One of our newest brand partners, Equifruit, is on a mission for Global Fairtrade Banana Domination—and they’re getting closer. The company was founded in Canada in 2006, and this summer they’ve begun selling their Fairtrade bananas at select Costco warehouses in the greater NYC-area. We sat down with Jennie Coleman, President and Co-owner of Equifruit, to talk all things bananas.
Please introduce yourself—what is your role with Equifruit?
I bought this company about 10 years ago, and I knew nothing then about bananas at all, other than as a consumer. I knew about fair trade, but not the way I do now–early in my career, right out of university, I had done two years of work in Namibia and understood through that experience the importance of trade not aid. After that experience as a younger person, I then had a long career in international business, and then Equifruit just sort of fell from the sky for me. So, it was kind of a lovely mix of my youthful social justice aspirations and the reality and pragmatism of business that led me to Equifruit.
What made you decide that Fairtrade bananas were an opportunity falling from the sky that you wanted to pursue?
Well, I think there’s an enormous dose of naivete that goes into many of the decisions we make in life. And I had a hankering for a long, long time to have my own business. This company, Equifruit, that I saw advertised on the internet on a small business brokers site, the ad described the company as a business with high ethical standards suitable for someone who needs a flexible work arrangement. And at this stage, when I saw that in September of 2013, I already had my three children. My oldest is profoundly disabled and had really thrown my career for a loop. After my oldest was born we let a few years pass and then had two other children really back-to-back, practically Irish twins. It was when that third baby came that I was like, “I can’t go back to my corporate job.” And I started to think maybe this was the moment to start one of these businesses I’d been dreaming about forever. So, Paul-Henri, my little boy, was like five months old when I saw this ad for Equifruit, and I thought, “Yeah, this is intriguing. A business with high ethical standards that I could actually do with a young baby.” And so I wrote to the broker, and we sat together for about an hour at their office, and after an hour of talking about my profile, and my interest, and my budget, he decided that I had passed the test. We’re sitting at this big board table, and he has a folder that slides across the table to me, and I open it up and there it is. It’s Equifruit. So, then you open this thing and you’re like, fruit, all of us can relate to fruit. All of us eat fruit and have fruit stories. So that was one thing that just seemed amazing and beautiful. And then, of course, the notion that this was Fairtrade was also just such a fit for my values.
How would you articulate Equifruit’s mission?
Our vision is Global Fairtrade Banana Domination. The only business model out there for bananas is the one that was formed a hundred years ago, and it doesn’t take into account the needs of small growers or workers, nor stewardship of the lands that we’re farming. We cannot accept the status quo, and so we position ourselves as sort of a 21st century banana company. We are focused on changing the banana industry through Fairtrade, and we want to do this by means of the Equifruit brand that we have created, which captures retailer interest but also consumer interest.
We want people to stop and think about where their bananas have come from, who has grown them and under what conditions. We communicate with humor while still always bringing the message back to the importance of Fairtrade and paying farmers, growers and workers fairly. We understand that the issues facing the banana industry are heavy. But if you can make somebody laugh a little bit, you are going to break down some of that tension that comes with the heavy issues, the heavy messages of the need for fair trade. Many people have never questioned how bananas can be perpetually cheap and why banana prices don’t move with inflation.
We have a delicate balancing act of that education piece, getting a buyer to change buying habits in a market which has been dominated by three major players for literally a century and who are all operating under the same business model. It takes people some time to think about a different way to sell bananas and to orient the marketing of their stores. Bananas, being such a visible product in stores, have been used for decades now as a way to telegraph low prices to consumers. We are asking people to rise to the top, not to sink to the bottom, and our growth speaks to the resonance of our message and appreciation of our brand, and we’re very proud of that. For a small team, we feel that we are making waves in a way that punches above our weight.
What is it that inspires and keeps driving the team forward to continue on this mission to upend the banana industry and to work towards a better way of doing that business?
The first is that we try to get everybody down to visit our growers at some point, and you cannot do such a trip and not come back wanting to engage with this mission.
The second is that I think that we really live our mission. We’re not doing this to exploit some tiny market niche. We are all in—we’re involved in the World Banana Forum. I was called as a witness to our Canadian Senate when they were looking at debating a modern slavery bill. I’m constantly trying to get op-eds and things like that. We’re just very, very committed to this and we’re kind of relentless about it.
And I think the third thing that binds us is that we are having a lot of fun. We don’t take ourselves too seriously. We like to laugh. We have a lot of fun on Slack. We rib each other, and we support each other. I realize that I need a lot of flexibility in my life, and we keep this philosophy for the other members of the team, too. We are all humans who live in families or communities that sometimes need us. I think that this feature of our team binds us together.
You’ve just moved into the US selling at Costco in New York. What is next on the horizon for Equifruit?
Well, I mean, I guess we’ll achieve global Fairtrade Banana Domination by New Year’s, and then we’ll just sit around feeling smug. [Laughs]. Jokes aside, we’ve really just launched into the US market, and it’s a huge market. As in Canada, we want Fairtrade bananas through the Equifruit brand to be a mainstream item. We want to see conventional, Fairtrade bananas as well as Fairtrade, organic bananas.
We’re often asked, “What’s next? Are you going to do other fruit?” Sure, we’d love to do other fruit, but we think that we will have more impact by being really focused on this one. Globally only 4% of the world market is certified by Fairtrade, bought and sold on Fairtrade terms –so, let’s flip that and say that 96% of the world market does not have a fair distribution of value. We can’t be satisfied with that.
How would you encourage a consumer to get involved with the change that you’re striving to make in the banana industry?
I really feel that when people speak to their grocery stores and tell them, “Look, I would be happy to pay more for a clean supply chain for Fairtrade bananas,” that, in general, stores listen to customer feedback.
We are asking people to rise to the top, not to sink to the bottom, and our growth speaks to the resonance of our message and appreciation of our brand, and we’re very proud of that.
What has been surprising to you about Fairtrade bananas?
What we see is that people don’t buy bananas on price. There may be a small segment of the population that’s going to do this, but bananas are already so much cheaper than any other product in produce that they’re really going to buy on color. If the fruit looks nice, price is not going to make a difference.
When I was first starting out, and we were doing one container, one-and-a-half containers a week, and if a container got stuck on a ship somewhere and didn’t make port, we would lose a week of sales, and then the next week, what do you do? You have two containers coming in with market only for one per week. You could price those bananas at nothing, and you wouldn’t move more. People are not going to buy more bananas. They might buy more canned goods if they’re sold because they can just put those in their pantry. But on the flip side of that, if the bananas are more expensive, they’re not going to stop buying bananas. It’s our most consumed fruit both in Canada and the United States.
Is there a particular milestone or win that has felt compelling to you and that gives you some juice to keep going?
We’ve grown beyond what I ever imagined – but one highlight was when we worked with Longo’s, a grocery store chain in Toronto with about 35 stores, to do a full switch to Fairtrade. We’d been working with them, and they’d already started sourcing Fairtrade for their organic bananas, but to do Fairtrade for both organic and conventional bananas–to make that commitment as we’ve seen other retailers, supermarkets in Europe do, to see this in North America–was really important and built a case study for us. It has allowed us to cite the reality that people are not as price-obsessed as retailers think. Despite the fact that price went up, there were no lost sales.
Folks are excited about Equifruit Fairtrade bananas—what should do they do next?
First off, join our team of #BananaBadasses. This is the term we lovingly give to people who GET IT, who understand the need for change in the banana industry. Follow us on social media @equifruit. Our Instagram and TikTok feeds are super-fun, and we share company news and advocacy through LinkedIn. Sharing our content is a great way to spread the word.
Second, please tell other people, especially your local grocery store. Mega bonus points if you call up their procurement team and speak to their banana buyer to let them know you’d love to see Equifruit in your local produce section. They’ll really listen to customers and often need the confidence that there’s a market for ethically sourced bananas. As we say at Equifruit, “Sí, se puede”: we can do this!
We’re in this together
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