Oke USA, the banana importing arm of Equal Exchange, is working to educate consumers about the lives of banana growers.
The West Bridgewater, Mass.-based company markets organic Fair Trade bananas grown by small-scale banana grower cooperatives under its Equal Exchange brand.
The company, which is promoting March as Equal Exchange banana month, has seen success with its recent education efforts.
“It’s challenging to be an alternative option, but if we are able to change banana mindsets and deepen the conversation and get consumers thinking about the difference between small-farmer grown, organic, Fair Trade, and conventional options, we see that as a success,” vice president Jessica Jones-Hughes said.
As an alternative option, there is still room for major growth in the category, something president Nicole Vitello is excited about.
“People are getting more concerned, and they are asking questions about where their food is coming from. They are getting involved and getting educated. Those trends are really healthy,” Vitello said.
The company’s focus on small-scale growers has helped it spread its message to consumers even more than being Fair Trade certified, Vitello said.
“I think people can tune out when you talk about trade policies, but everyone has a connection to small farmers,” she said.
“Making the connection between the farmer in Ecuador and the farmer down the street, who both need fair prices, has been where the growth of our message has really come about.”
Vitello said the Equal Exchange brand differs from other companies who offer Fair Trade-certified products because of its focus on small-scale grower cooperatives.
“Fair Trade started as a smaller movement and now that larger companies want to use it on a larger scale, it has spread from small farms to plantations, which can make it hard to maintain certain integrity standards,” Vitello said.
That being said, she said larger companies should still be involved, even through creating their own corporate responsibility seals or other programs.
“There can be Fair Trade and social responsibility as two separate things. It’s when you try to put them into the same category that it gets difficult,” she said.
Still, she’s disappointed that companies still seem to be competing for the lowest price, even with these social responsibility programs.
“With Fair Trade coffee, you saw a lot of companies trying to raise the bar collectively. With bananas, we haven’t seen that. We need to have a common message that this fruit is worth more,” she said.
“We’re all in the same boat, so why aren’t we collectively raising the bar?”