This European Market column originally appeared in the May 2018 edition of sister publication Produce Business magazine:
In November 2011, I presented a congress paper on corporate social responsibility in Lima, Peru. I used the following quote: ‘Very soon, there will only be two types of fresh produce companies. Bankrupt companies, and companies that are serious about sustainability and corporate social responsibility (CSR).’ Six years down the line, it seems fitting to check whether I was right.
When I started my journey of discovery in terms of sustainability and social and environmental responsibility in 2003, I encountered a big problem. It seemed as if the entire concept of CSR had been developed by academics, with a focus on making sure ‘normal people’ did not understand it.
The textbooks said: ‘Corporate social responsibility is a business model whereby a company decides voluntarily to contribute to a better society and a cleaner environment, and to integrate social and environmental concerns in its business operations and in the communication with its stakeholders.’ I summed it up in 5 words: ‘Doing good today, for tomorrow.’
Sustainability was described as: ‘The capacity to endure. For humans, sustainability is the long-term maintenance of well-being, which has environmental, economic and social dimensions, and encompasses the concept of stewardship, the responsible management of resource use. In ecology, sustainability describes how biological systems remain diverse and productive over time, a necessary precondition for human well-being.’ To which I said: ‘Making what we have last as long as possible.’
That was the academic angle, but what was happening at the coalface/workplace in the fresh produce industry at the time? Independent retail reports in 2009/2010 stated:
- Retailers view their involvement in sustainability issues as their moral responsibility, because they influence consumers all over the world.
- Sustainability, corporate social responsibility and compliance issues are being added to the corporate agenda.
- Retailers are committing more resources to CSR.
- Consumer trends are moving toward more socially responsible products.
- Retailers are asking of their suppliers: ‘With whom do you need to meet and collaborate to help develop or enhance the sustainability work.’
- These reports showed something was indeed happening. Then, by the end of 2011, another report stated by 2016:
- Sustainability and the environment will become the most talked about issue in fresh produce marketing.
- Consumers will demand clarity on ‘sustainable value.’ They will not be fooled anymore by the quick-win issues such as a paper bag with a nice slogan on it.
- Health and wellness will become the single most important factor.
- The external cosmetic factor of a product will become less important, while the origin, growing and supply chain conditions will provide the main marketing argument in favor of buying the product.
So, here we are in 2018 and we are really happy the predictions have come true. CSR is now commonplace in Europe, and many companies have developed a CSR strategy in one form or another. Even more exciting is the fact a number of new trends have emerged.
- CSR is increasingly being extended to public relations and communications departments. I applaud this, because how else can one create a strong movement of change?
- Consumers have become strongly empowered and highly critical of the ‘stories’ that companies are selling. Big business (and big brands) cannot count blindly on the consumer’s loyalty. Transparency and honesty are key issues.
- The pressure is on, and retailers are increasing their demands in terms of the fresh produce they source. Dutch retailers Jumbo and Plus, as well as German discounter Aldi have announced by 2019 all their fruit and vegetable growers should be certified according to the Milieukeur scheme, the Dutch environmental quality label for sustainable products and services. Multinational Albert Heijn made this choice in 2016.
- Together with retailers Co-op, Edeka, Lidl, Metro and Migros, the GlobalGAP organization developed GRASP, a certification scheme that focuses on almost all aspects of worker and working conditions on the farm. Today, GRASP is compulsory if one wants to supply fresh produce to European retailers.
- Retailers have started expanding their range of sustainable fresh food products. From 2020, Jumbo only will sell dairy products made from meadow milk.
- Also agribusiness companies are taking a leading role. The Dutch agricultural cooperative Agrifirm has developed a new crop protection strategy that will ensure a substantial reduction of the environmental impact of plant protection products.
- With its mission, ‘Growing a better world together,’ the leading Dutch agricultural bank Rabobank presents itself as a financial institution that takes a firm stand for food security. It is a worldwide campaign aimed at the Dutch farmer.
- ‘Global goals determine the agenda.’ Social issues and food security in the field of food production have become crucial for companies who are serious about CSR.
- ‘Ethics is back.’ Companies are expected to perform their activities in an ethical manner and are increasingly being judged on the basis of moral and ethical arguments.
Long live ‘Doing good today, for tomorrow’ and ‘Making what we have last as long as possible.’
Nic Jooste is the director of marketing and CSR at Cool Fresh International, a Rotterdam-based global marketing organization for fresh produce.