat-based compost is destructive to wildlife, biodiversity, the environment, and to ourselves (learn more about peat by clicking here).  The past can’t be changed, but we cannot keep watching this issue be pushed forward to be dealt with in the future – any questions over the sustainability of the products we’re using in our growing medias must be addressed now, so we can make changes and improve the sustainability of the horticultural industry and protect our environment.  So, how does the new Responsible Sourcing Scheme work?  Will it realistically help gardeners source sustainable growing media and will the Responsible Sourcing Scheme encourage the horticultural industry to take more responsibility for our environment when developing their products?

The Responsible Sourcing Scheme was launched at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show 2021; at the launch, I met Steve Harper, the Chair of the Responsible Sourcing Scheme (and CEO of Southern Trident) and Neil Bragg, Chair of the Growing Media Association (and Chair of Bulrush Horticulture).  I listened to Steve and Neil’s introductions to the Responsible Sourcing Scheme and put my questions to them at Chelsea.  Since the show, I’ve followed up with questions via email.  Here’s my understanding of how the Responsible Sourcing Scheme for Growing Media will work….

How the Responsible Sourcing Scheme (RSS) for Growing Media Works

Compost manufacturers will sign up to join the Responsible Sourcing Scheme for Growing Media.  Will the Responsible Sourcing Scheme include all growing media producers?  Not yet – so far – Bulrush, Evergreen Garden Care, Melcourt, Southern Trident, The Greener Gardening Company, and Westland Horticulture have signed up.  This is a good start – Steve Harper estimates that 90% of manufactured volume is already signed up to the Responsible Sourcing Scheme.

The RSS will evaluate each compost components based on a number of criteria, including:

  • Energy use
  • Water use
  • Social compliance
  • Habitat and biodiversity
  • Pollution
  • Renewability
  • Resource use efficiency

The Responsible Sourcing Scheme is to be independently audited.  Compost manufacturers will need to provide evidence to document where their products are sourced from and how sustainable they are.  Evidence has to be gathered for each of the multiple ingredients that are used to make a product (for example: coir, wool, green waste, etc.) to allow these ingredients to be individually assessed for each set of criteria.

Members of the Responsible Sourcing Scheme will display a sustainability score on the back of the pack, with A indicating ‘best’ or ‘most responsible’, and E indicating composts that have the worst impact on the environment. The ingredients will be listed in order – greatest first.

The RSS will give the product a rating from A-E.  An ‘A’ rating will be given to the best and most sustainable products, and an ‘E’ rating will be attributed to the least sustainable – this is similar to the energy efficiency rating we use when we purchase domestic appliances.

Compost manufacturers will display the RSS logo on the front of their compost packaging, to indicate that they are members of the scheme.  The rating and a list of the compost’s ingredients will be displayed on the back of the compost bag.  Initially, for the first few months of the scheme, packaging may need to be produced before products’ evaluations are completed; in these cases, the packaging will not display a rating, but will instead show a QR code which customers can scan – this will take them to the manufacturer’s website where they’ll find the latest rating alongside the compost’s ingredients.

A controlled trial will be carried out by the manufacturers regularly to demonstrate that all composts that are part of the scheme are fit-for-purpose.

The process is overseen by an independent auditor to ensure the data provided by the manufacturers is accurate.

My concerns about the Responsible Sourcing Scheme (RSS) for Growing Media

I appreciate the energy that Steve, Neil, Judith, Elaine, and those working on the Responsible Sourcing Scheme committee, have put in to formulate the Responsible Sourcing Scheme.  However, I must say that I do have a number of concerns; some of these are easy to resolve.  When I met the Chair of the RSS, Steve Harper, and Chair of the Growing Media Association, Neil Bragg, at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show 2021, I expressed my concern that the accredited Responsible Sourcing Scheme logo will be on the front of the compost bag, with the rating and the list of ingredients on the back.  I feel that in order for this scheme to be a real success, it is critical that the compost’s rating is prominently displayed as part of the logo on the front of the bag; I’d really hope to see the list of the compost’s ingredients on the front of the pack, too – this would give consumers clear information about what type of compost they’re buying.  Given that the RSS logo is almost identical to the rating logo, I see no reason why the A-E rating can’t be displayed on the front of the packaging.  When I asked Steve and Neil about this, they suggested that the issue could be mitigated by retailers displaying the products’ rating in the sales areas at garden centres, but having been contacted by many of my readers (from all over the UK) who have accidentally purchased peat-based composts because they were stacked up in the bay allocated for ‘PEAT-FREE COMPOST’, I have some anxiety over how accurately this would be done.

Look out for the Responsible Sourcing Scheme Accredited Member logo on the front of compost packs. This logo indicates the manufacturer is an accredited member of the scheme, but gives no indication of the compost’s rating – a compost with the lowest rating could display this logo.

I’d be very happy to see the same product information repeated and printed again on the back of the packet (as well as being displayed on the front of the bag), but I feel it’s important to clearly list both the compost’s ingredients and sustainability information together on the front of the pack.  Making sustainability information clearer is supposed to be the whole point of the Responsible Sourcing Scheme after all.  Not everyone will have the inclination, the time, or ability, to lift numerous bags of compost over to compare them, so why not help customers and print this information together on the front of the bag?

I’d hope that compost producers would be proud, both of their products and their sustainability rating and would wish to display this information in big letters for all to see.  I have concerns that in the initial launch stages of the Responsible Sourcing Scheme there’s a risk that manufacturers may be able to ‘greenwash’ their product by proudly displaying the RSS logo on the front of their packaging, whilst hiding a bad rating or an unpalatable ingredients list in small type on the back of their packs.

When I queried Steve and Neil about the labelling of new products (or products where the ingredients had to be changed for any reason) they told me that in these instances, manufacturers would use the RSS accreditation logo with a QR code that customers can scan for an up to date list of ingredients.  In these situations, naturally it would not be possible for the RSS score to be printed on the product – but again – I come back to my concern that the RSS accreditation logo could make a product appear more environmentally sound than it is.

I am particularly concerned that for the first few months after the RSS comes in, manufacturers will be able to display their RSS accreditation logo without displaying a sustainability score – just using a QR code to list their ingredients.  I feel that this will potentially make an unsustainable product appear to be a positive and environmentally friendly purchase.  I would expect very few consumers would scan the QR code, and since it seems that there’s no text saying “To find out the sustainability score and ingredients, scan this QR code” consumers might not realise the point of the label; currently the text just says “to find out more information…” which may not encourage people to scan it.

The Responsible Sourcing Scheme score will be displayed on the back of each compost pack, along with the compost’s ingredients. Some manufacturers may have printed their packaging before their RSS accreditation is complete or prior to a product’s ingredients being finalised. In these instances, to find out the compost’s score and ingredients, customers can scan a QR code to see the up to date data on the company’s website.

I feel the biggest problem with using the RSS logo without displaying the sustainability score and the compost’s ingredients is that this immediately dilutes the impact and effect of the scheme.  People will see the logo and assume that the product is sustainable.  Consumers could become a regular, repeat customer of a particular brand of compost; the customer may well never look at the label again, in which case they would be unaware of the compost’s actual score when the new packaging eventually filters through to retailers.  For example, you could have somebody buying an ‘E’ rated, peat-based compost after seeing the presence of the RSS logo and QR code – and 6 months later when the E-rating is printed on the back of the pack they may never notice it, assuming the product is fine based on their initial misconceptions and earlier purchase.

Would it not be better to only allow manufacturers to be able to use the RSS logo when they have appropriate packaging with their score/results and accurate list of ingredients?  My fear is that this is going to significantly diminish the impact of the scheme and could cause long-term damage to its efficacy.  The only way around this would be if retailers can get promotional material from the manufacturers that does include the score and display it next to the product – but I fear that manufacturers with low scores will just drag their feet.

The Responsible Sourcing Scheme doesn’t prohibit the use of peat for accredited members.  Under the Responsible Sourcing Scheme, manufacturers can still include peat in their products; the rating system is designed to reduce the overall score for any products containing peat (since they cannot avoid the low scores for lack of renewability and destruction of biodiverse habitats).  However, looking at the Growing Media Association decision tree upon which the rating system is based, there are some open questions about how a manufacturer using peat could still score 80% despite only carrying out 65% restoration of a peat bog that was opened up for peat-cutting 10 years ago.  I feel the calculations the RSS are using are not accurate or representative of the immense destruction caused by peat extraction.

Another concern I have is that the within the guidance for the calculation of the rating, the composts’ fertilisers and wetting agents are not included.  This seems like madness to me – I feel that all of the ingredients that go into the compost should be evaluated and listed clearly.

From looking at the RSS decision tree, I note that to calculate the renewability score for a product, if the product material is renewable in less than 1000 years but more than 100 years this material can still score 30% of the maximum RSS rating.  In my opinion, any product that takes longer than 100 years to renew cannot be considered to be renewable in a practical sense.

The horticultural industry as a whole has shown poor judgement in their continued use of peat; many companies are still reluctant to halt their shameful pillaging of this precious resource, but we all have a choice, we don’t have to support the continued use of peat.  We can all go peat-free now – there’s nothing stopping us – both one by one and together we will make a difference!  When buying plants, check that they have been raised in peat-free compost.

Tell your local garden centre or nursery that you want to buy peat-free plants – by raising awareness you might encourage them to change their ways.  Why not email your local garden centre or nursery to ask them to go peat-free – this will only take up a few moments of your time – here’s a link to a handy letter template on Garden Organic’s website.  If you’re looking for peat-free plants, check out Nic Wilson’s Peat Free Nurseries List on her blog.

If you’re buying compost, look for the words ‘Peat-Free’ or ‘100% Peat-Free’ on the pack – if the bag says the product contains peat – please buy something else. 

Do you have a compost heap?  Why not set up a compost heap in your garden or allotment, or in the grounds of your school, office, restaurant, shop, or business?  Together we can make so much more compost!

Update: Since I published this post I’ve heard back from RSS Chair, Steve Harper:

The Responsible Sourcing Scheme Chair, Steve Harper assures me that they are trying to make things as clear as possible for consumers; he wants the public to know that they will put real scores on compost bags wherever possible.  However, as the horticultural sector moves away from using peat, manufacturers have created products with multiple formulations, which are dependent on the availability of raw materials; some manufacturers may still be working on the scores for their compost formulations, hence the need to put a QR code on the bag now, so that in the gardening season consumers will be able to access a score.  If they didn’t us the QR code it would be another year before there was anything on the bags, as manufacturers are already filling bags for the 2022 season.  Using a QR code allows manufacturers to publish their latest scores and stay as accurate as possible.  Steve feels that since pandemic the public have gained experience of using QR codes and the vast majority of consumers now know how to use a QR code.

With regard to my disappointment that the RSS score and compost ingredients will be listed on the back of compost bags, Steve says: “To bring the whole industry together we have to be reasonable in our asks, every manufacturer has branding rules to consider and clarity of message on the front of bags so we think that the scheme logo is the right thing to put there.  All compost bags have a lot of useful information on the back: how to use, environmental, recycling instructions etc. so it seems sensible to the put the scores there as well.  Again, I would suggest that the consumer has to take some responsibility for turning a bag over and reading the back, I know this is not the perfect solution or easy for some but in the first instance the bag front shows the brand, what the product is, it’s use and whether it is peat-free.  If too much information is plastered on the front of the bag the consumer will get very confused.

I guess it’s a bit like FSC (Forest Stewardship Council) information, often a wooden product wood says that it is FSC certified but not until you read the detail on the back or on instructions would you now whether it is 100%, FSC Mix or FSC Recycled.  Here a compost is accredited, and the score shows the details, the accreditation shows the manufacturer has done the work to show its level of responsibility but some onus has to fall on us as consumers to understand what we are buying.  We look to see how energy efficient something is when we buy it, we have been conditioned to do so, in time the same will be true of compost.”

You can read more of my discussion with Steve Harper and Neil Brag of the RSS Committee here, in the transcript of my interview with them at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show 2021.  As I learn more about the Responsible Sourcing Scheme I’ll be sure to update you.

Neil Bragg (Chair of the Growing Media Association) and Steve Harper (Chair of the Responsible Sourcing Scheme for Growing Media and CEO of Southern Trident) from the Responsible Sourcing Scheme.

Chelsea Flower Show Interview Transcript

PumpkinBeth: What can you tell me about the Responsible Sourcing Scheme and how it will help to get the industry to move away from using peat?

Neil Bragg: This scheme comes from an industry point of view; I hate to say it’s been 10 years developing it.  The idea was that all materials should be assessed against a set of criteria.  I know this is not going to help you, but that includes peat.  So, all materials, it doesn’t matter if it’s peat, or wood fibre, coir, bracken, wool, anything, should be looked at against the same set of criteria, and scored based on energy, water use, pollution risk, biodiversity, habitat.  So you get this set of criteria which gives you a score; and as a manufacturer you have to provide the evidence to whoever wants it, so they can see that you are not trying to falsify it.

PumpkinBeth: So that could be different for the same material, but from one supplier to another?

Steve Harper: Oh yes, absolutely, from everybody, whatever their supplies come from. If you think about peat, for example, it may have come from 6-7 different bogs, so you’ve got to measure from every single bog.  Coir would be the same.

PumpkinBeth: So presumably peat would score very badly?

Neil Bragg: Renewability and habitat are always going to score badly for peat.  But, if you’re using it at the moment, say in a combination of wood fibre, coir and peat: two of those materials are going to be quite good, and the peat is going to be bad – you can’t alter the renewability on the peat side.  But then you have a conversation on the peat side, and the overall score for those 3 materials in combination at say, 60/20/20 gives you X, so if you want to move forward and be aggressive, then the only option is to drop the peat back, and then the score begins to edge up.  We’re not saying “you mustn’t”, but we’re looking at it intelligently – which gives professional growers particularly the opportunity to say “this is what I’m using now, and how do I move forward”.

PumpkinBeth: I’m trying to help growers – I speak to the nurseries – the ones that I know use peat I give advice on how they can change to peat-free.  They tell me about the problems they have with peat-free composts, and I tell them how they can get around the issues they’re having, rather than buying one standard product.

Steve Harper: A simple analogy is when the white paper from the government to ban peat was launched in 2011, what nobody had understood was how good or bad any of the other raw materials were.  They said “ban peat, and replace it with…” and we didn’t know what with.  This scheme means that we’ve measured all of that; the last thing we wanted to do was something like the move to diesel cars 15 years ago; we were told to move to diesel because they had a lower carbon footprint, then we found out 5-10 years later that we shouldn’t use it because of the particulates.  What we didn’t want to do as an industry is rush into using other raw materials to stop using peat, and then find they were just as problematic.

PumpkinBeth: I guess this combats the arguments such as “I don’t want to switch from peat to coir because of the transport costs of coir” – but with this scheme we can measure them comparatively?

Steve Harper: Yes, that’s a really good example.  People have this knock-on opinion of coir, but actually when you dig into the detail of it – and I run a coir company, and I’ve looked at it in detail – people say “coir is a bad thing because it’s shipped halfway around the world”.  We’ve just gone carbon neutral; I’ve just measured my carbon footprint, and my carbon footprint of shipping coir from India to the UK is 5.5% of my total carbon footprint.  There’s more carbon used bringing bark from Scotland into the UK than there is taking coir from India to the UK.  So we’ve got to understand this – to Neil’s point, that’s the entire reason for measuring all these things across all products.  Every product’s going to have an issue; peat has two big issues, renewability and habitat biodiversity, every product is going to score better or worse in some of the categories, and it’s understanding those, and working it out, that allows you to improve those things.

Neil Bragg: And in fairness we’ve been very lucky, because DEFRA – Judith Stuart who works for the Soils and Peatland division – she’s been with us all the time, and really guided us on really challenging us on “So this is what you’re saying, does it fit, does it work”, so she’s kept us in line, which is good.  We’ve had the RSPB involved, and the RHS has been incredibly supportive, so it is a genuine attempt not to demonise everything but have an intelligent and honest conversation about it and make it easier for the consumer.  What the consumer wants is to genuinely go up to a bag and see or identify what it is that’s in there.

PumpkinBeth: And that’s the problem, the labelling is absolutely terrible.  They show the peat percentage of a compost using a 70% green bar, 30% a different green bar, and most consumers don’t have a clue but believe the compost to be environmentally friendly.

Steve Harper: The scheme will enable you to look at the score of how responsible that product is.

The Responsible Sourcing Scheme’s logo may also be shown in a single colour form, depending on the nature of the packaging.

PumpkinBeth: So will the scheme be compulsory?

Steve Harper: At the moment it’s a voluntary scheme, not a legal scheme, but it’s being bought into by the entire industry.  The whole point of the Responsible Sourcing Scheme is that it’s the whole industry.  DEFRA are involved, manufacturers, retails, growers and the NGOs.  Everybody has put the scheme together and the steering group is a multi-stakeholder mixed group of representatives from those stakeholders.  The really important thing is to make sure we’ve got everybody involved.

We’ve initially gone to all the manufacturers to get them involved, and so by volume I’d suggest that 90% of the manufactured volume is signed up as scheme members, and now the next step is to start working on retailers.  The first retailer is Homebase who signed up this morning.  There’s a lot of garden centre chains that are ready to come on board too, but the packaging next year for the first time will have the same message on regardless of the manufacturer.

PumpkinBeth: Is there a concern that the scheme will make peat look acceptable – i.e., greenwashing it?

Neil Bragg: If you were in Europe and looking at their Responsible Peat Production Scheme, then I’d agree with you entirely, because they’re trying to harvest to justify all the time.

PumpkinBeth: Like ‘sustainable’ palm oil?

Neil Bragg: Yes, exactly.  We’ve been quite open about this: there are bound to be some people who will still choose peat-based products at the moment.  You can’t stop it.

Steve Harper: But if somebody was to produce a product that was heavily weighted to peat, then the scores would reflect that it had a low score.  We’ve done a lot of work on the scores and benchmarked to make sure that they’re reasonable.

There’s two ways the score will be shown: either a petal on the bag, from A-E, in terms of how responsible that product is, or there’s a QR code which will take somebody straight to the website where that score is, and everyone can find it.  The only reason there’s a QR code on there for the first year of launch is that obviously everyone’s working on the scheme now, so they don’t necessarily have the answer today, which means you can manufacture the packaging now, and then the website can be updated later on.

Neil Bragg: It’s a key point – the scheme, unlike the other schemes in Canada, North America and Europe, doesn’t try to be clever and say “We are going to be still allowing peat”. It’s looking at everything in an even way, but by the 3rd-party audit – if somebody puts peat in, the score would come down low.  So you would want, naturally, to get rid of your peat to get your score towards ‘A’ and away from ‘E’.

Steve Harper: When we did the scoring and benchmarking, the last thing we wanted to do was have somebody to turn around and accuse it of being green-washed.  We don’t want to go into next year, with everyone having an ‘A’ score.  In our belief, the way it’s scored is really fair and actually quite harsh, so in year 1 it’s unlikely that there’ll be many products – if any – that manage to get into ‘A’, because we’ve all got to continue to work hard at improving what we do, to keep pushing that boundary up.

Neil Bragg: And then, of course, that’ll make it more attractive for those that aren’t in ‘A’, to join that ‘elite’ club by changing their blend, encouraging a drive in the right direction.  And that then drives it, because if the retailers pick this up, then it means they will be pulling it through. It’s the ‘pull through’ from the retail sector and consumers that we need.  You could rightly say to us “why has it taken so long to get to this point”, because frankly there hasn’t been the pull-through.

PumpkinBeth: If you go to the garden centres, it’s all peat-based, so the customers can’t even choose peat-free if they want to, and it doesn’t even say peat-based, it just says “multipurpose”.  A lot of consumers don’t know about the problems with peat.  If you could get the retailers to have ‘D-E’ composts there, and ‘A-C’ composts here, then people will want the best stuff – even if they don’t understand exactly why, they’ll buy it because it’s premium or ‘better’.

Neil Bragg: And ideally you don’t want them to be using A-C in the garden as a soil improver, you’d really like that to be…

PumpkinBeth: For potting compost or container growing.

Neil Bragg: Exactly.  And if you’ve got a soil improver it wants to be differentiated completely as a soil improver.

PumpkinBeth: The problem for gardeners is that they still don’t know whether this is good, bad or indifferent, these composts.

Neil Bragg: You are quite right; you could have a product with that scores really highly that you couldn’t grow a plant in it.  So there’s another protocol within the Responsible Sourcing Scheme which is available to all members/manufacturers, where they have to actually demonstrate – by growing tomatoes and petunias – that they can grow a plant in that material.  So you record the fresh weight, dry weight, and photograph it, and keep a reference sample so that if you the third party who has come around to check it, you can check it and that’s essential.

Individual manufacturers do the trials – so if you talk to Elaine Gotts from Miracle Gro/Levington, who’s standing there: Elaine, you’re doing the P7 protocol aren’t you?  Can you explain it, and how it reflects on our products?

The Responsible Sourcing Scheme logo may also be shown in monochrome.

Elaine Gotts: We have a 100% peat control product which is made and shared across all producers – that’s a mineral fertilised peat base.  Then any products which are all-purpose or multi-purpose, which we want to display the accreditation mark onto; we’re trialling those using tomatoes and petunias, and comparing the growth with the peat reference.

PumpkinBeth: Does your trial include things like how often they need to be watered, and feeding etc?

Elaine Gotts: There’s no feeding in the trial, in the protocol, so it’s purely the fertiliser that’s in the compost that’s creating the plant growth.  There isn’t an assessment on whether they need more watering.

PumpkinBeth: I’ve been running Peat-Free Compost Trials for many years now, and what I’ve found is that the watering massively varies – e.g., plants grown in Dalefoot and SylvaGrow require very different treatments.  Plus, feeding is a huge thing!

Elaine Gotts: We chose tomatoes and petunias because they’re good test plants.  The tomatoes were chosen because they’re really good indicators if you’ve got a lack of nitrogen, they show that up really quickly – and they’re readily available, it’s easy to produce your own seedlings.  The petunias because they’re readily available as plugs or to raise your own, and they’re readily grown in gardens too, so it’s a realistic plant to test with.  The data and results of the trial is held by the producer.  We are audited under the scheme rules, part of the audit is to check the results from those trials that have been completed.

PumpkinBeth: Do the auditors do that by taking a sample and trying to reproduce the trial, or do they just watch you do the trial?

Neil Bragg: They could take a sample if they wanted to – if they don’t trust the evidence that’s provided; then the auditor could ask to see that particular product’s reference sample.  It’s an independent third-party organisation that are doing the auditing; at the moment it’s BM Trada and they effectively come in and you have to provide the evidence, it’s like any other accreditation scheme.

PumpkinBeth: What happens if you get Late Blight or something that might wipe out all the plants?

Elaine Gotts: We’re not growing them for very long though.  They’re only going into a 10cm pot, so it’s the seedling into a 10cm pot and we’re growing them until they have their first flowers.  They’re all in the glasshouse.

PumpkinBeth: That doesn’t sound like a long enough trial, really?

Elaine Gotts: You get really big differences though.  It has to be a reproducible test protocol.  It can’t be anything that takes very long otherwise people aren’t going to do it.

PumpkinBeth: When will the scheme start?

Neil Bragg: So the scheme will start from January onwards.  Quite a number of the manufacturers have the bags with labels ready – certainly Evergreen, so it’s ready to go now.  It’s long overdue.

Steve Harper: It’s going to start appearing on bags in January 2022, so as we start sending next year’s product into garden centres; January/February is when they start stocking up for the season.

PumpkinBeth: Are the logos and scores going to be on the front or back of the packaging?

Steve Harper: On the front it shows they’re an accredited member of the scheme, and on the back it’ll show the rating.

PumpkinBeth: The problem is that nobody ever turns over compost. The majority of consumers will never look at the back.  If you could get it on the front so people can see it…

Neil Bragg: We also want to highlight it at point-of-sale too – that’s where we really wanted to highlight it.

PumpkinBeth: Yes, if you could get somebody like Squires or Homebase, to say “Do you know this is ‘E’, you should buy ‘A’ rated compost”.

Neil Bragg: There is going to be quite a lot of training going into garden centre staff too.  The staff at the garden centres need to know what it means.

PumpkinBeth: A lot of staff at garden centres are telling customers that all their products are peat-free, even if they don’t sell a single peat-free compost.

Neil Bragg: Well, yes, that’s difficult though – we need DEFRA to help us: we need them to onboard the industry as a whole, because it’s not just a case of stopping using peat overnight, we’ve got to make sure the gap’s filled in, and that’s where the business of alternative materials becomes key.  I mean, wood is incentivised to be burned in a power station – so what are the government going to do for horticulture?

Steve Harper: You can’t just ban peat without a replacement material, otherwise you create an even bigger issue. If you take Southern Ireland, where they stopped using peat overnight, now they’re bringing in peat from Latvia and Estonia – when they’re standing on the world’s biggest peat bog.  The RSS allows us to move away in a responsible way; we know we’ve got to find 2m meter-cubed; this gives us a bit of time to find the alternative materials.  The other point that Neil’s is that 34% of multi-purpose is dug into borders as a soil improver – so we’re taking valuable raw materials designed as a growing media, and just digging it into the borders.  We need to get consumers to buy soil improvers for soil improving, and growing media to grow plants in, and not mix the two things up.

Neil Bragg: It doesn’t help that things are being mulched with multi-purpose compost; the problem is that from the consumer’s point of view, why wouldn’t you use it all around the garden?

PumpkinBeth: It’s the same as with EVs – unless there’s an end date, there’s no incentive, and so people can keep kicking the can down the road.  As soon as they realise there’s legislation that states “after this date, the 2 million bags of compost in that warehouse are worthless because you can’t actually physically sell them” then they won’t want them on their books and will want to change.

Steve Harper: The important point to make is: I run a peat-free company, Neil’s company has peat-free and peat-based products, but we’ve got to move to this in a reasonable way.  If we just stopped selling peat tomorrow we’d cripple the industry, because there is not the material to replace it – and if anything, it would be worse, because the industry would start importing plants from the continent, where they’re all grown in peat anyway.  We’ve got to do this in a properly responsible way.  It’s pushing us down a route – we all do it, when we’re buying a TV or a microwave we look at the energy rating on it and most of the time we say “I’m not going to buy a D or an E rating one, I’m going to buy an A or a B”, and this scheme allows the consumer to make the decision.

PumpkinBeth: The biggest problem is that the labelling is inconsistent – once that’s fixed people will buy the highest rated compost even if they don’t know why is scores highly.  I just think that if it has peat in it, it should be given the lowest rating.

Neil Bragg: Well, that’s where it’s going to be, you’re not going to be able to change that; that conversation about “I’m using this mix, I’ve got some peat in it” – it’ll be a low score.

PumpkinBeth: Can I ask you about Moorland Gold?  I have concerns about this type of peat and how it will score in the RSS.  I am worried that other companies will claim their peat comes from rivers or water treatment centres and is more sustainable.

Neil Bragg: Well, it isn’t, is it?  It’s eroded peat from the uplands, through the water treatments system.  It’s peat, so still scores zero on renewability – you can’t get away from that.  That’ll stand out in red on the score sheet.  I can understand them wanting to use it, because they’re having to separate it out anyway, but that’s an uplands erosion issue.  They’re putting coir dams across a lot of the water flow off the uplands, to filter out the fines before it ever gets down to the water treatment plants.  It’s always been a big issue – you turn the tap on in certain areas and you get brown water.

Neil Bragg: It’s like like the first Forestry Stewardship Scheme – you can still buy non-FSC wood, but which would you buy?  The big retailers have made it so you get a label on it saying FSC.  That doesn’t stop somebody producing something that’s not FSC.  There will always be somebody who will do it – and if you can drive it down to the tiniest point, then we’ll achieve it.  We face a challenge from Europe; they have this issue about their view of peat – the Eastern Bloc, Lithuania, Estonia, Latvia, what’s their main resource?

PumpkinBeth: Canada too.

Neil Bragg: Exactly.  They’re seeing things from a different perspective.

PumpkinBeth: Thanks for your time, I appreciate all the info!  The only sad thing is that only a handful of people turned up to this photo-call.  It would have been really nice if as many people were here to listen to the info about the RSS as turned up to see Judi Dench cutting a fake string to open a feature garden!  There should be 500 people here, not a handful.

Neil Bragg: The important thing is, if we can get the message out, and have the clarity of labelling on the product, that’s the most important thing.

Compost Trials and More Information about Compost

The most sustainable compost is homemade, for more than 20 tips on successful composting, please click here.

I’m a peat-free gardener; every single article I write is about peat-free gardening.  I’ve also written articles about peat bogs and peatlands, please click here to see these articles.

To see my Compost Trials, please click here.

To read my response to an open letter from professional horticulturists that promotes the use of peat, please click here.

To find out more about peat, please click here.

For a calendar of zoom or online gardening and nature talks and events, please click here.

For more articles with information on sustainable living, please click here.

Other articles you might like:

Your email will not be published. Name and Email fields are required