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Canadian banana importer pushes to increase Fairtrade awareness

The banana may be the most inexpensive fruit in the produce section in Canada, but it shouldn’t be, says Jennie Coleman.

“It comes from far away, it’s extremely sensitive, and if the temperature goes up or down, it damages the fruit very quickly, and yet, it’s such a cheap fruit.” says Ms. Coleman, who is president of Equifruit Inc., an importer based in Montreal. 

According to Statistics in Canada, the average cost of bananas is about $1.55 per kilogram, or 70 cents a pound. That’s cheaper than apples, oranges, carrots and potatoes.

But those rock-bottom prices can mean the workers who grow them are exploited, says Ms. Coleman. Over the past two decades, documentaries and exposes by Human Rights Watch and other groups have revealed child labour, poor work conditions and union-busting on banana plantations.

That’s why Ms. Coleman’s company imports only bananas that carry the Fairtrade logo, which helps guarantee farmers a fair price and decent working conditions. So far, Equifruit sells to retailers in Quebec and Ontario.

The company’s socially conscious fruits look the same as other bananas, but they are about 50 per cent more expensive, Ms. Coleman says. “So you have to build a consumer base that is educated about why they should spend a little bit more money on their banana.”

Ms. Coleman bought the business in 2013 from its founders. She was drawn to the venture because she has a background in both business and social activism. “Equifruit was like a callback to my social-justice roots from when I was a younger person, but with the pragmatism of a career in business,” she says.

Equifruit works with co-operatives of small producers in Peru, Ecuador and Mexico which have been certified Fairtrade. For bananas to carry the Fairtrade mark, producers must be small farmer organisations or plantations that meet social, economic and environmental standards and protect workers’ rights and the environment. Importers must pay the Fairtrade minimum price as well as an additional premium for the producer to invest in business or community projects.

Although the Fairtrade organic banana is, as Ms. Coleman puts it, the “top banana” at Equifruit and constitutes nearly 100 per cent of what they import, they also bring in Fairtrade conventional bananas and are exploring the possibility of growing that market, too. 

Fairtrade conventional bananas can be grown using a restricted list of pesticides to prevent disease and pests, while Fairtrade organic bananas are grown without chemical pesticides or herbicides.

“Even though our first choice is organic, we are also conscious that the bulk of Canadians buy conventional bananas, and we would love to convince a grocery store to switch over their conventional bananas to Fairtrade,” says Ms. Coleman. “The volume is much greater, and with volume comes impact.”

The vast majority of the bananas consumed in Canada are conventionally produced; Fairtrade bananas constitute less than 1 per cent of those bought by consumers, says Ms. Coleman.

But the market is ripe for disruption, as consumers are increasingly seeking to make ethical choices with their wallets, she says. “People are wanting to work with companies that have good values.”

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