3 Feb 2020

Fairtrade is “a perfect fit” for leading fruit and vegetable importer

Processing bananas in Ecuador
Processing Fairtrade bananas in Ecuador
Stefan Lechner

Port International is one of Europe’s leading suppliers of fresh fruit and vegetables, importing them to European retailers and wholesalers from all over the globe. The family’s tradition in the fruit sector goes back a long way: in 1912, Theodor Port was one of the first to bring bananas to Europe and then, more than 20 years ago, it was his great-grandson Mike Port who imported the first Fairtrade bananas to the continent. Fairtrade has been a core element of the company’s sustainability strategy ever since.

We talked to CEO Mike Port to find out more about the company’s experience with Fairtrade, the challenges they face, and the sustainability plans they are putting in place for the future.

Port International has more than 140 years of experience trading with fresh produce, including bananas. When did you first start working with Fairtrade? What was the motivation?

It all began in 1996 with a visit from Bert Beekman, founding director of the Max Havelaar Foundation in the Netherlands. He was looking for cargo space to transport a few pallets of Fairtrade bananas to Europe by sea. He had already visited other operators but they were not interested in giving space in their vessels to Fairtrade bananas from Ecuador and Colombia. But I was curious, I did some research and soon became inspired by the Fairtrade idea.

The ideals and Standards of the Fairtrade system were a perfect fit for our family-run group as we had always cultivated long-term and collaborative trade relations with our suppliers.

So we started trading some pallets. But the beginnings were not easy. It was 1997 and producing countries were badly hit by 'El Niño'. The quality of the produce was bad. Retailers were reticent and didn’t understand the consequences of El Niño on banana production. They were only focusing on the 'awful quality'. For those retailers, Fairtrade bananas from small producers could not work from a quality point of view. It was a hard experience. Many retailers refused to continue selling Fairtrade bananas. The only country where retailers had an understanding of El Niño was Switzerland. Notwithstanding the quality problems, the Swiss retailers continued to buy the bananas.

Despite these difficult beginnings, Port decided to continue with Fairtrade as well. Nowadays, Fairtrade is an essential part of our business. In fact, the turnover of Fairtrade bananas today represents approximately 75 percent of our banana business.

What is Port International’s sustainability strategy and what role does Fairtrade play in it?

Fairtrade is an essential part of Port International’s business and has played a huge role in our strategy for bananas over the past decade.

However, bananas are a ‘boring product’. What I mean by that is that it is not so easy to add value to the product, unlike a chocolate bar for example. You need to be competitive, control the costs of the supply chain, be creative, be one step ahead of the competition. Fairtrade is important in that sense because it helps us to do better, stay ahead.

Our aim is to offer our clients other Fairtrade products besides bananas. We are already selling Fairtrade oranges from South Africa, and we think that avocado could be the next Fairtrade product in our assortment. It is a product very much in demand, a regular item now in consumer shopping baskets.

As a company distributing fruits and vegetables, we have a solid strategy for each product category. For instance, we are working to make our operations climate neutral. We were the first company to distribute carbon neutral strawberries from Spain in Austria and Switzerland in 2017, and in 2019, we introduced BE CLIMATE, the first brand for climate neutral fruit and vegetables in the world. The first five products to be marketed under this name are strawberries, clementines, green asparagus, blueberries and, last but not least, bananas. We see great potential in this brand to make especially the banana more exciting, and we are looking forward to finding new cooperations – also with Fairtrade – to increase sales and by doing so, make the products more attractive for the consumers.

How, in your view, is Fairtrade helping to build sustainability among the Fairtrade producers you buy from?

Fairtrade provides training and technical support to the producers to help them understand the market, export directly, and establish their business in a professional way. In other words, Fairtrade helps producer organizations to become real ‘business partners’.

Fairtrade is also important because it helps to improve the quality of the produce. Port’s team on the production site, too, supports producers to ensure the bananas are packed correctly in the boxes. Quality is absolutely key. We are telling retailers and consumers that Fairtrade is high quality. Therefore, it is extremely important that we provide top quality.

CEO Mike Port
Port International CEO Mike Port

How could importers develop an even closer collaboration with Fairtrade banana producers?

The challenge in the relationship between importers and producers is to move to the next stage. Port International only works with small producer organizations (SPOs). For us it is vital that they increase their efficiency and harvest more bananas per hectare. We also want them to improve their irrigation methods and increase their yields. Of course, we understand that to achieve this it is necessary to invest time, money, and effort. Port is ready to provide support to its suppliers but we also want to work with partners who are ready and motivated to put in the extra effort.

One example of this sort of collaboration was with the Fairtrade producer organization CAPEBOSAN in Peru. Port International assisted in the project of building a new water pump in the Jibito region. Thanks to the pump, it was possible to increase the water supply to CAPEBOSAN producers and other banana farmers in the area.

As a result, CAPEBOSAN was able to increase their export production from three to a dozen containers a week, largely due to the improved water supply. But you need a partner who has the spirit to implement such a project. Port only invests in SPOs where that spirit exists, where producers are willing to invest part of their Fairtrade Premium or other funds to make the extra effort.

Retailers and consumers are very keen to understand how their bananas are produced. How is Fairtrade helping to mitigate risks in your supply chains and for your clients?

Fairtrade is independent and has a strong certification system in place to ensure that all the actors are complying with its standards. This is a good basis for trust and transparency. What Fairtrade is still missing is the ability to better communicate its positive impact on the producers in the country of origin and why Fairtrade certified products have to be more expensive.

Fairtrade needs to explain why a Minimum Price is necessary, where the Fairtrade Premium goes, and what the producers use it for.

More and more of our clients are trying to find out whether the workers who are supplying their bananas are being paid living wages. Retailers with CSR [corporate social responsibility] departments are commissioning studies on this aspect and evaluating what it means for their sustainability strategies.

But some supermarkets haven’t yet changed their prices because of those findings. They are still looking for the most competitive price. They want suppliers who pay salaries that are living wages and provide good conditions for workers. However, with current prices being what they are, this is often not possible. Fairtrade must prove they understand the cost chain so that we can explain to the retailers that the Fairtrade Minimum Price is the right way to go if they are serious about paying better salaries to workers.