It often seems there are almost as many definitions of corporate social responsibility (CSR) as there are corporations themselves. Nevertheless, the concept has never mattered more since the phrase was first coined a half-century ago. Today, fresh fruit and vegetable firms that merely pay lip service to the notion of ethical and ecological commitments do so at their peril. Produce Business UK looks at what one international operator is achieving in this field and examines how its collaborative approach sets an example that others could follow
It’s hard to imagine anyone more enthusiastic about corporate strategy than Nic Jooste, the marketing and corporate communications director for Dutch produce importer-distributer Cool Fresh International.
Having built up a CSR programme over the past 12 years, one of the firm’s main objectives is still to encourage more supply chain partners to get actively involved in order to develop a complete, end-to-end initiative. According to Jooste, this type of all-encompassing model can then lead to real benefits in terms of both internal and external sustainability.
“We started going down the route of CSR in 2003,” says Jooste. “I saw it as an opportunity to create a marketing distinction [for Cool Fresh] and now it has grown into a passion. We are actively looking for suppliers to be our supply chain partners to see how far we can take it.
“Since we started rolling out our strategy and showing our commitment – that we are in it for the long run – we have built up a number of collaborations with quite a number of supply chain partners.”
During the last few years, Cool Fresh has demonstrated through a number of projects what it means by having a collaborative approach to CSR. “For instance, with a leading citrus producer we have hosted a sports coaching course for a number of employees, who, in turn, use their newly acquired skills to work with local children,” says Jooste.
“Seeing as the content of the course included life-skills training (leadership, anti-alcohol, gender equality) the effects at a grassroots level for the local community have been broad-based.”
Another example of Cool Fresh’s collaborative CSR approach is the creation of its CSR brand Freedom Fruit, which was developed together with overseas fresh produce export partners and distributed to a number of countries. “This has, in turn, raised awareness amongst our clients for the need for solid CSR commitments,” explains Jooste.
Little Libraries, meanwhile, is a flagship CSR project for Cool Fresh, and a number of the firm’s clients have participated in this valuable literacy and educational project by adopting one or more of the libraries.
Partners outside produce
Importantly, it’s not just the suppliers of Cool Fresh’s produce that are involved. “ A packaging company was prepared to produce the high quality cartons (for the product) for a realistic price,” says Jooste.
Shipping companies have also been involved in a number of ways. “Not only have they been prepared to ship relief goods for free, they have also donated a refurbished container which is currently being used as a classroom at an after-school care centre for impoverished children,” Jooste adds.
“Our transport companies are all acting in line with our CSR objectives; by using vehicles with the highest possible environmental certification. And, they are hauling our containers only outside of peak traffic times, which creates a lesser impact on the environment.”
Cool Fresh has also worked with Dutch embassies in overseas supply countries to drive its CSR objective further. This has subsequently enabled the firm to fast-track activities in terms of securing the support of local governments to roll out its plans.
Even journalists have played a big role in the success, according to Jooste, “They are continuously prepared to publish progress reports on our activities,” he enthuses. “CSR can only grow effectively if it is given broad-based exposure.”
These plans and what has been achieved to date certainly sound laudable, but it can’t always have been easy to convince the naysayers or under-pressure suppliers and margin-conscious customers alike to get involved.
“In general, all of our plans and projects have been received positively, and because of the integrity and transparency of our approach we did not encounter any major resistance,” says Jooste.
“That being said, whilst people applauded us, they were also not really clamouring to participate actively. This seems to be a general trend. It almost feels like business people and companies love the concept of CSR as long as somebody else is executing the plans. I love communicating about what we are doing in CSR, but not everyone else does and I would like to know why.”
Perhaps it’s because businesses find it difficult to quantify the value and show on a balance sheet or in an annual report that there are hard, fast and tangible benefits from adopting an all-encompassing model, like Cool Fresh.
Unsurprisingly, Jooste has plenty of proof of the gains, which start on a very individual level with Cool Fresh employees themselves. “Because of our company’s internal focus on the health of our employees, the number of smokers has decreased from eight to two,” he says. “We also provide a free personal trainer who works with any employee keen to maintain a good level of fitness.”
This approach has a knock-on effect on Cool Fresh’s overall business operations too, as Jooste explains: “Employees enjoy a good working environment and work efficiently, which is most essential for the sustainability of a company. The nature of CSR also requires people to think outside the box, and our experience is that our employees’ ability to think creatively has increased.”
Cool Fresh further believes its CSR strategy is helping the firm to garner a strong image and honest reputation. “Clients and consumers are drawn towards companies and brands which address socially related issues,” he says.
“A company with good CSR strategies is potentially able to attract the right type of trading partners. A company with a solid CSR reputation is able to avoid unnecessary road bumps or negative events as a result of CSR legislation being enforced, which, in turn, can cause losses.”
There is also the issue of negating threats to a business and enhancing security. “Companies that adopt CSR principles are less exposed to risks such as corruption and bribery, as they have transparent trading methods and do not tolerate illegal ways of getting the job done,” claims Jooste. “Also, more focus on food safety and quality all the way from the source ensures less chance of having to recall defective product lines.”
Calculating the cost
It might seem like Cool Fresh’s whole exercise has been a costly and time-consuming one, but Jooste explains that the way the company has gone about its CSR strategy has really cost the company a negligible amount.
“The secret lies in the ability to encourage supply chain partners to jump on the CSR bandwagon with you,” he explains. “Sharing the responsibilities and the costs – and ultimately the rewards – enables one to have a really solid CSR strategy without having a high cost.
“It all boils down to how one sees CSR – as a cost or as an asset. Once it becomes an asset, the costs involved are really low. Basically, we have integrated CSR into a number of other areas – management systems, marketing, corporate communication, sourcing – and it therefore has become a real asset.”
So where to now? Jooste emphasises that its next steps will depend on how far Cool Fresh can continue to “create open and direct doors” with retailers. “Currently, we have a number of products which we can prove to be 100% ‘CSR compliant’,” he says. “However, if these products are not accepted by retailers directly from the source, too many unnecessary costs are added along the supply chain, and this limits the effect and the resources which can be freed up for investment into CSR.”
And looking at how much Cool Fresh has achieved already, that would be a great shame indeed.
About Cool Fresh
The pineapple category is Cool Fresh’s single biggest product area, while traditionally it has also placed a strong focus on a year-round supply of table grapes and citrus. Other important categories for the Dutch firm are avocados, mangoes, stonefruit, garlic and ginger exotic vegetables, cassava, plantain, figs and pomegranates.
The bulk of its overseas volume is sourced from South Africa, Costa Rica, Peru, China, Mexico and Brazil. Other main countries of supply include: Spain, Turkey, Germany and Israel, and to a lesser extent Kenya, Senegal, Panama and Côte d’Ivoire.
Cool Fresh recently achieved a Level 4 certification in the CSR Performance Ladder awarded by management systems auditor Det Norske Veritas, making it the only fresh produce firm in Europe with this – the second highest attainable – level.