Walter Robb says a business committed to social responsibility is on the right path toward changing the world. He says he’s seen evidence of this during his 20 years at Whole Foods, the tremendously successful all-natural food chain with more than 270 locations in the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom.
Robb, co-president and chief operating officer for the food giant, spoke in early October about the importance of sustainable practices at a conference sponsored by the American – Costa Rican Chamber of Commerce (AMCHAM).
EARTH University, in Gúacimo in the Caribbean province of Limón, has suppled Whole Foods with organic bananas since the early part of the decade.
While in Costa Rica, Robb sat down with The Tico Times to discuss sustainable and organic produce, social responsibility and Whole Foods’ continued relationship with EARTHUniversity.
TT: What is the history of Whole Foods with Costa Rica?
WR: We started coming here around 1998. Our first meeting with José Zaglul, president of EARTHUniversity, was in 1998. We started buying products from EARTH in 2001 or 2002, so we’re getting pretty close to 10 years doing business with the university and Costa Rica. We also buy coffee here and other products. EARTH bananas and the coffee relationships are our two principal relationships in Costa Rica.
What are some of the other products Whole Foods buys from Costa Rica?
We buy some chocolate, we buy some spices and various other things, but bananas and coffee are the primary purchases.
Is Whole Foods looking to buy more products from Costa Rica or University EARTH?
I am here this time for two reasons. One is that there is a tremendous event tonight at this hotel (Hotel Real Intercontinental) to benefit EARTHUniversity and the incredible work that they do. I don’t know if people in Costa Rica realize what an incredible place University Earth is – in taking kids from some of the poorest countries and some of the poorest parts of those countries in Central and South America and teaching them the principles of sustainable development and responsible agriculture and then sending them back to their countries to make a difference. There really isn’t another institution like that in the world. And the other reason we are here is because we brought our buying team down here and we are using it as an opportunity to discuss the next generation of products that we could do together.
What do you think these will be?
There are a lot more in the fresh produce side of things, such as mangos and pineapples that are, hopefully organic, but, if not, at least sustainable and sustainably produced. We are also looking at some of the lesser-known varieties of fruit, such as mangostein, as well as chips and other types of products that could be made from those fruits.
What is the difference between a sustainable product and a fully organic one?
That is one of the problems with the word “sustainable” There is no single definition to what that means around the world. It’s very difficult to grow organic bananas in the tropical rainforest because of the moisture and so forth. But EARTH has done everything right. For example, they recycle the plastic on the banana trees; they put barriers in the field to stream water; they put organic fertilizer made from the banana waste itself back on the crops. They go over and above the organic standard in many ways. So their definition of sustainable consists of things like paying workers a fair wage. They put latrines in the field, and they are building community centers where the workers live. So, their definition of sustainable is what is good for the worker and good for the community. … So what is the difference between sustainable and organic? The difference is that there are times when they have to use some chemicals to fight off pests, but they are doing so much more than that. When you look at the total picture, you are getting a truly sustainable product.
Whole Foods purchases sustainable and organic products from Costa Rica. Does Whole Foods pull in products from around the world?
We purchase products from about 86 countries at the present. One thing that we do here that we do in other countries is that we decided that we had responsibilities to the countries we were purchasing from, so the first thing we did was setup a program called Whole Trade, which you will see on some of our products. It is our commitment to ethical purchasing products from other countries.
The Whole Trade commitment is on our Web site. We have a social guarantee, an environmental guarantee, as well as a commitment to a fair trade price. All of the EARTH bananas, for example, are Whole Trade products.
How well do Costa Rican coffee and bananas sell?
Absolutely. In fact, our drinking chocolate, we brand by country that provides it. The Costa Rican hot chocolate is a very popular item. The customers now are more and more interested in the story behind the product, the country behind the product and they want an authentic product. The Costa Rican drinking chocolate, if you look at the package, you’d say it looks authentic to Costa Rica in terms of the graphics and so forth. We buy the bananas that EARTH produces. On a good year that may be 600,000 – 700,000 boxes of bananas. Over the years that we’ve been doing business together, that might be close to 500 million boxes of bananas. What (EARTH President José Zaglul) always says is that “An EARTH banana is not a banana. It is a symbol of a more sustainable future. When a customer buys an EARTH banana, they are buying a vision of raising the banana a different way; without the pesticides, without the water pollution, without the exploitation of workers. A banana is so much more than a banana. A banana is a way that people can truly create a change in the world through their purchasing of that banana.” It is a powerful, powerful story. If you went to look at another traditional banana company and how they raise bananas, you’ll see the difference between EARTH and other places.
Costa Rica seems to take pride in organic development and sustainable development. Is that commitment matched in other countries? How does Costa Rica compare to other countries in terms of organic and sustainable growth?
Among the Central and South American countries, Costa Rica is clearly one of the leaders. There are other countries where organic is further developed, particularly in western Europe and the United States. But in this part of the world, Costa Rica is clearly at the top of the pack. There is a pretty robust organic community in Mexico. There is a pretty solid organic community in Uruguay and Argentina and of course there are a number of coffee producers up and down Central and South America that have chosen to form a sustainable practice. The Argentine and Uruguay beef community and in Brazil in the soybean community, you’re starting to see a lot of movement in that way because the land is cheaper, the labor is cheaper and they can raise those things cheaper and there is a demand for the organic product. It is also moving to places like Poland and eastern Europe, from western Europe which is more expensive to produce these things, plus the currency, the Euro against the dollar is very expensive.
What is your message to the business community in Costa Rica?
My message to the business leaders is: Consider the possibility that, when you are in business, that you can start now, with one thing that will create more sustainability with the world. That you will find by taking those steps, whatever it is, that you will create greater loyalty with your employees, you will create greater loyalty with your customers, you will differentiate yourself in the market and, instead of simply just being a commodity, you will begin to have a differentiation and you will also begin to create change in the world, as well as set an example for other business that is possible to make money and do good at the same time. They don’t have to be opposing forces.
Do you think the trend of social responsibility is catching on?
Yes, but not as a whole. Businesses will be doing business on one side and have a guy working on social responsibility in a separate side of the company. In the very essence of the business, the business itself has to have a sense of social responsibility. There is a difference between saying “We have a social responsibility department,” no, it has to be the business itself that operates with a sense of responsibility.
Every thing about the business. That is the difference between the two. I think both are growing but I think the companies fully committed to social responsibility will sustain while the others will drop. People ultimately want something authentic and real, not something that half-heartedly cares. Consumers want to support a company that is actually doing good things, and so consumers will feel good about purchasing from them.