Social responsibility is a key pillar of a comprehensive sustainability initiative – it’s the “people” component of the typical “people, planet and profit” sustainability model. The fresh produce industry’s people-centric Ethical Charter on Responsible Labor Practices outlines a framework for responsible labor practices across the fresh produce and floral supply chain.
The Ethical Charter was developed by a 16-member committee of industry companies jointly established by PMA and United Fresh Produce Association, which included the berry leader Driscoll’s. Unveiled in January 2018, the Ethical Charter has been endorsed by more than 75 companies from across our supply chain as of June 2020.
What motivated these companies to lead on this hot-button topic? In the case of Driscoll’s, the company was an early industry leader in this area. Their learnings along the way offer insight and inspiration for industry businesses large and small.
The challenge: Being people-centric goes beyond offering good jobs
Driscoll’s is in an enviable position within the fresh produce industry. This fourth-generation family business is about a third of the $6 billion U.S. berry market, according to New Yorker magazine. The company sources its berries from approximately 750 independent growers across almost two dozen countries, which are then retailed under the Driscoll’s brand in over 60 countries. Its independent growers in North and South America in turn employ over 75,000 people, reports Soren Bjorn, president of Driscoll’s of the Americas.
Like most if not all industry producers, Driscoll’s found itself facing labor challenges. “Over a couple of years, all of a sudden there weren’t enough people and we started having difficulty getting our crops harvested,” says Bjorn. “We went from having a better supply to not having enough of a supply of labor. That got our attention.”
The company first documented its “people” standards in 2011. 2015 was a pivotal year as Baja farmworker leaders, the Mexican federal government and growers representing the fruit and vegetable industry reached an agreement to achieve better wages and working conditions for local farmworkers in that region. This agreement ended a strike that had impacted many crops, including but not limited to Driscoll’s-brand berries. Driscoll’s and its independent growers in the region lost fruit valued in the tens of millions of dollars.
“When we got a chance to reflect on it, we had a bit of an epiphany,” says Bjorn. “We think we are a responsible business, we’ve gone about our business in a responsible way, we generally have a good reputation for taking care of the people around us. But we began to realize that in some instances we were having quite a profound impact – sometimes positive, sometimes not so positive.”
At the same time, Bjorn notes, public sentiment for social justice began gaining momentum. “All of these things happening around us made us look at ourselves through a different lens than we had done historically… What we had to start doing was to draw the circle around our business much wider than we had done, and start looking [more] at the impacts our business was having,” he says
Driscoll’s focused first on its people practices because, Bjorn explains, “There is no greater impact of our business than the amount of people it takes for our business to be successful. We think that is mostly positive, but … what are some of the things we need to address to make sure it was almost exclusively positive?”
For example, Bjorn says, “The good news is that we are giving employment to 75,000 people. But if there aren’t enough people and so we are creating migratory patterns that wouldn’t have happened if we weren’t around, we have to understand the good and bad impact of that. The bad impact can be that we … can overwhelm a small community with our workers’ demand for housing. If we don’t think about that, the people that were already living in the community won’t have a positive impression of our business.”
The solution: Well, it depends
Driscoll’s’ labor commitment is multi-pronged:
- Driscoll’s’ independent growers are expected to comply with all existing laws and regulations.
- Driscoll’s Global Labor Standards are additional standards where laws do not exist, are not consistently enforced, or provide lower protection to workers.
- Driscoll’s philosophy is grounded on treating workers with respect, providing clean and healthy workplaces, and paying a living wage. These standards include zero tolerance for child or forced labor, or harassment.
- Driscoll’s independent growers are audited for compliance, and can be placed on an improvement plan to get, or return, to compliance.
- To help its growers build their own capacities and capabilities, Driscoll’s provides best practices and extensive training.
- To raise standards across the industry in countries where Driscoll’s operates, the company also partners with local and regional stakeholders – including governments and non-governmental organizations, and even other companies. The company helped to create AHIFORES, an alliance to promote social responsibility and industry standards across Mexico.
“What it really comes down to fundamentally is treating everybody who is in our chain … with dignity and respect. Make sure that they can live rewarding lives, that they don’t just have a full-time job but when they go home they can’t meet their basic needs,” says Bjorn. “Then we look at the issues that get in the way of that.”
This requires a framework, notes Bjorn. “You have to declare where you want to end up. That gives you real clarity around the vision,” he says. “Then you can take stock of where you are. If you’re clear about where you want to end up, then you can start down the path.”
“We spent a lot of time early on studying the issue, to really understand who [our workers] are, what their needs are, and what challenges them,” admits Bjorn. “I think that one of the worst things we can do is sit in our corporate offices and project out onto the world all our solutions to what we perceive to be the world’s problems. On issues like this, you have to really get into the community and understand the dynamics. We operate in 20+ countries, we operate in very wealthy countries, we operate in quite poor countries. The needs are very different – what comes to the top of the list in one place is very different than what comes to the top of the list in another place.”
Bjorn recommends tapping into university resources, and involving customers, NGOs and other stakeholders. Driscoll’s did all of the above when it commissioned a needs assessment of its workforce in Mexico. “A lot of great universities are very interested in the dynamics of farmworkers, so we helped facilitate that.” Driscoll’s also got customers like Walmart involved. “It turns out there are lots of people who will work with you,” he says.
Bjorn counsels that sometimes the issues facing workers can be so basic that it is surprising. For example, that Baja community didn’t have reliable access to water. “Often the water would come on while the workers were in the field, so they missed the opportunity to get their water tank filled up,” says Bjorn. “You just [think to yourself], really, this is a problem? Yes, this was a real problem.”
So the company sourced and distributed 800 automatically-filling water tanks. Now, if the water comes on while workers are in the field, no problem, the tanks fill by themselves whether it is 2 a.m. or 2 p.m.
“Did that solve the underlying issue that the water isn’t on 24/7? No. But did it impact those families? For sure, and it was something we could make happen,” says Bjorn.
When asked what Driscoll’s has spent on its labor sustainability programming, Bjorn replies, “The honest answer is that you have to be prepared to invest in the short term to get a benefit in the long term. And it is not always clear that you’ll get a nice return from that dollar you invested.”
“It’s a little bit of leap of faith you have to take on your financial returns. I know this is where it gets hard, it can get a little squishy - it’s not as easy to get your head around” as buying a better tractor, Bjorn says. That said, he continues, “The growers who embraced this from the beginning, or who embraced it with a little bit of nudging along,” he smiles, “they will universally tell you today that they are running a better business today.”
“It doesn’t take very long. Wait two years. The growers who said in the first meeting they didn’t think they could afford this, they came back and said you know what, we actually now have a competitive advantage over other growers… They said that once they got into it, they actually like it,” reports Bjorn. “None of them say this wasn’t worth it, we wish we’d never done it, it was just a waste of money… I don’t hear that from anybody we work with.”
“There are things they don’t like… but when they look at it in totality, they are all saying ‘We are running a better business today than we did when we got onto this journey’,” he says. “What it has done for most growers is that it has given them insights into their own businesses that they’ve just never have.”
Growers also report they have much better communications with their workforces, notes Bjorn.
“In our industry there is such a long history that most growers don’t have very good communication with their workforce – sometimes there is language, sometimes there is culture, sometimes there is history,” says Bjorn. “ If there’s one great thing to come out of this, it’s that there is much tighter connectivity between the grower, the employer and the employees today.”
“What you have in the end,” says Bjorn, “is a more sustainable business.”
The takeaway: Focus where you can disproportionately impact
Bjorn notes that Driscoll’s has had to be disciplined in focusing on areas where “we think our impact is disproportionate – and, if we do a really good job of it, we can have a disproportionate positive impact.”
“One of the things we had to learn is what to say no to,” says Bjorn. “That has taken some time for us. Initially we went too broad and tried to solve too many things. Then we realized that needed way too many resources, it was not that affordable and [we were] not that impactful… When you get distracted, it’s very difficult to make meaningful progress.”
An example: That Baja community for which Driscoll’s sourced automatically-filling water tanks to meet their water needs? That community had identified building a community hospital as its top need – a need that was well out of Driscoll’s’ wheelhouse. “While that was at the top of their list, we had to go to the first thing on the list that was an area where we could have a real impact,” says Bjorn. “A hospital was going to require an act of Congress… there was no way we could be the driver.”
As another example, Bjorn doesn’t put carbon footprint on that list for Driscoll’s. “Of course we use carbon in what we do, we just think that our impact on the global carbon footprint is not disproportionate relative to many other industries and actors. It’s a very real issue, it needs to be addressed, but we aren’t the ones that can help lead on that issue.”
“Our final filter is, where can we realistically make an impact? We’ve gotten it down to three things: people, water and plastics. We are making way more progress now, and we’re actually doing it with fewer resources because we are way more focused,” Bjorn reports.
In January 2016, Driscoll’s began selling Fair Trade USA-certified organic strawberries and raspberries, starting with small supplies of fruit from the Baja region; the program was quickly ramped up to include all of that region’s fruit, produced by more than 1,000 workers there. “Fair Trade berries mean more funds going to improve these farmworkers’ lives and their communities,” says Bjorn.
Driscoll’s earned best global health and safety labor program recognition in 2019 from Sedex, a global nonprofit organization that helps its member buyer and supplier companies to be more socially and environmentally responsible supply chains.