The banana may be the most inexpensive fruit in the produce section, but it shouldn't be, says Jennie Coleman.
"It comes from far away, it's extremely sensitive, and if the temperature goes up or down, it damages the fruit very quickly," says Ms. Coleman, who is president of Equifruit Inc., an importer based in Montreal. "And yet, it's such a cheap fruit."
According to Statistics Canada, the average cost of bananas is about $1.55 per kilogram, or 70 cents a pound. That's cheaper than apples, oranges, carrots and potatoes.
But those rock-bottom prices can mean the workers who grow them are exploited, says Ms. Coleman. Over the past two decades, documentaries and exposés by Human Rights Watch and other groups have revealed child labour, poor work conditions and union-busting on banana plantations.
That's why Ms. Coleman's company imports only bananas that carry the Fairtrade logo, which helps guarantee farmers a fair price and decent working conditions. So far, Equifruit sells to retailers in Quebec and Ontario.
The company's socially conscious fruits look the same as other bananas, but they are about 50 per cent more expensive, Ms. Coleman says. "So you have to build a consumer base that is educated about why they should spend a little bit more money on their banana."
Ms. Coleman bought the business in 2013 from its founders. She was drawn to the venture because she has a background in both business and social activism. "Equifruit was like a callback to my social-justice roots from when I was a younger person, but with the pragmatism of a career in business," she says.
Equifruit works with co-operatives of small producers in Peru, Ecuador and Mexico which have been certified Fairtrade. For bananas to carry the Fairtrade mark, producers must be small farmer organizations or plantations that meet social, economic and environmental standards and protect workers' rights and the environment. Importers must pay the Fairtrade minimum price as well as an additional premium for the producer to invest in business or community projects.
"Health and safety is really at the forefront," says Ms. Coleman. "Are workers suitably protected in their jobs? Fair wages must be paid, not just to the small producer that we are transacting with, but the workers who are working for him."
Her company finds producers on a Fairtrade database but also visits producers regularly to ensure quality control. "Above all, this has to be a solid commercial relationship," she says. "You can have all the 'warm and fuzzies' that you want, but if a container of bad fruit arrives, you can't sell that."
Although the Fairtrade organic banana is, as Ms. Coleman puts it, the "top banana" at Equifruit and constitutes nearly 100 per cent of what they import, they also bring in Fairtrade conventional bananas and are exploring the possibility of growing that market, too. (Fairtrade conventional bananas can be grown using a restricted list of pesticides to prevent disease and pests, while Fairtrade organic bananas are grown without chemical pesticides or herbicides.)
"Even though our first choice is organic, we are also conscious that the bulk of Canadians buy conventional bananas, and we would love to convince a grocery store to switch over their conventional bananas to Fairtrade," says Ms. Coleman. "The volume is much greater, and with volume comes impact."
Though many of their customers are independent grocers and health-food stores, Equifruit has been making headway with chains, too. Farm Boy, an Ontario chain, carries Equifruit's Fairtrade organic bananas, and Sobeys Quebec about four years ago made a full switch to Fairtrade organic bananas – every organic banana sold there is an Equifruit Fairtrade organic banana.
Francis Bérubé, manager of merchandising for Sobeys Quebec, says the chain wanted to make a statement. "Our customers really like it. It's an important positioning for us," he says.
The deal with Sobeys Quebec has sparked interest from other large Canadian retailers, says Kim Chackal, Equifruit sales manager. "We've had several meetings with all of the major companies, so they're really aware of it. They see that their coffee and other Fairtrade products are really performing well on sales, and so we feel it's just a matter of time."
Ms. Chackal says Equifruit offers retailers "a partnership" in marketing and communication through social media or by hosting events in stores. "Without education, people won't accept the product and they won't go out looking for it."
The vast majority of the bananas consumed in Canada are conventionally produced; Fairtrade bananas constitute less than 1 per cent of those bought by consumers, says Ms. Coleman.
But the market is ripe for disruption, as consumers are increasingly seeking to make ethical choices with their wallets, she says. "People are wanting to work with companies that have good values."
Though Equifruit is primarily a banana importer, Ms. Coleman says it also has been working on bringing other Fairtrade products into Canada.
"We have lots of ideas. For example, we've seen Fairtrade passion fruit. But moving 20 tonnes of Fairtrade passion fruit could be tricky," she laughs. "Bananas move, they're easy to talk about, the story is there, and so for now, that's what we're focused on."
Add Ms. Chackal: "We really see the banana as what's going to open the door for change in the produce section, because it's that fruit that you buy every week. It's going to be an opportunity for retailers to communicate that change to their customers. Then we can open the door to other products."