Sustainability is one of the most overused and misunderstood words in food. Many producing and manufacturing businesses looking to fit the expectations of retailers and consumers claim to be sustainable. But what does this word actually mean?
The dictionary defines sustainability as ‘the ability to maintain something at a certain rate or level’ — economic growth, for example. There is an environmental dimension to this that refers to the ‘avoidance of the depletion of natural resources in order to maintain an ecological balance’. Meanwhile, the Brundtland Commission, a UN organisation that encourages countries to work together to pursue sustainable development together, says sustainability “… encompasses meeting present needs without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”
With regards to environmental sustainability, South Africa’s fruit industry has many well-established practices such as minimal crop inputs and the use of beneficial insects to control pests; while water saving measures such as drip irrigation, irrigation scheduling, mulching and the use of nets have been sharpened further in recent years in response to the severe drought in the Western Cape.
There is also a social side to sustainability. In the context of business, this describes the impact it has on people, particularly local communities, including the workers and the families they look after, facilities and culture. A sustainable company is one that is looking after society today and tomorrow.
Social sustainability is at the heart of our labour-intensive industry. For South Africa, this concept encompasses an important further factor: Black Economic Empowerment (BEE). BEE was introduced by the South African government more than a decade ago with the aim of developing previously disadvantaged individuals and groups and to address the ethnic make-up of business to reflect the general population more accurately — and to do this in a balanced fashion over time rather than make sudden changes. This means introducing previously disadvantaged groups into management and ownership roles — and supporting them and their families with facilities for health care, leisure and schooling.
Involvement in the BEE programme is statutory, but many fruit growers have gone above and beyond what is required in the programmes they have implemented, providing not only basics of housing, education and health care, but also free gyms and sports facilities, wi-fi, libraries and other facilities.
Growers understand the importance of being socially sustainable, not just from the moral perspective, but for their businesses, too. Building healthy, engaged and fulfilled communities provides a strong legacy for all our futures.
South African growers have brought these messages to the fore in their marketing because consumers are also becoming more conscious that the food they are buying should put the welfare of the people who produce it at its core. When they launch their 11th successive campaign for their stone fruit in autumn 2018, they will be highlighting the good that buying South African fruit does and the support it provides to tens of thousands of workers and their families in the country – alongside the messages about taste and quality upon which they have built their long-standing promotion.
They are including information on ethics aimed at supermarket shoppers through channels including point-of-sale, online and social media, advertising and editorial articles. They are also running the Help a South African School initiative for its eighth year, teaching children about SA fruit farming while making a practical difference with book donations from the UK to South Africa, among other initiatives.
Sustainability is a very real concept in the South African fruit industry, and across the country it is making a very real impact on the lives of tens of thousands of people. Beautiful Fruit from a Beautiful Country making a difference to both planet and people.
Jacques de Prees is General Manager: Trade & Markets at Hortgro, the South African deciduous fruit industry organisation.