Sir John Hegarty: why sustainability is more important than ever

In lockdown, the pandemic has convinced the advertising legend of the need to change our approach to agriculture. And, he says, the wine world can do its bit…

Words by John Hegarty

The last few months have given us all time to reflect. For me, it’s meant time to think outside of my usual parameters. Most of us work in some kind of industry; I’ve been in advertising all my career. You tend to see your particular branch of business as self-contained – we all go along on tramlines. But for almost 20 years I’ve also been in farming (I have a vineyard in the south of France). What you realise with agriculture is that there aren’t any tramlines: it’s all one connected unit with the same foundations. And if those foundations aren’t respected, it all goes horribly wrong.

Someone asked me recently, “What kind of wine are you trying to make?” It’s the wrong question. I’d prefer to be asked, “What kind of wine is the land trying to make?” You can’t subvert nature. You can do it for a while – stop this and do that, use chemicals to grow this and push that – but in the end nature will rebel.

(Main image: Knepp Castle in Sussex, which Isabella Tree is returning to nature. Photo by Charlie Burrell)

John Hegarty
Hegarty's vineyard in the south of France has taught him to put nature first

In lockdown, many of us have been pulling out special bottles that we’ve had squirrelled away. But as we do so, and as we consider this pandemic, and the issues surrounding it, the phrase we keep hearing is; we can’t go on as we have been. And it’s the same in agriculture. Nature is sending us a warning. If we go on plundering the planet, pouring chemicals onto precious soil, nature is going to strike back.

The UN has estimated we have only 60 harvests left if we carry on as we are. Some even say it’s 40. Sustainability is a much-used word and one to which we need to pay a lot more attention. But so often we pay lip service to it, hoping somehow it doesn’t apply to us. We hide behind procrastination and ignorance, hoping something will turn up to save us.

So recently I’ve been pondering some hard questions. How do we devise a future that doesn’t shy away from sustainability? How do we develop an agricultural policy that supports both the planet and those on restricted budgets? And how do we create a bio-diverse agricultural policy that feeds and protects us and the planet – and secures a future for generations to come?

In lockdown, Hegarty has been inspired by Isabella Tree’s account of her return to nature

Among the books I’ve been reading during this extended time at home is Wilding by Isabella Tree. It chronicles how she and her husband started a project in 2001 to return their 1,400ha Sussex farm to nature. The results, she writes, have been spectacular, not least in the profusion of previously-rare plants, insects, birds and other animals that are now thriving. She shows how this eco system can work for us – by creating what we want and producing what we need – as long as we work in harmony with nature.

Tree and her husband are not eccentric do-gooders. They worked with community, government, conservation groups and ecologists to ensure that the project had wider relevance. Tree, quite rightly, observes there is plenty of resource to feed the world, reminding us that something like 25% of the world’s food production goes to waste (in some cases it’s even higher). In nature, there’s no such thing as waste; everything is there for a purpose and gets recycled. We too often view nature as something to be tamed, controlled, even subdued. Not something that has to be respected and utilised; a force that can show us how to live in harmony.

In terms of the wine that we drink, how sustainable is it? Are we still drinking wine infused with man-made chemicals that deplete the soil? When are wine writers going to start reviewing wine on its sustainable attributes as well as its ageing ability? When are we going to start factoring in the real cost of the wine we consume? We’re reducing our dependency on plastic but what about glysophates?

I get depressed when business leaders say their favourite book is The Art of War. They see it as a zero-sum game: if I win, then someone has to lose. But you don’t have to have this dog-eat-dog, macho philosophy in order to be successful. If you look back at the great 19th century pioneers – the Quaker companies like the Lever brothers, the Cadburys and the Terrys – the ethics that drove them were about being part of society; their philosophy was that you don’t just extract, you give back too.

Today, too many companies are taking without giving anything back. They don’t pay taxes because they don’t have to. What they are doing is not illegal but it’s immoral – and this attitude has to change. If the pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that we are all individually connected, and that our actions have consequences: one action performed over there will have a reaction over here. When we get people to understand that, we can think of ways of generating a system of living that benefits everybody.

Hegarty in lockdown

At the early-stage investor company that I run, Garage Soho, we’re talking about putting together a new fund which will only work with businesses that satisfy three questions: What is the purpose? How does it profit? And, crucially, does it benefit the planet – does the world need it? Look at the green energy movement. It’s at the same stage as the oil industry was at the beginning of the last century: they’d found this wonderful new technology and they told us we had to invest in it because it was the future. Why aren’t we saying the same thing about sustainable energy?

I’m not naïve. I don’t think that we’re all going to stop flying and start cycling and walking – you have to be realistic. But as we emerge from lockdown, rather than ask how we’ve coped, wouldn’t it be better to ask what we’ve learnt? In so many walks of life, this surely is the time for a reset. Questioning what we do and how; and yes, including what we drink and eat. And if the last few months can inspire the beginning of a shift in attitudes, we might start to ask ourselves, not what can we take from nature, but how we can work in harmony with it so we can all benefit. Now that is an idea I could sell…

Sir John Hegarty is one of the world’s most renowned advertising creators, and the founder of Bartle Bogle Hegarty.