“Excessive, unbridled use of plastic is a challenge that confronts the entire world, and for us the question was: how can we make a constructive contribution to solving this enormous environmental problem? We decided the best approach was to take a long look at ourselves first, rather than immediately starting to lecture others,” says Frank Vermeersch from AgroFair.
“Obviously we believed that our organic Fairtrade bananas were a good thing. Who could criticise something like that? There wasn’t any room for improvement, we thought. Nevertheless, in among the idyllic-looking plantations of all those small banana producers, we knew that you could find a huge volume of plastic debris lying around. But you could also see it in the villages, on the roads and floating around in nearby rivers too. In short, not a pretty sight. And quite a challenge to the image presented by our wonderful organic Fairtrade story.”
“To us, it was a wake-up call, and it was all hands on deck. We decided that we had no choice but to make changes. But where to start? In countries like Peru and Ecuador, it would be tough. People there face a struggle for survival in their daily lives, so tackling the plastic problem wouldn’t be at the top of anybody’s list of priorities,” says Frank. “During the course of 2015 a growing body of ideas emerged, we set targets for ourselves, laid them down in the sustainability report and then published them. But swept along by our own enthusiasm, we were putting the cart before the horse, as it were. The media picked up on the story. And then there was no way back...”
“It was an extremely slow process: always three steps forwards and two steps back. Falling down and getting back up again. Trial & error. Sometimes we thought, what on earth have we started? But at the same time, it never occurred to us to throw in the towel. We’ve collected the results in a short video, which shows how far we have already come and what our ultimate destination is.”
“The work is never finished. Once this project is complete, there’s bound to be another challenge to the harmonious functioning of people, the environment and the economy. The early signs of such problems, such as the need for better water management and combating the disease Tropical Race 4 or ‘TR4’(see BBC's article), are high on the agenda and have therefore been given a prominent position on our website and in our latest sustainability report.”
AgroFair’s motto: scientific substantiation, pragmatism, empathy, instinct combined with logic, and patience.
“Previously we didn’t tend to publish this information, or we simply forgot to do so. But now the times are changing. Sharing our experiences and practising transparency has taught us that this approach can only be beneficial. We’re benefiting from a cross-pollination of ideas from the most unlikely sources, providing irrefutable evidence that – besides pursuing the rather clinical-sounding ‘4 Ps’ (product, price, place and promotion) – a whole lot of other aspects need to be considered too when marketing a sustainable, commercially strong product.”
“Obviously you need to feel supported in this all-encompassing but sometimes rather complex approach and these ideas need to permeate through to everyone in your organisation. Otherwise it won’t work. But that’s not a problem for us at all, because our management is actually full-square behind this approach. In fact, our management is giving extra impetus to these efforts and is more than willing to lend a hand with the operational side of things,” says Frank.
“Our 25th anniversary in 2021 will be coming up very soon. When we founded AgroFair, our mission as a pioneer was to be confrontational and to question the established order, in order to resolve the appalling conditions in the banana industry. That empowering spirit is still part of our DNA and, in combination with our win/win philosophy, it will always be our favoured approach. Today, almost 25 years on, there have been lots of positive changes in the banana industry and our industry competitors and colleagues have helped to achieve this progress. Without wanting to seem presumptuous, we are quite proud of this, but our work is still unfinished and it will never end.”
“It’s fashionable these days to use the fancy term ‘influencers’ and that’s probably the best way to describe us, now and always. We’ve been convinced right from the very beginning that it’s essential for the banana industry to change,” Frank concludes.