Organic companies are doing well by doing good

Investing in communities and people improves lives …
and makes for good business

Good things are happening around the world:

  • Forty-nine wells in 38 communities are providing clean water to some 25,000 villagers in Madagascar where women and children not so long ago had to walk hours every day to fetch water from a stream.
  • Now receiving regular health check-ups, eye exams and dental care are the families living in hundreds of remote villages in Thailand where access to adequate health care had been scarce at best.
  • Thousands of women in Bangladesh are safely depositing their earnings on payday in savings booths inside their factories instead of being robbed outside, and also learning how to do a family budget, save money, and even obtain small loans.

Children are getting check-ups and eye exams, people are drinking clean water, working moms are saving their money—and countless other positive changes are happening in people’s lives every day in remote villages, teeming urban centers and in homes throughout the world because of the vision and outreach of organic companies that have found a way to achieve a profitable bottom line and, at the same time, make a positive impact in the communities that are so vital to their success.

Today’s organic community is huge and global. Over 2.4 million organic producers in over 179 countries are growing and raising the organic products that American consumers—and consumers around the world—are eating and using in their daily lives. And millions more people are working in the organic processing plants and factories, and in the packaging and distribution centers necessary to get the huge array of organic goods onto our retail shelves.

Caption testAccording to the latest statistics on organic trade released by FiBL and IFOAM-Organics International, the global organic industry totaled almost $82 billion in 2015, with the United States the largest organic market in the world, representing more than half of all consumer sales for organic products globally.

Organic products of all types are in our stores from January through December, ranging from a wide array of organic produce, organic dairy products and organic snacks to organic items outside the food section like organic clothing, organic household products and organic cosmetics. Today’s organic abundance and variety are not possible without trade, and without innovative companies working with producers and communities around the world.

That global organic business has resulted in a host of positive repercussions. It’s created jobs for millions of people, allowed small producers to stay on their farms and to provide for their families, created a cleaner and healthier work environment for producers, field laborers and factory workers, stimulated new businesses, and made possible important improvements in life beyond the field and the factory.

“The rising tide of organic demand is floating all boats globally,” says Robert Anderson, long-time organic international trade expert and founder of Sustainable Strategies. “Organic approaches a global market in a very positive way—building partnerships and collaborating, rather than conquering.”

“Global organic trade is not only good business for many U.S. companies, but it is improving lives in the countries we source from,” notes Laura Batcha, CEO and Executive Director for the Organic Trade Association.

Well Earth, Fair for Life, Beyond Factory Walls—whatever name they give these activities, a large number of organic companies that source their products from outside the U.S. are working to better the lives of the people with whom they work. Influenced by the inherent altruistic nature of organic which aims to nurture the environment and the people who consume and use organic, these operations have found that community outreach provides tangible business and financial benefits—more loyal workers, a healthy workforce, less absenteeism, better educated employees, and an enhanced relationship and stronger partnership with the local community.

Lights and generators came first

Frontier Co-op works in over 50 countries around the world, and sources its products in six out of the globe’s seven continents from 200 suppliers that, by the company’s unofficial count, represent tens of thousands of famers and growing communities. Based in Iowa and founded in 1976, the maker of organic spices and herbs, and organic and natural aromatherapy products has a long tradition of working in partnership with the communities and the producers it sources from to help improve the quality of life for local populations.

“Twenty-five years ago, we were bringing lights and generators to communities that had never had electricity,” said Tony Bedard, CEO of Frontier Co-op. “We’ve been helping our partners for a long time now, and we’ve found that doing the right thing in communities works.”

Frontier Co-op has been working with its suppliers for more than four decades to develop sustainable growing and production practices that incorporate fair labor practices, protect the environment and provide local benefits. In 2000, it made its efforts official by establishing its Well Earth certification program. Focusing on business building (improving suppliers’ infrastructure and product quality) and community building (investing funds in the suppliers’ communities in-country), the co-op, working in partnership with its suppliers, has provided more than $1.2 million to fund projects since the program’s inception.

In 2001, Frontier Co-op established its “Simply Organic 1% Fund” which gives back 1 percent of all the sales of Simply Organic—the brand name of Frontier Co-op’s all-organic spices and seasonings line—to fund projects that support organic agriculture through grower development, education and research. To date, the fund has given more than $1 million for community projects, training programs, and a host of other activities.

In Madagascar, the building of 49 wells in 38 vanilla-farming communities was recently financed by the Simply Organic 1% Fund and implemented by Well Earth. The new wells have made clean drinking water available to thousands of village families whose only source of fresh water had been a stream that was a several-hours’ trek away. Frontier Co-op estimates that 25,000 men, women and children now have ready access to safe fresh water as a result of the new wells. The wells also provide the farmers with clean water to process the high-quality organic vanilla beans sourced from the area.

In Vietnam, where Frontier Co-op sources its cinnamon, many of the children in the cinnamon-producing area used to not go to school because they simply lived too far from the nearest school and had no way to get there and back every day. Local farmers were moving away to be closer to a school, or their younger generation would eventually leave the area. Despite the region’s ideal cinnamon-producing environment, the supply chain was not sustainable if people did not stay in the region. Frontier Co-op’s Well Earth program funded the Vietnam School Project, which provides lodging, food, books and school supplies to 500 children who live in a safe dormitory and go to school during the week and return home on weekends. Not only is a more literate generation being created, but local farmers, seed gatherers and other workers can now remain in the area, have a steady livelihood and know their children are getting an education.

We’re out there to build a business, and we have to stay ahead of supply,” says Bedard. “We ask our partners what we can do to help them be a better business and to prepare for the future. Some of the responses are business projects, but many are community projects.”

Taking care of every link in the supply chain

Harmless Harvest works with over 600 farmers and factory workers in Thailand to grow and produce the company’s flagship product—coconut water—made from the Nam Hom coconut grown only in the Southeast Asian nation. The young company was founded in 2009 by two visionaries who from the outset wanted to produce an organic product that not was only delicious and healthy, but made in a transparent way that would provide a living wage and good working conditions for every employee.

“When Harmless Harvest was created, the coconut water industry was on its way to becoming a $1 billion business in the United States,” said Giannella Alvarez, CEO of Harmless Harvest. “But when you went down the supply chain, you didn’t see any of that success being trickled down to the farmers and improving their lives. In fact, they were working harder, but not seeing any added benefits for their hard work. We wanted to make sure that everyone in the supply chain was participating in and sharing the success.”

In 2014, Harmless Harvest became one of a handful of American companies to earn the prestigious Fair for Life certification. Fair for Life is a rigorous set of global corporate standards that include environmental sustainability and provisions for fair wages, health care and well-being assurance for every farmer and employee both abroad and in the U.S. At the same time of its certification, Harmless Harvest also established its Fair for Life Premium Fund to which the company donates an amount for each coconut it purchases.

Managing the fund is an employee advisory board—four farmers, four factory workers, and two from Harmless Harvest management, including Alvarez. The board meets quarterly to decide how to invest the funds. Health care and education are two key focuses for the board.

In 2015, the company launched its Mobile Health Check-up program, bringing health care to hundreds of villagers in remote areas. A mobile health clinic with doctors, nurses and medical equipment goes into local communities that have only limited access to health care. Check-ups are given, consultations are made, and treatment is dispensed. In the first year, seven mobile health clinics were used in rural areas. In 2016, that number almost doubled to 13. Averaging more than 100 beneficiaries per month since its launch, the project has kept expanding to new areas and adding more services. The clinics are now conducting eye exams and X-ray. Some are even bringing dentists.

After its health project was well established, Harmless Harvest turned to education. In Thailand, schools do not charge tuition, but each requires a specific school uniform in order to attend. The uniforms are expensive, and can be equal to a few days of salary for the parents of each child. In 2016, the fund paid for uniforms for nearly 200 children and in 2017, doubled its impact to reach more than 400 children. The children not only are wearing higher quality uniforms, but their moms’ and dads’ hard-earned money can now be saved or spent on other necessities. The project will aim at doubling the number of recipients next year.

“Our activities have created an incredible connection with our farmers,” said Alvarez. “This is part of our business model. At the beginning, it’s an additional hurdle, so you manage the projects prudently with the available resources. It’s expensive, but over time you end up with much more loyalty from your workers and a much more loyal customer base.”

Making a footprint beyond the factory

Timberland works with over 300 suppliers in more than 35 countries to make its popular footwear, clothes and accessories for the outdoor lifestyle. More than 280,000 workers around the globe produce Timberland products. Since its beginnings in the 1950s, the company has steadily increased its commitment to being a responsible steward of the environment in its production practices and to helping its workers live a more healthy and sustainable life.

“A combination of circumstances along the way—what we became aware of and how we can play a greater role and have an impact in the communities in which we work—has guided us,” said Colleen Vien, Sustainability Director for Timberland. “We engage with partners in our supply chain to identify where there are gaps in the basic needs of the local workers and how we can fill those gaps.”

Timberland’s commitment to sustainability means both environmental and social responsibility for the company. For some time, the company has striven to build a “sustainable living environment” at its factories, and works with suppliers and factories that adhere to stringent standards that ensure the safety and well-being of its workers and the environment. 

One of its largest apparel suppliers is a garment manufacturer with 14 factories in Bangladesh employing over 20,000 young garment workers—most of them women and many of the young women working moms. On payday, local thugs would target these workers and rob them of their paychecks when they stepped outside the confines of the factory. In 2003, partnering with CARE International and a local organization, Timberland launched a microfinance program for the workers that provided savings booths inside the factory where employees could safely make deposits and withdrawals. The project enabled the workers to get small loans, and receive training on budgeting and saving and even how to make profitable investments. The activity has expanded through the years to provide education for the children of the workers, and health-care services for the entire family of an employee.

In 2008, Timberland initiated its “Beyond Factory Walls” program. Vien explains: “What we were easy to quantify pretty early on was the benefit (of the outreach projects) for the particular factory. But this program looks beyond the factory walls to support our workers and create a more sustainable life for them and their families.”

Since 2008, Timberland has initiated 49 sustainable living projects with factory communities across five countries. Recent projects have included a community childcare center in India, financial literacy programs in India, health awareness programs in Bangladesh, and clean drinking water towers in the Dominican Republic.

“Our projects are local, so it is easy to see the return on investment for the local factory—less absenteeism, more worker loyalty, less grievances and compliance issues,” said Vien. “And for Timberland, it results in a more resilient supply chain.”

Consumers approve

A more productive, more educated and healthier worker, an established and sustainable supply chain that is producing a high-quality product—those are the rewards for giving back to your workers. And another important plus—more loyal customers.

“Our customers value these kinds of outreach projects, and expect us to do them,” said Frontier Co-op’s Bedard. “I often get asked how we can afford to do this, and I say we couldn’t afford not to. It’s inherently part of who we are.”

“The consumer awareness of social responsibility is growing,” observed Timberland’s Vien. “Timberland has always been about protecting the environment, and there is now much more awareness of the ingredients that go into the products and how the workers are treated who make those products.”

We’ve definitely seen a trend of consumers wanting to know where their food and drinks come from. Transparency is key, and we’re always happy to share our story, from where the coconuts are grown to how we support everyone in our ‘chain of custody,’” said Harmless Harvest CEO Alvarez.

Taking care of our planet and ensuring a healthy world for future generations are the key tenets of organic. These companies and many other organic and sustainable businesses are taking that mission to heart every day, and in the process improving lives while creating a profitable bottom line and a sound business model. Doing the right thing works. //

Photo captions:

Cover: In Madagascar, Frontier Co-op’s Simply Organic 1% Fund financed the building of 49 wells in 38 vanilla-farming communities. The wells provide drinking water to some 25,000 men, women and children whose only source had been a stream several hours away.

1: Harmless Harvest employees Giannella Alvarez (CEO), Guy Gavelle (Managing Director Thailand) and Mathieu Chaumont (Sourcing and Compliance Director) pose with a group of workers and farmers in Thailand who grow the prized Nam Hom coconut. Harmless Harvest works with an employee advisory board to carry out local health and educational projects financed by its Fair for Life Premium Fund.

2: Organic vanilla pods dry in a village in Madagascar where Frontier Co-op sources ingredients.

3: Harmless Harvest’s Mobile Health Check-up Program provides accessible health care, including eye exams and regular check-ups, to remote coconut-growing villages in Thailand.

4: Apparel factory workers in Bangladesh take part in a Timberland training project on how to keep budgets and grow savings. Through employee mentors, the training has helped thousands of young women and mothers working in the factories.