Dr. Bronner’s Magical Soap was one of the first Whole Body products offered at our original Whole Foods Market store in Austin, Texas in 1980. Over the years Dr. Bronner’s and Whole Foods Market have successfully grown their business in parallel, always committed to caring for the communities and environment around them. Today Dr. Bronner’s and Whole Foods Market have taken great strides towards improving the lives of producers in Third World countries with the fair trade certification of Dr. Bronner’s ingredients and the establishment of the Whole Trade Guarantee.
In shifting their supply chains to certified Fair Trade ingredients, Dr. Bronner’s makes a big difference in the lives of several thousand farmers and workers. Here are a few of their stories.
Olive Oil from Palestine
Olive oil imparts velvety smoothness to Dr. Bronner’s soaps. Since 2005, the Palestine Fair Trade Association (PFTA) and Canaan Fair Trade, an ethically motivated trading company, have organized some 1,700 olive oil farmers in the Westbank into fair trade cooperatives. The Issa family is one of them. In 2004, Mahmoud worked as a day laborer. With the price of olive oil so low and the economy crippled under occupation he wanted to give up farming his family’s land. Fair trade changed his life. Now he and his extended family are farming olives full time in the traditional manner. Their oil is produced and marketed by Canaan under fair trade principles to buyers in the U.S. and Europe.
Mahmoud’s entire extended family — there are 7 brothers and 4 sisters — benefits from their land and labors. His brother Arafat told with pride that his oldest daughter Renad, who’s in high school and earned a Canaan college scholarship award this year, wants to go to medical school. Arafat’s wife is a member of one of Canaan’s women’s cooperatives, making couscous. Arafat’s family is expanding their home by two stories as their lives improve.
Fair trade cooperatives in Palestine bring back traditions lost in the midst of conflict. They reintroduce a new spirit into the work ethic of the villages and renew the social values and ties weakened by the conflict. Farmers receive organic and fair trade premiums over unsustainable market prices. Canaan and PFTA have developed modern processing and storage facilities and support several community development programs.
With his natural leadership skills Mahmoud was elected to the PFTA Board and leader of the local cooperative, one of 43 in 2008. Mahmoud says that “…before fair trade, life was bad. Now, things have improve much and working the land pays off.” The overall program is coordinated by only a few PFTA employees and by 1,700 owners who volunteer their work for the common good.
Coconut Oil from Sri Lanka
To build a supply of organic and fair trade coconut oil, in 2006 Dr. Bronner's founded Serendipol (Pvt) Ltd., a Sri Lankan subsidiary. Its first task was to recruit coconut growers and convert them to organic and fair trade practices. Serendipol hired Dhanoj Meegahapola to build and oversee the required “Internal Control System” (ICS) and manage the purchases of coconuts and fair trade programs.
Dhanoj (39) comes from a modest middle-class background that taught him social values. In high school he participated in community projects that helped city beggars start small vending businesses. After high school he worked for several coconut fiber companies and got to know and love the “Coconut Triangle,” Sri Lanka’s rural center of coconut production. During that time he advised groups of women producers on setting up small-scale manufacturing businesses, such as charcoal making.
His own small coconut fiber business failed due to a drop in the market and he was stuck with high-interest debt. Now married with three children, the offer by a former supervisor who knew his potential, to set up Serendipol’s organic and fair trade structure changed his life. Dhanoj trained a team of five extension officers who then identified and converted some 400 growers with 6,300 acres to organic practices. The team also handles the purchasing of some 15 million coconuts per year.
His leadership skills and familiarity with local growers and their lifestyle allowed him to develop relationships of trust and loyalty. Admittedly a bit of a “control freak” he is familiar with the problems of Serendipol’s workers, jumps in if other departments run into bottlenecks and commonly stays at the factory until after 8pm to ensure that someone is there to receive the last coconut deliveries.
He particularly likes that the company treats people with respect and appreciation and offers opportunities for growth to those who are motivated and show performance. Favoritism and grudges aren’t well tolerated – something not common in mid-size Sri Lankan firms.
Dhanoj sees the company’s commitment to organic and fair trade practices as a great opportunity to implement his favorite ideas: fair compensation, support of farmer and worker families, providing basic needs in rural areas, such as health care, and education – through hands-on economic activity. One pet project is offering counseling services to workers and their families, who often go through family dramas without having tools for conflict resolution.
Dhanoj used to support one rural child with money for a school year; now Serendipol gives that support to 47 of its staff’s children. One personal goal is to plant 100,000 trees in his life – Serendipol’s organic program helps him improve the health and productivity of some 600,000 coconut trees in the “Triangle” – in the course of doing business.
Palm Oil from Ghana
Since early 2008, three women have been producing palm oil for U.S. customers at a new, simple oil mill in rural Ghana that gives work to more than 20 villagers. Lucy Aboagye (32), Grace Ampofo (37) and Janet Karikari (35) all come from the village of Asuom, some 100 miles inland from the capital Accra. In that area, many small farmers grow palm fruits on plots a few acres in size. The fruits are bought by local entrepreneurs and processed in very basic mills, called “crammers” and the oil is sold in Accra.
With support from the German development agency GTZ, Dr. Bronner’s funded the installation of a simple but advanced crammer, dedicated exclusively to the production of organic palm oil. The project is coordinated by the non-profit organization Fearless Planet. Its director Danielle Gold selected the women who now jointly operate the business as “Danieama Women’s Organic Palm Oil Association.” All three were previously involved in the palm oil business. Lucy bought oil from women in her village and sold it in Accra where she now lives. She felt the need to develop small-scale oil production in her area and when she met Danielle saw an opportunity. Lucy is married to a minister and has a ten-year-old son. She oversees oil processing and works closely with farmers and buyers. She ensures quality and safety standards and assists in all areas of production. To improve communication with the foreign project partners she takes English lessons. Of her work in the project, Lucy says, “This project makes me feel proud.”
Grace lives in Asuom where she used to run another crammer. She is at the site every day to buy fruit from the farmers and manage the workers. Unlike at her previous crammer she can now provide her workers with health insurance and a retirement fund. Grace has five children between the ages of 4 and 17, and is married to a schoolteacher.
Janet was a middle person in the palm oil business. She bought palm fruits from farmers and processed them at a local crammer before selling the oil to Lucy. Now a co-owner of the crammer business she coordinates purchasing and production with Grace. Having received accounting training she now manages the daily accounts. She started a hot lunch for all crammer workers, for whom she has taken on the role of the cook. Janet has three children aged 5 to 12.
Lucy, Grace and Janet see this project as an opportunity to make a more predictable living while improving their business skills and helping their community provide better paying and more dignified jobs. They enjoy cooperation with the agricultural researchers who ran the organic control system and with the foreign project partners who give them a sense of connectedness with the rest of the world.