12 Oct 2020

Fairtrade & Fyffes: A long-term Partnership for Sustainable Bananas

Juan Liriano working at Bananas Dominican Republic Las Mercedes.
© José García

Fyffes is the largest importer of Fairtrade bananas in the world and Europe’s biggest supplier of Fairtrade bananas. John Hopkins, Fyffes’ General Manager, Import and Logistics, says his role is to “take all the bananas that are available for harvest, put them all into boxes, get them loaded onto the right ships, and get them delivered in a timely manner - all before you even know you want them!” We asked John to reflect on twenty years of working with Fairtrade - and the challenges and opportunities for the future.

How would you describe the relationship between Fairtrade and Fyffes?

John: We bring different things to the party but it’s a very strong partnership - a partnership of equals. In 2000, Fairtrade bananas were just starting to come onto the market and one of our retail customers asked us to supply them. It wasn’t such a big step for us, it was just a natural progression from what we were already doing. At first we were unsure about the Fairtrade brand and activism coming into our commodity. What was their message - were they saying all bananas are bad except Fairtrade? How would the markets react? What were the implications for our supply base? So we kind of respected each other from a distance for a while, but since then the relationship has become very strong, because we realised we both stand for the same things and we both need each other to make it work for farmers and for retailers.

Fairtrade’s business model is all about the long term. Producers, for absolutely the right reasons, want to sell everything they have as Fairtrade - while importers, driven by their customers, want the best price and best quality possible. You can’t resolve that in the short term. In a Fairtrade relationship, everyone understands each other, you sit down, share your issues and make a plan based on trust and long-term collaboration. Do we want more Fairtrade farmers? Yes, of course. As the Fairtrade market grows we will have more Fairtrade farmers, but in the meantime the existing ones know they have more security - that’s why the collaboration is important for us.

Has COVID-19 impacted Fyffes’ supply chain?

John: We’ve managed to get the harvests out and fill every ship each week as needed, and at no point did we have to close farms or stop operations - that’s important because bananas are a weekly crop and farmers get used to a weekly income to feed their families. We’ve obviously taken steps to protect employees and suppliers - for example, changes to staff transport, in canteens, moving personal protective equipment (PPE) to where it is needed - everything we have done in Europe we have also done in origins. A lot of the harvesting activity is outdoors, but we’ve also put screens up in the pack houses, and made sure canteens and toilets are safe. I’m confident we are doing as much as we can.

How does Fairtrade fit into Fyffes’ overall sustainability vision?

John: We’re always challenging ourselves - you can never be content with what you do and you can always seek to do better. Like many other organisations we are on a sustainability journey - we have a vision to engage employees, growers, customers, consumers and civil society together to deliver fresh, healthy and sustainably grown products. We are closely aligned with the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). If you look at our target SDGs they are closely aligned with Fairtrade’s priorities - that’s good for both of us.

That said, there is already tremendous pressure down on price. And if you add in the pandemic and the doom and gloom of the economic and unemployment forecasts, retailers are going to be even more sensitive to price and put even more pressure on getting the best value for their customers. That makes sustainability an even greater challenge. Low pricing is not the answer, but people don’t want environmental and sustainability costs to have a direct impact on their pockets. That’s always a challenge for us, but Fairtrade is particularly good at highlighting those issues, which helps us in our work with both farmers and consumers.

Has there been a shift in consumers’ attitudes and behaviour?

John: There’s a whole undercurrent of ethical trade and social justice driven by consumers, which is making people question where their food comes from. And that’s a good thing. But when you go into a store, the banana range has already been selected by the retailer so you buy what is available on the shelf. So the retailer has a significant impact on shopping choice. Fairtrade is good at the messaging around social injustice, living wages, workers’ conditions and so on. It’s also very transparent about pricing - you pay the Fairtrade price so the grower gets a fair price, and that’s a very clear message. The whole supply chain has to function and understand the merits of Fairtrade, not just the consumer. You have to get the retailers on board.

Are you optimistic about the future of banana supply chains?

John: Bananas have been around for a long time and we have had major challenges - for example Panama disease, and now TR4 (both serious banana plant diseases) - but the technology for farmers, shippers and forecasting is getting better all the time, and that helps us to react better as these challenges come along. No doubt we will have to adapt in the future, but look at how we had to do things differently this year - no-one could predict what COVID-19 would do, but when the pandemic hit, it took just a matter of days for the industry to adapt and we coped with the challenge in front of us. We have a very resilient banana supply chain, so whatever gets thrown at us I can’t imagine we will be in a situation where we going to fail. The relationship between Fyffes and Fairtrade will continue to prosper and grow. People have a hunger for ethics and social justice, and when you put that together with our supply chain I can’t fail but to be optimistic.