Interview with Gero Leson for Fair Trade Fortnight

We were incredibly lucky to be joined by Gero Leson the vice President of Special operations at Dr. Bronner’s on Instagram Live at the start of Fair Trade Fortnight to hear about the work he does. Watch our conversation with Gero at the link here! We had a few technical difficulties, but we popped the whole interview into this blog post so you can read about the work he’s been doing:

Steph – Hi Gero! Please could introduce yourself and just tell us a little bit about your role at Dr. Bronners and how long you’ve been working for the company.

Gero – Sure. So my official title is a little suspect. It’s vice President of Special operations, it’s almost somewhat of a joke! But the work myself and my eight member team of special operations involves mostly the work with the organic and Fair Trade projects we built in part over the last 15 years. I started doing this in 2005. The idea which came from David Bronner’s vision – and supported by his whole family- was that we should shift our ingredients for our soaps to organic and saturate sources. Now, those ingredients used in how you make soap? It’s coconut oil, it’s palm oil, it’s olive oil, and then for Dr. Bronner’s, it’s just a whole bunch of essential oils, peppermint, lavender, citrus. We wanted all these to be organic and fair trade, they already were organic, some of them. The problem was they were not even standard for our ingredients by Fair Trade International at the time. I think your UK branch is the Fair Trade Foundation, if I remember correctly, and those standards didn’t exist. You could not get or you could not even certify coconut oil. Of course, it’s not commercially available either for that very reason.

So then how Dr. Bronner’s sometimes does things was we thought, oh, we’ll just do this by ourselves. I had been working in Sri Lanka on development projects related to coconut fiber, and then we figured out our own coconut oil mill with organic farmers. And at the time there were alternative Federate standards emerging such as Fair for Life, which is very similar to the Fair Trade International standard but has a couple of provisions that allow there’s no global minimum price, for instance. That’s one of the flaws of the system, at least back at the time. I actually came in from a respected Swiss institution an alternative to Federate International. And then we never looked back and just went forward. First we built the project in Sri Lanka, which is a sizable factory, has 1200 farmers, about 300 employees. It makes coconut oil now also adding coconut milk and then we built the palm oil project in Ghana. There’s the peppermint oil project in India that has 2500 farmers fueled crops, not tree crops. And then we have Serendipalm cocoa, and Samoa mix coconut oil. So we over time build these projects. In most of them, Dr. Bronner’s has a financial state, but more importantly, we also get involved in operating. It’s not like I need to run it on a daily basis. We have local partner teams that do that, but we support them in anything from designing new facilities for processing, expanding the operation, for instance, hiring key staff, financials which is really important, looking at cash flow plan. Financing needs to be done often. So that’s what we do. So those are in a way our own project. Some work with farmers, with independent farmers or farmers in association, it varies very much on the local situation. But the main point is they’re all fair trade, I guess. And you may want to know what does that mean, right?

Steph – Yes, definitely. As it’s fair-trade fortnight that was going to be my next question for you. So can you tell us what fair trade actually means and what it guarantees the buyer about the supply chain?

Gero – Originally it means, of course, that farmers get prices for their goods that they can live off.  In coffee for example, that’s not the case. So that is one of the flaws of it. You have to look at what prices are paid. Their market based, you pay a premium and if market was, you pay a floor price plus an organic premium. So this is very basic, yet it’s not enough. What we found was that problem number one is often not the farmers, oftentimes the farmers actually make decent money such as Sri Lanka for coconuts because market prices are high. What you want to look at is how about the other people in the supply chain? How about the farm workers? And since we have production, you want those people in production working under fair conditions, that they’re paid properly, that there is room for professional growth and that there is treatment with respect. So that’s key. And then you want to, of course, engage with the community. So that means there’s a Fair-trade fund for our customers. And that’s Dr. Bronner’s. But now we have quite a few customers. We do not sell only to Dr. Bronner’s. We sell our palm oil and coconut oil to Rapunzel that’s a large German organic brand. We have a bunch of other customers in the US, and in the EU. And that’s really the concept. We want these projects to grow and not just depend on Dr. Bronner’s. And that over time has worked out really well. So these customers pay a Federate premium. It goes into a fund that’s administered by farmers staff of the project. There is other community groups. So each of the stakeholders is represented. And the projects initially are healthcare, schools and its infrastructure. It’s employee welfare. So a whole range of benefits provided to the community. But one key idea there is also to engage members in improving community for which they often don’t have the cash. That fund has become a great tool for development. And since that premium itself doesn’t solve all the problems often Dr. Bronner’s has just pitched in additional money. Such as to build maternity ward in Ghana for instance. It’s a fantastic way to on the ground. But not as an NGO but as an operation that buys fruits or coconuts from farmers on fair terms. And employs people on fair terms. So we’re a very popular employer in our project location. So that’s really what fair trade means to us is just to engage on the ground. Look at what the issues are. Who’s the most disenfranchised and where do you want to support? So I guess that’s the foundation of what we think is fair trade.

Steph – Amazing. It’s a really lovely way to put it. Last year you released your book ‘Honor thy label’, about your life and the brilliant work that you’ve done developing Fair Trade projects with Dr. Bonner’s. Can you tell us where some of the Dr. Bronner’s fair trade partners are and where they’re based and what they provide? You’ve talked a little bit about some of them already but where are some of the projects that help produce some of the most popular scents?

Gero – I mentioned Serendipol in Sri Lanka. The first coconut oil projects and the palm oil project, and is also known that it provides some of the cocoa for our chocolate. These projects now follow regenerative practices increasingly, and maybe I should mention this step before I forget! What we learned over time is that Fair trade is not just about paying price for the products. It’s also about helping farmers to improve the fertility and productivity of their land. It’s important particularly with trees and farmers often neglect those for whatever reason. As a result, the yields per hectare is lower than it could be and that cuts into their revenue. So we realised early on our job in organic and fair trade is to support farmers in tackling that issue. Much more effective than just raising prices. And Regenerative is ultimately what these practices became known as, which is just support the fertility of your soil through pruning, mulching, compost, use plant cover crops of a whole range depending on whether it’s trees or not. And all of our projects now already are on the way to become regenerative certified. That adds a little bit of our perk to customers and we’re finding more and more customers are interested in that. So those are the really exciting things for all of the projects. And this is what triggered Dr. Bronner’s to also want to do chocolate because we already had regenerative beans, and other sources that do regenerative coconut sugar. So it’s about showcasing the concept of regenerative. For us, fair is part of Regenerative to have that attribute and just make a lot. And that seems to be working out.

Okay, so back to your question. Where are those projects? Serendipol makes coconut products. Serendipalm makes palm oil and cocoa, but it’s diversifying and soon it will offer cassava flour because cassava works really well in mixed agroforestry. So what we try to do is improve the agriculture. But also look at how does that help you to diversify your production. Then there is Serendi Coco. I mentioned that in Samoa, lovely place at the end of world, a difficult to get to small island. They produce some of the coconut of our soap. And then one important project is Pavitramenthe Mint. That is not our own. But we have found in that field of agriculture in India grows our Mint oil or Mint and just a whole range of other crops such as rice, potatoes, other herbs for the local market and increasingly also for other Cernan customers in the west. So those are the four key ones. There’s others that are not ours, but closely related to Kanan, Palestine. Fantastic sources for olive oil in the West Bank. It’s a really important way to get Palestinian farmers an outlet for olive oil. And then there is Oribi that’s a great project in South Africa that supplies our tea tree oil. So all of those are organic fair trade. And most of them also already regenerative ROC certified and underway. So that gives you an idea. So those are our six major ones. And there’s always new ones coming online. There’s great organic and fair project. Any other supplies or avocado oil. So we just look for projects that have the potential to make a local impact. And organic and fair is always the foundation. That’s the formula. But we like to add to that. And Regenerative just nicely includes all the attributes we are looking for. But what it really means is you work closely with people. It’s not about the labels. It’s about the collaboration with people.

Steph – Okay, so my next question to you was about if you could tell us some of the greatest challenges that smallholder farms face at the moment. You mentioned about regeneration farming practices. Are there any other challenges that they’re facing?

Gero – What’s the trouble for smallholder farmers? Okay, this could be 2 hours! A big one is price. And that’s with globally traded commodities. Coco is a great example. We know that farmers in Ghana and Ivory Coast cannot make money off selling to account for all the cost. But they still sell those beans because they have them. Prices often are too low and then they go high. Its frustrating for farmers to have these oscillating prices, so you need to support that. In Ghana, for instance, on cocoa beans, one real problem for smallholders is that they don’t have the means often to systematically improve the fertility of their land. And that means tree care, pruning thinning out or producing compost for field agriculture. And farmers in the global south don’t have the luxury, you could call it to get loans from banks. In the west they do. In the south though, that’s very difficult. Farms don’t easily give loans to smallholders right. And the interest rates are brutally high, often. So in Ghana, you’re looking at 25 – 35% if they need. So access funding to improve their land is a real challenge. On top of this, often it’s agricultural advisors that are sent by the large producers of agrochemicals. And what are they going to tell farmers? Not that they should be making compost, right? But they tell them to use chemical products. And that’s just the way. It’s not a stereotype, that’s just reality. So it’s really difficult for farmers to get out of this trap and move to more, let’s call it regenerative practices. But then once you have those, finding markets for that is not so easy either. So those are typical challenges that farmers have. Much of it is about money and productivity. I would say, on top of this, global climate change doesn’t make things easier. It’s not disastrous everywhere on the planet yet. Definitely not. But there’s a shift in rainy season, there’s droughts, there is massive flooding depending on where you are. And all of this is not going in the farmers favor. That’s why we think supporting resilience of your land through regenerative means is a really good idea. Just meaning getting the water content up of your soil and allowing it to store moisture for longer and be a little more resilient when the flood comes. So this is very simplified view of what smaller farmers struggle with worldwide. And that’s our job. As we support a little bit, we can solve all the problems, but we want to set examples.

Steph – Amazing. So you touched on it a bit there about the environment. And obviously a huge part of the Dr. Bronner’s company is about helping the environment. So do you see fair trade supporting people who are most vulnerable to the effects of climate change?

Gero – I’d say it comes down to the soil again, really simplifying it, because when you look at what farmers face, it’s that the soil doesn’t store enough water, and they face drought which we have routinely, for instance, in Sri Lanka. So supporting farmers and the environment, the ecology, at the same time, it comes down to maintenance of the land and notably the soil. And what that also does is it helps sequester atmospheric carbon. Ultimately, you can use agriculture to store or just sequester greenhouse gases, CO2 mostly from the atmosphere. And that battles the greenhouse effect. Farmers couldn’t care less about that aspect, to be honest because it’s not their responsibility to fix that problem. They didn’t cause it in the first place, but they’re subject to it. I think that combination of using regenerative methods to improve the quality of your soil, increase resilience of the farm at large, while at the same time also helping external threats

Steph – So would you say that fair trade is a pillar of regenerative organic agriculture?

Gero – In our view, it is. There’s many different camps, in the regenerative scene, so to speak. And we joined with partners who believe that organic is one pillar, meaning really, you shouldn’t do it with agrochemicals. There are others who think it’s not that important, but we think it is. And then fair trade is the other pillar of the certification that we were involved in creating, which is Regenerative Organic or ROC. And projects need to have a credible third party Fair trade certification, such as Fair trade International or Fair for Life. There’s one or two others, to us it’s a pillar of it. Animal welfare is the third important one. So for us Fairtrade is a more holistic approach. It’s quite a bit of work to get this done. That’s why we’re proud to have been guinea pigs on the certification to figure out how it works. It’s nice to see that there’s a growing number of companies of farming projects and companies that are moving towards ROC because they think there’s recognition by consumers. It’s really fun to see that consumers respond and that the idea of regenerative comes across and it includes fair trade, we always point that out. But it seems like regenerative almost has a mystique that fair trade sometimes doesn’t have and many farmers and consumers don’t know what fair trade means anymore.

Steph – So another question that we get asked a lot here on the Dr. Bronner’s UK channel is about palm oil, which is often sort of a controversial ingredient when it comes to some products. So can you explain how Dr. Bronner’s sources it’s palm oil and how it’s environmentally safe and fair trade as well?

Gero – I think all of the viewers know what the biggest problem with palm oil is. It’s not the crop itself or the oil. Palm is a fantastic crop and it can be grown very sustainably. What is the problem? In Southeast Asia and now increasingly in Africa and in Latin America, palm oil is produced by large mono crops, sometimes several thousand hectares. In Indonesia, mostly, they were established under pretty gruesome conditions. So you just take the forest there. First growth or second growth, you chop it down, you burn it, you remove all the animals and people that used to be there and then you set up a monoculture. That’s not super sustainable. This is really where the anger at palm oil comes from. It’s like I said, a great crop. So we set up our project in Ghana where oil palm was grown. This is where it’s coming from. Ultimately, this is the oil palm originated in West Africa. So there we work with small holders. They typically have two, three hectare of land. They’re surrounded by citrus, by cocoa, and we focus on, again, improving fertility of their land and we get engaged with the community so that’s a very different scenario. And we pay prices that are always above market. So that’s a very different scenario than planting huge plantations in monocultures and not engaging with the community at all. So can we try to set a high standard and then help diversify the project. It’s not without trouble, but it’s a great learning experience to engage with communities. First try oil, then cocoa, which is another great crop, and just show that you can grow those in a responsible manner and then add other crops to that. And it generates a lot of visibility. It’s sure of interest to the farmers and several hundred often unskilled women we employ in the village. So this is where fair trade and regenerative agriculture, and palm oil and Coco are just great examples of that. You can do that. Big scale is not helping.

Steph – What inspired you to keep going with your work? Were there any places that you visited or any stories you heard that inspired you to keep going?

Gero – Honestly, once you’re in that there’s no way out. Even thinking of retiring is hard. It’s just the engagement. What really drives I think all of us is that you realise just by doing business, you actually can have an impact. Yes, from now, it’s limited to our own supply chain, but it sends out waves. And you’re only hoping that there could be a critical mass of other brands just picking up on the idea. What drives me personally is really the collaboration with my team and then projects on the ground. Most of the management teams are younger, 30s, 40s. And you help develop teams. We do coaching, leadership training. We just engage. Training is really a big part of it. And to see that work in settings that are not so easy that’s a big part. This is what actually keeps me going. It’s just enjoying engaging with people which is meaningful, so that’s what keeps me going.

Steph – That’s really lovely. It sounds like you have a fantastic team behind you. So my last question what is your favourite Dr. Bronner’s fair trade product and why?

Gero – Theres two but you know what? I like them all. I always buy just a whole box of supplies so I’d say the Peppermint liquid soap. I love it. Number one is really great when you work in the tropics because it gives you this tingle after long and hot day. It has most of our ingredients in there except for the palm oil which is only in our bars and it’s got the peppermint so it’s a refreshing product. And then of course one has to love our chocolates. Why? They taste good and they just exemplify the concept of a regenerative product with the beans, the sugar and we’re looking for regenerative almonds.