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Wholesome Sweeteners has ethical sourcing as its core

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From The Organic Report, Winter 2012
By Jennifer Rose

When Pauline McKee and Nigel Willerton founded Wholesome Sweeteners (WS) in 2001, there was no question in their minds: they wanted to sell products that were not only of high quality, but also ethically produced.

“Nigel and I are both from Europe, where social responsibility is a core part of producing products and running a business,” explains McKee. “So, when we developed our business model, it was important to us that ethical sourcing be at its core.”

Implementing such a model for sweeteners in the United States at that time was no easy feat. Although Fair Trade standards for sugar existed elsewhere in the world, they did not in the United States, meaning that if WS wanted to sell Fair Trade sugar as part of its product line, it would first have to find a way to establish standards.

Committed to their belief in the importance of fairly compensating farmers for their work, McKee and Willerton began to investigate bringing Fair Trade standards for sugar to the United States. Working closely with the Fair Labeling Organization in Bonn, Germany,  and Fair Trade USA, Willerton spent the next three years drafting and revising standards that explicitly outlined the criteria products had to meet to be certified Fair Trade.

Several challenges accompanied this standards-making process. Some were inherent in the sugar production process itself. For example, cane must be delivered to mills within 24 hours of being harvested or it will spoil. Others centered more on building farmers’ trust in the Fair Trade system.

“We had to educate them about how such a system would benefit them, and deliver on our promises,” explains McKee.
For WS, that meant developing an arrangement in which independently owned and operated mills committed to paying farmers immediately based on the volume of cane delivered, and WS wired additional Fair Trade premium payments directly into the farmers' cooperatives' bank accounts. Such an arrangement, Willerton observes, has been “extremely successful,” as it has not only allowed WS to have a direct relationship with Fair Trade coops and understand the investments they have chosen to make with WS’ Fair Trade premiums, but “it has encouraged literally hundreds of smallholders to grow sugar cane organically, join local Fair Trade cooperatives, and directly benefit from the premium advances Wholesome guarantees to pay.”

WS rolled its first Fair Trade Certified™ sugar out to consumers in 2005. In the years since then, remarkable changes have taken place in sweeteners in the United States. Fair Trade standards now exist not only for sugar, but also for honey, and are in development for organic agave and organic coconut palm sugar. At the same time, WS has seen its product lines expand from three products to over 60 Fair Trade and certified organic products, dramatically expanding the options for consumers looking for Villagers in Malawi now have acess to fresh wateralternatives to what McKee refers to as “the white stuff” (namely, conventionally produced sugar). Over $6 million in Fair Trade premiums and licensing fees have been paid to date. (WS also pays a licensing fee for use of the FT Logo to the U.S. Fair Trade body).

As a result of contracting with WS, farming communities around the world have been able to make critical improvements to their local infrastructure, helping them to not only farm better, but also enjoy a higher standard of living.

In Malawi and Paraguay, for example, WS’ Fair Trade premiums have been used to support local schools and a health care clinic for members and the families of the farming cooperatives with which WS works..  Such funds have also been directed at forest preservation and promoting biodiversity. At the same time, Fair Trade premiums have enabled farmers in Paraguay to purchase new trucks to transport their cane from the farm to the mill more efficiently, reducing the incidents of spoilage. They have also been used to invest in trees for an orchard and to provide a much needed, radio-based communications system for the farmers. Additionally, the premiums paid by WS have attracted new farmers to join Fair Trade and organic cooperatives, resulting in a fifteen-fold increase in the number of acres under organic production. In Paraguay alone, WS’ organic sugar cane cultivation has risen from 10,000 acres to over 150,000 acres since 2001.

“It’s been challenging to keep up with such growth, but it has also been incredibly rewarding to make it possible for farmers to earn a fair wage and promote environmental stewardship along the way,” observes McKee.

The impact of WS’ Fair Trade premiums on the village of Kasinthula in Malawi has been equally positive.  Historically, female villagers had to walk a mile, dodging crocodiles, to collect water for their fellow villagers. With the introduction of Fair Trade premiums, however, the village cooperative was able to invest in a centrally located well, relieving women of their daily trek for water.

“It’s hard for many of us in the western world to grasp how significant a change it is to have ready access to water,” McKee notes. “But for the villagers in Malawi – and in particular the women – having water right at their fingertips was nothing short of transformative. It meant that the women could spend their days cooking and looking after their children, instead of dedicating so much of their time and energy seeking out and transporting water.”

Beyond the physical improvements they have financed, WS’ Fair Trade premiums have enabled communities otherwise at risk of collapse to remain intact. As WS’ Director of Marketing Sarah Miller explains, “Many farming communities in developing countries have broken apart because people can’t find work and are forced to migrate elsewhere. These premiums have given people a reason to stay and work together in their homeland.” 

For McKee, seeing her company have such positive impacts in many ways, is a dream come true.

“You always hope when you start a business that you are going to make a difference in people’s lives. To have actually been able to do that, to be able to see first-hand the ways our work [at WS] is changing lives for the better—it’s even more than I’d hoped for when we started WS over a decade ago.”