8 Dec 2021

Fairtrade: the “complete certification.” An interview with Jérôme Fabre, Compagnie Fruitière

Based in Marseille, France, Compagnie Fruitière ranks in the top six banana companies in the world and in terms of hectares under cultivation, is one of the world's leading producers of Fairtrade certified bananas.

The statistics are impressive: from its plantations in Cameroon, Ecuador, Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire, Compagnie Fruitière ships more than 490,000 tonnes of bananas for sale across Europe each year. The business employs more than 20,000 workers, farms more than 12,000 hectares and, in addition to bananas, produces cherry tomatoes, corn, pineapples, peppers and cocoa.

However, bananas remain Compagnie Fruitière’s flagship fruit, with an emphasis on organic and sustainable production. Company Executive President Jérôme Fabre explains why, since the company first became certified in 2012, Fairtrade has played an increasingly important role in its development.

Why did you choose to become part of the Fairtrade movement, and how has the partnership evolved with time?

Compagnie Fruitière has been strongly committed to corporate social responsibility (CSR) since its creation. We have always placed respect for human beings at the heart of our strategy - for example, our first hospital, run in partnership with the Order of Malta, was built in 1998.

The highly competitive nature of the international banana market makes for a very unbalanced relationship between suppliers and a few powerful buyers, and we felt that Fairtrade’s philosophy and Standards made it a natural partner for us.

Now, we are very proud to be one of the largest Fairtrade banana companies certified from production to distribution. We have a strong relationship of trust with Fairtrade at both production and commercial level, and together with Max Havelaar France we are committed to making France a world leader in Fairtrade fruit.

What is the difference between Fairtrade certification and other labels?

Compared to other labels, Fairtrade has very high standards. It’s not easy to obtain and maintain Fairtrade certification, and everyone who works for Compagnie Fruitière - especially the local teams - works hard to make sure we keep it up.

Fairtrade focuses on both sustainable farming and social issues - that’s what makes it a complete certification. Producers who commit to Fairtrade know they will get a fair slice of the value chain through the Fairtrade minimum price. For us, it’s a no-brainer: no other certification recognises the work of the producers to the same extent.

The other unique aspect of Fairtrade certification is the way workers are empowered through the Fairtrade Premium Committee. The concept of ‘empowerment’ takes on its true meaning and promotes the strengthening of the social cohesion of the company. Together, the workers are all actors in an entrepreneurial adventure!

How have your workers used the Fairtrade Premium?

Firstly, the workers decided to receive 20 percent of the Fairtrade Premium on top of their salaries. The committee has also financed canteens, constructed and furnished school classrooms, funded scholarships and purchased school materials which are donated to children each year. Other projects include buying a fleet of buses to take residents on holiday, building learning centres and water towers, and supplying electricity to villages.

Together with company-funded initiatives, these projects have contributed significantly to improving the lives and livelihoods of the local people. They help strengthen the relationship between the workers, the company and their communities - the workers are proud of helping to develop these ties.

How can producers be supported at a time of low banana prices and high cost in production, distribution and transport ?

This is where Fairtrade proves its relevance. For both large and small farmers who are increasingly affected by the changing and unpredictable climate and increasing international competition, the stability offered by the Fairtrade Minimum Price is vital.

Compagnie Fruitière believes that all retailers should offer at least 25-30 percent of their food products as Fairtrade, and all bananas sold in the EU should respect at least the Fairtrade Minimum Price. The EU can impose regulations on car emissions, so why can’t they also legislate that retailers must offer a mix of Fairtrade products? Such a proposal would also be supported by most European consumers.

How does the upcoming increase in the Fairtrade Minimum Price in 2022 affect Compagnie Fruitière? Will the minimum price have to keep going up?

The Fairtrade Minimum Price is the result of dialogue and analysis between producers and Fairtrade. It is set with rigour and seriousness, and because all stakeholders are consulted it ensures that production costs are accurately reflected. In a particularly inflationary context, the minimum price is an important reference which not only takes into account the rising costs of raw materials, but also reflects wage negotiations. However, it’s a pity that it doesn’t cover all the costs of the value chain, from shipping to ripening and distribution.

It is important to remember that an increase of a few cents per kilogram makes a huge difference for producers. A consumer who is happy to pay up to €1000 for a mobile phone could afford to eat Fairtrade organic bananas for more than 50 years! We need to educate consumers so they don’t think they can eat well for free or almost free.

What do you think of Fairtrade’s strategy towards a living wage for banana workers?

Our employees already receive a living wage, and actually it’s even more if you include some of the in-kind benefits that are not currently included in the methodology.

Being properly paid for your work is an essential right and we support the initiative, but it’s a complex and fragile balancing act that must be handled with care. Wage levels should not be so high that companies can’t achieve them, nor so low that employees are disappointed. It’s important that it happens in dialogue with the stakeholders, understanding and considering local issues. In some countries, for example, companies pay for essential services to complement those provided by the state. It’s no good earning a salary which is high enough to pay for healthcare if there are no doctors or hospitals.

However, we also believe that the living wage strategy shouldn’t interfere with the fundamental right of any company to set its own wage policy which is negotiated with the representatives of trade unions.