Some 28 miles off Land’s End you can only reach this group of islands by a small ferry or small propeller planes that land at the pint-sized airport on the main Island, St Mary’s. I have been fascinated by the logistics and practicalities of island life on the Scillies since I first visited in 2007 and explored this further on our visit this year. We stayed on a relatively new development of seven permanent safari tents on one of St Mary’s farms, Peninnis, (which I would highly recommend incidentally!) and I was able to pick farmer Dan’s brains in the mornings when the children helped him feed the pigs and collect eggs from the chickens.
From my conversations there were three things that really stood out and struck a chord with me:
- Reinforcing the fact that a customer led approach usually wins. Dan told me that it had taken them eight years to get planning permission for the safari tents mainly because of local objection about losing customers in the existing B&Bs and self-catering accommodation. However, the Isles of Scilly were in a crisis following 2008 when tourist numbers were tumbling and fell to as low as 40,000 per year. With about 80% of the local economy dependent on tourism this was a huge issue. On top of this the demographic was getting older and older and Dan’s view was that something needed to be done to appeal to a new generation of tourists. The safari tents have borne this out and instead of cannibalising business he can point to a 90% first time visitor rate in the first three years, mainly young families and couples. The same way his dad had grown a successful artisan crisp business before the per tonne price of potatoes collapsed, Dan and his wife Zenna understood the customer need and developed their hugely successful proposition accordingly.
- The importance of the emerging circular economy. The same way Ellen McArthur had her epiphany about the circular economy when in the middle of the Pacific, the realities of what ‘finite’ really means is brought into focus by being on these remote islands in the Atlantic that can so easily be cut off. As soon as there is just a bit of fog, the flights are cancelled and stormy weather will cancel the ferry too. Accordingly there is a real focus on reuse and preservation of resources in favour of even recycling – when freight of waste back to the mainland costs £100 per tonne you get pretty creative about how to use your resources!
- How big corporate processes can hamper both sustainability and the customer proposition. There is only one supermarket on St Mary’s, the Co-Op, and it is no larger than your average small community Co-Op elsewhere. At the same time there are some fantastic things produced and sourced on the Scillies, from daffodils, narcissi and potatoes, to local wine, beer and sea food. Yet Dan told me that the local Co-Op only has permission from HQ to buy £80 worth of local produce per week and has even seen his own narcissi for sale after having been shipped to the mainland and back through the Co-Op sorting centre (remember that £100 per tonne of freight figure!) a week less fresh and more expensive. We all understand quite how well-oiled the large supermarket logistics machines are, but a more locally minded approach is not just better from a sustainability perspective, but also better for the customer – businesses need to look at how they can combine the efficiencies of their current models with the flexibility to offer a more local and tailored proposition for customers.
If you have never been to or heard of the Isles of Scilly do check them out – I can’t recommend these islands enough and we liked it so much that have booked to go again next July already. Happy holidays and hope you are all enjoying the summer!
by Jesper Ekelund