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The Future in Focus

Podcast: Episode 2 - LRQA speaks with Jo Fairley

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15 MARCH 2023 ◦ 15 MINUTES

In this second episode of the two part mini-series, Jo Fairley - co-founder of Green & Black's organic chocolate - speaks with LRQA about the implications of Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) issues for the food and beverage industry. Jo also shares her personal advice for proactively managing risk, drawing on her own experiences as co-founder of the pioneering brand.


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LRQA: The Future in Focus

Hello there and welcome back to the Future in Focus Podcast by LRQA or if you’re new here, thank you. In this latest edition, we’ll hear LRQA’s Global External Communications Manager, Holly Wild speaking to Jo Fairley, co-founder of Green & Black’s Chocolate on key trends and challenges affecting the food and beverage industry.

In this second episode of the two part mini-series, we dive into the implications of environmental, social and governance (ESG) issues for the food and beverage industry. Jo also shares her personal advice for proactively managing risk drawing on her own experiences as co-founder of Green & Black’s Chocolate.

Hi Jo, it’s really good to speak to you again. I want to start this episode by asking about ESG or environmental social and governance issues.

We’re increasingly seeing references to ESG from companies, their ad campaigns, the media, and whether that covers their carbon emissions under the ‘E’, or their modern slavery policies under the ‘S’ or for instance their tax transparency under the ‘G’. ESG is becoming increasingly mainstream across the board. Why do you think that is?

We want to make sure that the products that we buy are doing no harm either to the planet or to the individuals concerned in the production process along the way whether that’s a t-shirt or a cup of coffee. And so you don’t have to be Greta Thunberg or the kind of environmentalist who blocks the M25 with a protest to be concerned about the provenance of what you’re buying. And through social media, through just the kind of conversations that we have with friends, you can see that these things are starting to bother people. Before it was slightly out of sight and out of mind.

And I think that the other reason why it’s really important for brands to take this onboard is that I think there was a Deloitte’s study that said 83% of millennials want to work for a company that allows them to make some kind of contribution on an environmental or social platform or from that point of view. Now if you’re not taking onboard those ESG issues you’re not going to be attracting 83% of the talented young people that you ultimately want to recruit to build your business as it grows, you’re going to be stuck with the 17% who don’t really care and so that for me is a really strong reason.

Because what we’ve always found at Green & Black’s is that by having these really strong values as pillars of what we did from the beginning, we have literally magnetised talent, we’ve magnetised talent from all over the world, people who want to be part of what we’re doing. And so we’ve seen how powerful it is as a kind of not a recruitment tool because that’s not why it was done, but in terms of getting the right people to your team to build your organisation.

So I think that from a company’s point of view, I don’t really care at the end of the day if they go into for cynical reasons thinking that they need to have something to look good in the company report, you know the annual report because it is obviously increasingly expected that you will have an ESG report each year.

Because at the end of the day when you engage people in an organisation in those issues, environmental, social, not so much I think the tax transparency thing because it doesn’t perhaps, tax never quite touches people’s hearts in the same way, but they can still get very exercised about it. When people get involved in something, a programme that is related to that, a policy that changes the way the company does business, it changes them and that starts to change the DNA of the organisation generally. Because we are generally mostly good people and we want to get out of bed in the morning and feel like the company that we’re working for is doing something more than just making money, it is trying to make some kind of difference in the world.

So I think that’s why it’s becoming more and more of an imperative and quite apart from the kind of moral reasons, you know the moral imperative it’s a talent perspective and giving people the opportunity to make a difference in the world.

So you’ve already provided some fantastic examples under the social aspects of ESG in particular, but what are the other main ESG factors that are most relevant for the food and beverage industry, you know the ones they really need to be hot on. For example, sourcing a natural cocoa bean for chocolate as you’ve already mentioned. 
Well luckily all chocolate is natural but not all of it is organic, not all of it is Fairtrade. I think obviously within the meat industry, welfare issues are incredibly important again not just from a kind of let’s be kind to piggy’s point of view but also what we’ve seen is that with intensive animal agriculture, disease is spread very, very fast and that’s not good for the animals, it’s also not good for human health, it’s not good for a business who suddenly finds that their egg production or their chicken production has been wiped out by bird flu.

So obviously welfare issues are important and the world population has just reached eight billion and notwithstanding the fact that there is a boom in plant based foods etc., meat consumption is growing rapidly in line with global population because I think possibly you know plant based alternatives to meat are something that comes way down the line in a countries meat eating journey. They kind of, you know they get in with meat eating first of all and of course Africa where you know meat has not been such a huge part of the diet, it is becoming part of the diet and what that does is it puts real pressure on animal farming and puts us at this risk of infections and diseases and so on.

So I think that that is really important. I think that there’s a very interesting movement afoot it’s called RegenAG for short, it’s Regenerative Agriculture and it’s a phrase that we’re going to be hearing a great deal more of over the coming years, I think. Because even big grain companies like Cargill and ADM in the States are going down the route of farming in a way that puts life back into the soil instead of endlessly depleting the topsoil so that perhaps in 60 years that land will be unfarmable, they are taking the long view and starting to farm in what is known as a regenerative way. It’s not policed in the same way that organic would be for instance, but it is looking at the soil health and looking at ways of maintaining that because actually that is sustainability in action in every way. Because if you don’t do that you are going to get to a point where vast tracks of land become unfarmable.

So I think RegenAG is something we’re really, really going to be hearing a great deal more of and should be supporting. Now whether that starts to be certified in some way, I suspect that someone will come along and say we can certify RegenAG so that the consumer can be sure when they buy that product that it’s not just green washing, it’s not a lot of marketing hype etc.

But it really is in the interests of business sustainability that brands start to go down this route because as I said at the beginning, it all goes back to this idea of security of supply of your ingredient. If you have depleted land that is no longer good for growing wheat or corn or whatever, that’s unsustainable for your business, it’s unsustainable for being able to feed the world.

So Jo, you’ve worked as brand consultant as well for a wide range of start-ups and household names, you also remain a working journalist and a contributor to leading newspapers, websites and magazines, so you’ll know it might be tempting to look at ESG for PR purposes only. But would you agree actually it’s more than that, it is the right thing to do?

It is absolutely the right thing to do and as I’ve alluded to, I think it’s the right thing to do for all of us because we do want to get out of bed in the morning and feel like we have made a difference in the world. And then collectively as a company, you build team spirit, you bond people together by this idea of having a kind of common purpose and doing some good in this world.

But as I say, I don’t really care if people start for PR purposes and if they start to go down that route because they think they’ve got to do it because it does have this ripple effect on the whole organisation. And if you just look at what happened with Green & Black’s, so there we were little old Green & Black’s a small start-up chocolate company etc., acquired by Cadburys ultimately when it was not quite so small.

But you know we know that we influenced Cadburys to put the Fairtrade mark on Dairy Milk because there was a dinner for the outgoing CEO a guy called Todd Stitzer, but he turned to Craig and I at one point and said, I want to thank Jo Fairley and Craig Sams for showing Cadburys the way with Fairtrade. Which was his acknowledgement that little old Green & Black’s had influenced Cadburys to put the Fairtrade mark on Dairy Milk which obviously is going to have a way bigger impact on farmers and their families around the world that we could ever dream of.

Then when we were acquired by Mondelēz, when Cadburys was kind of swallowed whole in that deal, the day before Cocoa Life was announced the CEO of Mondelēz a guy called Tim Cofer called Craig and said, you guys need to know that tomorrow in Abidjan we are announcing this 400 million dollar investment in West Africa and it is borne out of what you guys did with Fairtrade.

So from little acorns giant oak trees grow when it comes to CSR and ESG I think, and what worries me sometimes is I look at companies and they are actually doing good things, but the perfect can be the enemy of the good and they feel that unless they’re completely perfect across everything that they’re doing, they can’t talk about it at all.

So for me the important thing in this conversation is transparency and just putting your hands up and saying we’re not perfect yet guys, but we really want to be better, and we’d like to take you on this journey with us and this is what we’ve done so far and this what we’re planning to do next, and this is where we’d maybe like to be in 10 years’ time. Because my experience is that consumers are really, really understanding of the fact that you can’t just wave a wand and make things perfect overnight and that it is a journey that begins, of a thousand steps that begins with a single step and fear is, the fear of not getting it right is no reason not to take that first step.

So I’d like to see more companies talking about the small steps that they’re making rather than feeling that they have to be 100% copper bottomed with everything before they can say, well I think that’s an example to the rest of the industry and it’s a great team spirit builder within an organisation.

I want to round off by saying finally you know you’re one of the UK’s leading entrepreneurs so you speak to a lot of companies providing your insight on best practice. Are there any lasting messages you’d like to leave our audience with, in terms of managing risks or striving for success in general?

So I am very hot on personal resilience, so basically this idea that when the hurricane is swelling around you or maybe it’s wiping out half a million trees as it did with our Belize farmers at one point, you are not running around like a headless chicken, you are the calm at the centre of the storm.  

And for me this is the real secret of dealing with risk and catastrophe and challenges and crises, you know any of which can hit a business on any given day and I sometimes feel like a firefighter with a hose in my hand you know, putting out small fires and sometimes big ones.  

But unless you yourself are in a good place mentally and physically but particularly obviously there’s a big conversation around mental health now happily, then you are going to be like a rabbit in the headlights, you’re not going to be able to see how to deal with that problem, that challenge that has just confronted your business on a large or a small scale.  

And so I always say to executives, to everybody within a company, you should never feel guilty about taking care of yourself. Going for that walk at lunchtime, taking supplements if you’re grabbing terrible junk food, making time for yoga classes, having a massage occasionally. This is not indulgence, this is not pampering, this is about actually building personal resilience and not running on empty so that when those challenges hit you’ve got some stamina, you’ve got some fire in your belly to be able to deal with it without panicking, without getting caught up in that hurricane basically, which you will if you haven’t had enough sleep and you haven’t exercised in all of those things.  

And people sometimes say to me, how do you have time to go to yoga class, well I don’t have time not to because of what it gives me back. So I would say to anybody listening to this, don’t feel guilty about giving yourself some TLC. There’s a great Banksy cartoon out there and it says, if you’re tired learn to rest not to quit, and that’s what we all need to do to be able to deal with risk and challenge.