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These bananas can help you transition your business into fair trade

By: Sherlyn Assam

When inflation causes grocery prices to fly, customers can usually count on bananas to be the cheapest item in their baskets. To Equifruit president Jennie Coleman, that isn’t necessarily a good thing. The forced labour of adults and children in countries like Brazil and Nicaragua and low farmer wages in Venezuela and Ecuador are what keep Canadians’ bananas $1.29 per kilogram

As a leading North American fair trade-certified banana importer, Equifruit believes bananas shouldn’t come at the price of farmers’s wellbeing. Fair trade practices means farmers and workers receive fair prices for their products and good working conditions. With 10 years of leadership under her belt, Coleman ensures her business trade is produced ethically – and has some advice for women in business with the same goals.

Seek certification 

“Unless you really have an in-depth knowledge of what [fair trade] means or what standards should be followed, trust third-party certification,” says Coleman. 

She says entrepreneurs should shop around for reputable organizations that align with their business goals to ensure they actually have an impact. 

Equifruit is currently certified by Fairtrade Canada, an independent certifier that “supports, promotes and advocates for fair terms of trade for farmers and workers disadvantaged by unfair global trade structures.” Fairtade Canada is 50 percent owned by farmers, so their certification process is informed by the people it serves. Equifruit is also certified by Ecocert and USDA, since they sell products that are good for the environment and society.  

Finding like-minded partners

Entrepreneurs should look for partners that are also certified by fair trade or sustainability organizations. 

“It kind of gives us the comfort that from the base level we have some shared values, and their production is gonna be sustainable,” says Coleman. 

Coleman shares two ways Equifruit finds fair trade growers: database and reputation.

FLOCERT’s free fair trade database allows customers to find business partners who are fairtrade-certified. With over 6000 customers in more than 120 countries, the database can directly connect users with 2 million farmers and workers globally.

Equifruit doesn’t stop at production. Getting the bananas to Canada ethically is also front of mind. Coleman says she has started considering how to ensure the people transporting bananas are working with non-exploitative labour conditions. One of the organizations who prioritize this is the International Transport Workers’ Federation, which exists to improve transport worker’s lives through democratic, union-informed solidarity. 

Equifruit has no trouble finding farmers who want to partner with them – the work is ensuring  their employees are compensated accordingly. This is because Equifruit’s success speaks for itself. Their bananas are sold in over 50 stores across Canada and the US, and they contribute $1 USD for every 40 pounds of bananas they sell to supporting environmental, economic and social projects on their suppliers’ farms. This social premium currently stands at $3,034,536 USD. 

Making long-term investments

But Equifruit didn’t see this success from the get-go. Coleman says the company didn’t have the means to hire specialists in the beginning, but operations and marketing changed the trajectory of the company for the better.

“You might not have the budget for full time people or to do a whole rebrand [to] work with an agency and everything, but probably what I should have done is invest earlier in advice [from] consultants, who seem expensive at the outset,” says Coleman. 

Before Equifruit’s rebrand in 2020, the company spent around $5000 in marketing. Now they spend “twenty times that,” which has “transformed the company.” 

Operations had the same evolution. The consultant they hired in 2017 is now Equifruit’s director of operations. “If I could have had our director of operations on board, we would be a different company,” says Coleman.

Playing the long game 

But Equifruit’s past is similar to many entrepreneurs’ journeys to build and scale their businesses. Coleman acknowledges the long game entrepreneurs have to play – especially when advocacy is at the root of the work. 

While bananas are Coleman’s passion, fair trade goes beyond tropical fruit. 

“’I’m talking about bananas because bananas are a very tidy, accessible example of either poor supply chain practices or what could be good supply chain practices,” says Coleman. 

Coleman spoke as a witness at the Standing Senate Committee on Human Rights parliament session for Bill S-211, an act to get forced and child labour out of Canadian labour supply. The bill mandates companies to report their actions against forced and child labour, whether it’s suspected in production or distribution. Companies can be fined up to $250,000 for non-compliance. The bill became law on January 1 and businesses must begin submitting reports by May 31

Coleman’s advocacy is also educational. She seeks opportunities to speak at universities, landing audiences like Harvard Business School to reach entrepreneurs at the beginning of their careers. 

For Coleman, fair trade is a priority, regardless of what she sells. “If the price is too good to be true, there’s probably a problem there. Let’s unpack that.”

While ethically sourced products could be a personal and professional value, consumers also desire it. 

According to Fairtrade Canada, 80 percent of consumers will see a brand more positively if it is marked as fair trade. A McKinsey & Company study found that over the past five years, products with environmental, social and corporate governance (ESG) standards have grown at a higher rate than those that do not. 

While prioritizing fair trade and ethical supply chains may not be simple, it is achievable. 

Coleman acknowledges that for women in the early phases of their business, fair trade supply chains “may not be the first thing you have time for”, even if they believe in it. She says people should be inspired by the slow and steady path to success.

“What I relate to are the stories of people who spent 10 years sweeping their restaurant floor before suddenly seeing an opportunity to franchise and then building an empire,” says Coleman.