Banana importer pushes sustainable credentials in tie-up with ground-breaking university
EARTH University has its own Rainforest Alliance certified commercial banana production

Banana importer pushes sustainable credentials in tie-up with ground-breaking university

Jim Butler
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With consumers increasingly motivated by ethical considerations when purchasing fresh produce, banana importers JN Fox & Sons is well placed. A recent deal with EARTH University in Costa Rica has seen the company expand its offering of Rainforest Alliance certified bananas. Produce Business UK investigates 

Sustainability is without question one of the key drivers in today’s global fresh produce industry. Its impact is significant in terms of the environment, livelihoods of farmers and providing consumers with an ethical option. And with demand for sustainably grown produce increasing both from consumers and the retailers, it’s clear that this is a theme that will grow.

It’s an arena in which banana importer, ripener and distributor JN Fox & Sons has made rapid strides in recent years, as director Stephen Fox attests: “I think throughout the industry that is where a lot of the focus is at the moment – sustainability. That’s the word that everyone talks about and is where people are looking to push the sector forward.” 

EARTH University partnership

This is the message the company is bringing to The London Produce Show and Conference. But it goes much further than just the sustainable sourcing of bananas. In the past year it has developed a relationship with Costa Rica’s EARTH University and has been importing Rainforest Alliance bananas from the university’s certified commercial plantations.

And this relationship is deepening. Not only does Fox & Sons import 50-60% of its bananas from the university, but the company has made a commitment to raise funds to assist the 400 students that are enrolled at the university at any one time.

“The students come from more than 40 different countries,” says Fox. And 70% of the students receive full scholarships. Support is provided by committed donors including large corporations throughout the world; our aim is to promote awareness and help fundraise.”

To highlight Fox & Sons’ increased commitment to sustainable bananas – 80% of the bananas that it sources and supplies are Rainforest Alliance certified or Fairtrade certified – by the end of the year it aims to have raised that figure to 100%. And to highlight its relationship with EARTH University, two students from the university’s two Costa Rican campuses will be joining the company at The London Produce Show and Conference on June 8-10.

Established in 1986, as a non-profit international university EARTH University has two campus locations, EARTH – Guacimo, which is situated in the heart of the rainforest in the Caribbean lowlands of Costa Rica and EARTH – La Flor located in the dry tropics of the country’s Guanacaste province.

“EARTH sells bananas to assist in the running costs of the university,” Fox explains. “Its academic model prepares students in four formative areas: technical and scientific knowledge; personal development, attitudes and values; ethical entrepreneurship and social and environmental awareness and commitment.”

Armed with this knowledge and information, the students, upon graduating after four years of learning, go back to their countries and communities so they can improve the lives of the people there.

“It’s not just bananas,” says Fox. “The students look at various crops and try to find solutions for sustainable agriculture, environmental conservation, resource management – a whole host of projects. The idea is that when they graduate from the university they’re qualified and can return to their communities and change the environment.”

EARTH commercial model

EARTH University has a commercial area that provides a living example of a successful, sustainable business.  The banana production and other commercial operations provide a case study for EARTH students.  The bananas are grown on campus using innovative, environmentally-friendly practices for healthy, great-tasting fruit; they are Rainforest Alliance certified and grown carbon neutral.

Fox also explains that with EARTH’s extensive experience searching for innovative solutions to challenges in sustainable agriculture, environmental conservation and natural resources management, the research is applicable and actively involves both students and faculty.

Not only do the students benefit from this great experience, but so do hundreds of families in the surrounding communities; EARTH’s impact outside of campus is carried through its community development program which includes a service-learning course, where students work with small-scale local producers at their farms, and with organised groups to promote sustainable community development.

“It’s a very powerful tool to be able to try and solve [problems in] different areas across the world,” says Fox proudly. “You’re helping to get information back out into the world. EARTH calls the students Agents of Change.”

And while it’s just bananas that Fox & Sons import from EARTH University at present, the company is looking at bringing other produce into the UK – dried fruits for instance.

“They’re not exporting to Europe yet, just locally, but it’s something we’re looking into,” confirms Fox. 

Consumer choice

Of course JN Fox & Sons is not investing time and resources into EARTH University as a purely altruistic gesture. Fox notes that consumers in the UK are turning increasingly to sustainable produce that is certified as Rainforest Alliance or Fairtrade. Fox & Sons moves in this area make commercial sense therefore.

“There’s just more awareness of these issues,” he says, “and people are making informed choices – ethical choices – in the shops. I think this awareness will only continue to grow.”

And do Rainforest Alliance bananas cost more? Fox says not. “A Rainforest Alliance banana doesn’t cost any more to the end user, no,” he responds. “There may be certain costs to the farm, like recycling water and wastage, but it’s good practice what they’re bringing to the farms.”

The increased availability of Rainforest Alliance bananas – Aldi recently announced that all its bananas would come from sustainable sources – is good news for consumers because it means their choices aren’t compromised. They can continue to shop at their retailer of choice, whilst at the same time being given the ethical option. By choosing bananas produced on Rainforest Alliance certified farms, consumers are contributing to an increased level of sustainable production in banana growing regions, helping to protect the environment and promote the wellbeing of farmers, their families and communities.

It’s not just Rainforest Alliance bananas that Fox & Sons is sourcing either. Another part of its sourcing strategy is to purchase bananas carrying the Fairtrade mark which have been produced by small farmer organisations or plantations that meet Fairtrade Standards.  These standards include protection of workers’ rights, the environment and payment of the Fairtrade premium to invest in business or community projects like health and education.

JN Fox & Sons - CRica worker

Three generations of banana experience

Established by James Neville Fox in Woking in 1982, the company can now draw upon three generations of banana importing, ripening and distributing experience. James’s three sons, Stephen, Graham and Martin, run the company and they have been joined latterly by Stephen’s daughter, Kristy and Graham’s son, Dean.

Back in 1982, the company purchased approximately 1,000 cartons of green fruit a week. Today it imports more than 20,000 cartons weighing 18kg each. With its wholesale business based on Western International Market, and the catering, convenience, food service and retail operations working out of a purpose-built ripening facility in Iver, Buckinghamshire, the company is well placed to comment upon the latest trends in the banana sector.

JN Fox & Sons - UK workersJN Fox & Sons operates from a purpose-built facility in Buckinghamshire

Stephen Fox notes that promotions around bananas still look to push the nutritional value of this pivotal fruit, while the produce’s affordability is another calling card.

“They’re extremely good value,” he concludes. “An awful lot of work has gone into producing and getting this tropical fruit into the shops. Bananas remain very good value for money.”

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