The ethics girl

Madeleine Duggan, chief executive, GreenFeast plc. Trailing a flock of silk scarves and five minutes late, Duggan flaps into the boardroom.

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Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Trailing a flock of silk scarves and five minutes late, Duggan flaps into the boardroom, spilling the contents of an oversized ethnic handbag onto the reclaimed English oak table. She throws back a mane of greying blonde hair and stares at the agenda in front of her - biodegradable ink on recycled paper.

First up, negotiations with a household-name food manufacturer on producing organic cheese slices as authentically disgusting as their non-organic bestsellers. Next, should GreenFeast diversify into cosmetics?; then a discussion of (yawn) what the company's remaining institutional investors want. Hopefully, the answer to this one will be to have their equity bought back.

Pressing though these are, Madeleine has more vexing matters. The jefe (boss) of the Nicaraguan coffee co-operative she spent so long nurturing in the mid-90s is now doing rather well for himself. He's just bought an SUV - a Hummer, for Christ's sake! Worse still, a rather snide journalist from the Spectator visited him - and the jefe took the hack out drinking and whoring in the Hummer. The piece appeared yesterday under the strap 'How Green is my Mendoza Valley', the last two words being the name of her precious coffee. The press haven't had so much fun with GreenFeast since the Mirror revealed that her daughter skipped her trendy private school's lentil lunches to binge on Big Macs.

Now the finance director wants her to sign something allowing the group to put certain assets offshore ('It'll keep the institutions sweet...').

She hates this: can't they just pay bloody corporate taxes? Isn't that what a truly ethical company would do? 'Yes,' he replies levelly, 'a truly ethical, entirely uncompetitive company. Maddie, you don't help the poor by becoming one of them, you know.'

What a long, strange trip it's been. Twenty years ago, she was the proprietor of Green Feast Wholefoods, a healthfood shop catering to Cambridge's alternative types who ate high-fibre, low-taste grub resembling cardboard. It was a pleasant living, but for all her activist credentials, Duggan was getting to an age where a little money would be nice, if only to buy a new 2CV.

Then, in the late '80s, she visited a friend in Seattle and they bummed around the west coast. Somewhere between the redwoods and the re-birthing, Duggan saw the future of green food - one that paid greenbacks. The trick was to take it out of its high-fibre ghetto and stop crapping on about bowel movements. Late '80s man and his shoulder-padded missus were taking an interest in the environment, but they didn't want to don hair shirts - they wanted eco-friendly upscale lifestyles. Back in the UK, Duggan started gunning for upwardly mobile neo-greens. Tofu for toffs was a hit, and she soon opened a second shop in Hampstead. Then the recession of the early '90s struck. The good people of Cambridge decided that when equity is negative, there are more important things than ethically sourced carrots. But the new store managed to thrive.

When the economy picked up again, GreenFeasts were sprouting like mung beans across London and in Brighton, Edinburgh, Exeter, Oxford - anywhere consumers were rich enough to care. 'Good food shouldn't cost the earth' was the slogan, even though (metaphorically) it did. Then she made her big mistake. Smooth-talked by City slickers, she floated GreenFeast, believing that if she could make an ethical consumer, she could do the same for capitalism.

How wrong she was: her tenure as CEO was marked by a series of spats that ended in her stepping down as the company's shares plunged. The collapsing equity value, however, allowed her to wrest back a controlling 51% stake.

Her name was mud in the Square Mile, but soon the business was back on track and making money. And now she has been embraced by the establishment she always railed against.

Speaking of which, from the triple-glazed windows, she can see the big Mercedes of Jamie Chatwin, the most loathed of her 'institutional interferers', pulling up. He's blocking the bike rack, as usual. Her PA pops his head round the door: the Sun has picked up the Nicaraguan coffee/Hummer story - and her son's headmaster reports that the boy seems to be enjoying another kind of Latin American export. 'Sign this!' demands the FD. Madeleine takes a deep breath and prepares to focus, briefly allowing herself the luxury of wondering whether the world wouldn't be a better place if everyone else was a bit more like her.

DUGGAN IN A MINUTE

1952 Born 5 October in Farnham, Surrey. Educated Royal School, Bath,

Warwick University (dropped out in second year)

1970-74 Travelling: England to Goa, via Turkey, Iran and Afghanistan

1975 Starts work at Green Feasts

1976 Owner takes break to discover himself in South America. Duggan

takes over shop

1977-84 Owner, Green Feasts Wholefoods, later rebranded as GreenFeast

1988 Expansion begins

1995 GreenFeast floats, Duggan made CEO

1997 Steps down as CEO

1997 Regains control of GreenFeast plc as majority shareholder

2004 CEO, GreenFeast plc and non-exec on five FTSE-100 companies.

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