Tackling Social Sustainability In Fresh Produce

Nic Jooste, European Market

Originally printed in the August 2022 issue of Produce Business.

Social sustainability can best be described as a company’s desire to “make a positive difference to people’s lives and futures, with a focus on their position in the environment.”

Social sustainability projects can create great support for and understanding of sustainability. Quite a few fresh produce companies aspire to become a supply chain partner that makes a difference. But before you simply dive in and start doing stuff, it is extremely important to first explore your core values and identify your reasons for wanting to embrace sustainability. (Pro tip: By engaging your employees right from the start, you can raise much support for a successful entry into social sustainability).

Social sustainability projects become rewarding when your company has a direct, hands-on involvement that enables you to:

  • Ensure all actions are in line with your core values of honesty, integrity and respect.
  • Ensure your project design is in line with what local people want or need.
  • Inspire support from your staff by demonstrating the effective use of company resources.
  • Capture the project in photo and video, and use it in your corporate communication to inspire external stakeholders.

Social projects can broadly be classified in three categories.

  • Ad hoc charity donation: when a company donates money on a one-off basis to a charitable cause.
  • Corporate philanthropy: when a company supports a cause that is attempting to solve an ongoing problem. The company has no further direct involvement in the execution of the project, yet it does give financial support to the cause for an extended period.
  • CSI (corporate social involvement): this occurs when a company develops practical projects that are in line with its core objectives and operations. The company is involved in developing, implementing and managing such projects, and forming collaborations with local governmental and non-governmental organizations, community groups and community leaders.

The first two types (charity and philanthropy) do not require extensive active involvement by a company. Support is limited to financial donations and board meetings. However, to set up, manage and be successful in practical social sustainability projects, a company must get its hands dirty.

For most fresh produce companies, creating a successful strategy regarding social sustainability projects is a challenge. The nature of global fruit trading means that sourcing operations span various countries on different continents. Of course, it is possible to go the corporate philanthropy route by supporting a single organization that is active in many different countries. However, such an approach does not provide the dynamic interaction most hands-on business owners require in order to build relationships with growers. So, to make good decisions regarding social projects, one has to understand grassroots social issues in the primary countries from where fruit is sourced.

For instance, South Africa has a complicated socioeconomic landscape. Widespread social, economic and environmental needs exist across a broad spectrum, yet specialists agree a primary challenge exists in the development of rural areas. On the other side of the world, in Peru, rural poverty has its roots in high rates of illiteracy, particularly among women. In Turkey, local governments in rural areas are particularly concerned about low levels of youth engagement and participation in society and believe better leisure and social activities would improve this situation.

For almost 20 years, I have been involved in social projects in countries that are “far away.” My involvement in social projects such as Stars in their Eyes, Little Libraries, Women Taking The Lead and Balls-n-Books has given me insight that might also smooth out your entry into social sustainability projects.

  • Focus on projects you can initiate with your own people and your own resources.
  • Keep it simple: practical, hands-on projects that can create direct results are key.
  • Focus on “getting your hands dirty” instead of charity by donating money.
  • Engage in projects where there are spin-offs for the community, as opposed to individuals.
  • Ensure projects have definite support at community level.
  • Create all-round synergy by forming alliances with companies, individuals and institutions.
  • Define exact expectations of the project before doing any funding.
  • Focus on people development, rather than investments in bricks and mortar.
  • Take a firm stand that projects must always lead to increased social harmony.
  • Insist on sound administration and adherence to financial integrity.
  • Never engage in projects where “local officialdom” wants to take ownership.

Last but not least: I am a firm believer that today, social sustainability projects that address the needs of the younger generations must receive priority. It is a cliché, but it is true: The future is in their hands. As business owners, it is our responsibility to collaborate with young people, and identify “can do” projects we can support to create a more sustainable future. Also, from a commercial point of view, it makes commercial sense. The new generations are the ones leading the way in creating traction for and public awareness of sustainability-based companies and brands.

If you are interested in receiving examples of successful, practical social projects, please drop me an e-mail.

Nic Jooste, owner of NJ Immersed, is a fresh produce marketing and CSR specialist based in Rotterdam, the Netherlands. He can be reached at nic@nicjooste.nl.