8 November, 2018

Shaping the Future of the Banana Industry

World Banana Forum
by Jennie Coleman, Equifruit

Usually, at the end of a big event, there’s a period of rest & reckoning once the “dust has settled”.  Last month, Equifruit hosted meetings of the World Banana Forum (WBF) in Montreal, but those looking for dust to settle with be sorely disappointed:  instead, picture a room full of people, from wide segments of the global industry, looking to collectively stir up and blow away dust from the way the banana industry has been operating for over a hundred years. 

Who is the WBF?  It’s a global group of stakeholders in the banana industry, from workers’ unions in Central America to the biggest retailers in Europe, and from small, values-based marketers like Equifruit to giant banana multinationals.  All these players have agreed to work together to tackle the most pressing sustainability issues facing the industry, and their efforts are organized into three working groups, tackling environmental, economic and social issues.  The WBF is run out of a secretariat at the UN’s Food & Agriculture Organization in Rome.

As the WBF’s only Canadian member, here’s the Equifruit perspective on what went down when the Distribution of Value working group (the one focused on economic sustainability) got together:

October 9th:  Equifruit organized a Canadian market / retail tour to help participants learn about the North American context.  We visited Sobeys QC’s Distribution Centre and talked to Richard Lagacé about Sobeys’ Fairtrade commitments, then popped into three different grocery stores, covering the high-end to discount spectrum. We ended the day with a tour of Canadawide, where Ron Lemaire (Executive Director, CPMA), Les Mallard (Chair of the CPMA) and Pamela Riemenschneider (Retail Editor, Produce Blue Book) each gave us their take on sustainability, bananas… and banana pricing. 

October 10th:  Our meetings focussed on living wages, the costs of sustainable production, and supply chain transparency, animated by civil society members such as the Global Living Wage Coalition and Fairtrade International.  We talked living wage methodologies, benchmarking, comparisons across competing banana countries and implications both up the value chain and among producing countries.  There seemed genuine will around the table to move forward, and Iris Munguia, President of COLSIBA (= the coordinating body of Latin American banana workers’ unions) - and a 20-year banana packhouse veteran - kept us focussed on whose wages we were actually discussing, lest we fall into theory and forget the real-world implications of this work.

October 11th:  The discussion shifted to living wage implementation – but there was broad consensus that we would need agreement along the supply chain.  Producers from Costa Rica and Ecuador voiced their concern that retailers had placed ever greater sustainability demands on them without increasing prices, and that living wages – as a significant portion of a producer’s cost structure – would have to be reflected in higher prices at retail, accompanied by broad consumer education.  We drafted an initial living wage implementation and government / retailer involvement plan which will be presented at the next WBF Steering Committee, scheduled for end of November, 2018.

So, what comes out of such meetings?  Much happens informally, such as information sharing and comparing.  Case in point:  one Ecuadorian producer went home from Montreal and reported back to his industry association that word was a major German retailer had stated it would be paying 1 USD less per case in 2019.  Within days, the AEBE (Association of Ecuadorian Banana Exporters) published an open letter, signed by 32 of their members, condemning this move:  “We, as an Industry, refuse to go backwards on our sustainability efforts due to the lack of understanding of the whole business from the last link of the business chain. We urge other retailers not to follow these senseless demands on price reduction, and we request consumers to let your voices be heard.”  Costa Rica, Guatemala and Colombia have since followed suit.

There are more formal commitments, too.  Tesco, the UK’s largest retailer, was present at our Montreal meetings – and an active voice on the living wage discussions.  Through their involvement in the WBF, they released commitments in 2014 to pay living wages on all banana plantations that were sole-sourcing for Tesco’s and in mid-September 2018, they had the courage – in an ultra-competitive market – to raise their banana prices at retail as a consequence. 

Equifruit is working to get Canadian retailers thinking about sustainability in their banana supply chain, and involved in the work of the WBF.  Wouldn’t you be willing to pay more for a banana, if you knew workers were being paid fairly?  We at Equifruit are committed to making this happen, and we’re looking for fellow travellers.  Who’s in?  😊