Empowering Producers With Mary Jo Cook

Empowering Producers With Mary Jo Cook

Mary Jo Cook, Chief Impact Officer at Fair Trade USA, has led the nonprofit organization through two years of innovation designed to dramatically increase the impact of fair trade and better serve the needs of farmers, workers, industry and consumers. She was recently named one of Progressive Grocer’s 2012 Top Women in Grocery for her notable contributions to shifting the food industry’s relationship with its supply chain.

Before joining Fair Trade USA, Mary Jo was Vice President of Innovation at The Clorox Company where she created and led the company's first cross-functional innovation group. She also established the position of Vice President of Sustainability to help Clorox use an environmental sustainability lens to decrease its footprint and cost while encouraging growth. Fair trade is about providing benefits to the producers so that they can make their businesses environmentally and socially beneficial. Cook describes how this is designed and explains the way fair trade tries to encourage values such as knowing where products come from even if they can’t be grown near consumers.

Douglas Gayeton: I'm a consumer and I see a fair trade logo on a package in a store. What does that logo mean?

Mary Jo Cook: The fair trade logo means you're getting a quality product, which is improving the lives of farming communities and protecting the environment. In the simplest consumer lexicon those are the benefits that you're getting with fair trade. If I unpack that a little bit, it means that this product was produced according to fair trade standards around economic benefits to farming families, and social benefits including no child labor, kids are in school, women are treated equally, and environmental benefits.

Douglas: Does fair trade actually help set prices?

Mary Jo: The core of fair trade is having some predetermined economic benefit and a democratically run organization to decide how to spend that. I'll give you an example with coffee. In coffee, if you as a roaster buy fair trade certified coffee beans, for every pound 20 cents goes back to farmers and workers. That 20 cents is called the community development premium and that money is aggregated. Then groups of farmers or farm workers vote and decide how to invest the money, whether it be in scholarship so their kids can attend high school, or in clean drinking water, etc. The key is that there's a predetermined economic benefit that the farm workers themselves decide how to spend. That's true for every commodity and the only thing that changes is the amount of the premium. In some commodities like coffee, there is a minimum price that has been set to cover the cost of sustainable production. That floor price lets farmers know that even in periods of high volatility, they're guaranteed some minimum price that will help cover the cost of farming. It lets them make some investments in their farms because they know they can count on this minimum level of price.

Douglas: Salmon fishermen in Yakutat, Alaska said that “connected market” is a term referring to the idea that you can't get everything locally, but that people should buy the things that they can't get locally using the same values that they apply to things that are local. How does this relate to fair trade?

Mary Jo: That's a wonderful analogy, that connected market idea. That would apply very much to fair trade because I can't get everything local but I still want to purchase in a way where I feel like I know the farmer and the farmers are getting more of the benefit in the value chain. Part of my experience with local has been not just that it was grown within X number of miles of my house, but also that it enables me to establish a relationship with my farmer and that’s true with fair trade. One thing we're trying to do with fair trade is to help people establish relationships with farmers even if the product can't be grown a hundred miles from your house. It's grown halfway around the world, yet I can tell you about the farmer, his family and the benefits your purchases had.

Douglas: With the fair trade mission, are you looking more from the standpoint of the food producer or from the standpoint of protecting and informing the consumer?

Mary Jo: We're in business to serve farmers and workers point blank, end of story. We exist to ensure that farmers and workers can have a good livelihood, get more of the value of the supply chain in their product and protect their land so it can be farmed for generations to come. But what we believe is that in order to deliver on that promise, we have to engage consumers so that they know that their purchases can make a difference and that it really does matter whether they buy fair trade coffee or just any other coffee. We have to engage consumers so that they're part of the solution and we have to engage businesses so they know that how they source and who they buy from makes a huge difference.

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