Interview with Green & Black's founder Jo Fairley
PUBLISHED: 11:44 01 February 2012 | UPDATED: 12:08 28 February 2013
Hastings businesswoman Jo Fairley made the confectionery market a lot sweeter when she launched Green & Black's in 1991. Here she describes the company's incredible journey to becoming the world's first fair trade brand. Words: Jenny Mark-Bell
Twenty years ago, in a flat on the Portobello Road, Jo Fairley ate a piece of chocolate that changed her life.
It was a sample that had been sent to her husband Craig Sams and Jo was determined that other people should taste it. Craigs company Whole Earth Foods couldnt launch the product because of its strict no-sugar policy, and so Green & Blacks was born.
The name refers to the ethics of the brand and the colour of the cocoa beans, but it is also a nod to heritage names like Charbonnel et Walker. The couple certainly had the credentials to make it a green company work. Jo, who became the UKs youngest magazine editor in 1979 at the age of 23, had been writing about environmental issues for years she wrote a column for The Times and presented a show about green living in the early days of BSkyB with David Bellamy, Chris Packham and Geoffrey Lean. It was a good time to launch an organic, ethical brand: In the late Eighties a lot of green issues bubbled up again. Its taken a long time to get them firmly on the agenda, but at that time we had Trudie and Stings Rainforest Foundation Fund, and the launch of the worlds first recycled bin bag and sexy things like that. I kind of felt that I had come home.
But in 1991 the organic market was still very new, and it represented a steep learning curve for those at the vanguard. The appearance of genetically-modified food in the marketplace posed a serious challenge, to the extent that Green & Blacks came close to losing their organic certification. In the space of a week I got about 200 telephone calls from people who asked if we were using GM soya lecithin in our products. The answer at that stage was that we didnt know. We got in touch with our manufacturer who said there was no real demand for non-genetically modified lecithin, so we thought we would have to de-certify as organic. We used sunflower lecithin for six months, but the great thing was that consumers everywhere started asking this question of all the big chocolate companies. They were able to put pressure on manufacturers to offer non-GM soya lecithin. Finally some scientists invented a test which we could use to have the soya lecithin independently assessed and certified non-GM. That was quite a challenge and we had a few sleepless nights, but it had a happy ending. I can put my hand on my heart and say I have never had to make any compromises about the ethics of the brand.
That wasnt the only crisis. The cacao beans used in Green & Blacks came from Togo, where the fragile political situation soon led to a breakdown in supply. A couple of times our beans got blockaded in the ports and we had to fly them out, which was the only way we could get them. It was very expensive, un-ecological and scary!
A golden opportunity
Export from Togo was unsustainable, so Craig contacted some cacao farmers he had met some years before in Belize. They had been let down badly by a large American chocolate company in the last two years, and had even stopped harvesting the cacao because it was uneconomical for them to do so, says Jo. Because you couldnt just buy cacao on the open market, our trading relationship with the farmers was incredibly important and we had to take very good care of them. It was a symbiotic relationship we needed to know they were going to sell their cacao to us, and they needed to know that we were going to buy it.
The relationship was remarkably beneficial to both parties. When Green & Blacks started trading with the farmers there was no secondary education for children in the cocoa-growing villages. Now, says Jo, over 70 per cent of the children go to secondary school.
Trading with the Maya farmers inspired a new product. In March 1994, Green & Blacks launched Maya Gold, which became the UKs first certified Fairtrade product. Publicity for the launch was totally unprecedented. We had eight minutes of news coverage on the BBC with our packaging on screen behind Michael Buerk it doesnt get much better than that! says Jo. The BBCs Newsround sent a film crew to Belize and came back with footage of Maya villagers harvesting cacao. Young Methodists carried a torch in relays between various English towns to publicise fair trade and campaigned for supermarkets and shops to stock the product. Finally Tescos confectionery buyer telephoned, saying he had taken so many calls from vicars about the product that he thought Jo and Craig should come in for a chat. In 2011 Green & Blacks became the worlds first global fair trade brand, with all products gaining certification.
Maintaining ethics in the mainstream
When Green & Blacks was sold to Cadburys in 2005 for an undisclosed sum, some feared that its ideology would be diluted (one newspaper headline referred to the smaller company being gobbled up by its rival).
No question of that, says Jo. They are smart enough to understand why people buy our product. They buy it because its delicious, they buy it because it looks good, but they also buy it because it stands for something. Anybody would be crazy to mess with any of that and fortunately we have never been in that position. The company is still absolutely true to its founding principles.
One of the really positive things has been that we were able to influence Cadburys from within. Its very early days with Kraft [the American food giant bought Cadburys in 2010] but we do know that Cadburys looked at us and saw that fair trade was good business as well as being a good thing to do. At a farewell dinner, the outgoing CEO of Cadburys thanked Craig and Jo for showing the company the way with fair trade. That was the first acknowledgement we had that Cadburys made Dairy Milk fair trade because they had seen what we did with Green & Blacks. Theres no reason we cant continue to show that a good company is good business. With the size of the fair trade market and the speed of growth, theres no question that provided the product itself is up to scratch, people like to buy something that they feel is making a difference.
Investing in the community
Both Green & Blacks and Judges, the organic bakery that Jo owns in Hastings, were launched in a recession. That means that Jo has a gung-ho attitude to rolling up her sleeves: You have to be incredibly resourceful because you dont have the luxury of lots of staff running around. Recession means that people get paralysed and fearful of spending money, hiring people or creating new products. They bunker down. You have to be like a greyhound in a trap, ready to go as soon as things look up.
Judges and her other business, holistic spa The Wellington Centre, represent a kind of homecoming for Jo, whose great-grandparents lived in St Leonards. It was the destination of choice on sunny days for her South London family. She is evangelical about Hastings and the businesses that are growing there. The population of Hastings is changing money goes a lot further when it comes to buying property than it does in London, or even Brighton. There is a massive creative community here, and many people have certain expectations of the kind of businesses they want to find, that just werent here before. You couldnt buy good, fresh, local, organic food, there was no centre for well-being. I knew those were things that I wanted and, again, I thought that if I want them Im sure lots of other people do. That was proved right.
Im a huge believer in local business. Ive done global, and I really like local. What weve tried to do with the shop is create somewhere thats an alternative to the supermarket. Where you get great service, and the chances are the staff know your nameall those things that are so rare these days. Judges is now totally organic, after four months of converting 200 recipes: There was a lot of creativity so that the customers didnt experience anything except possibly an improvement certainly not a reduction in quality.
Everything that I have done, whether its been Green & Blacks, Judges or The Wellington Centre, has been shaped by my experience as a consumer. Everywhere I go I forensically unpick what I do and dont like about a shop, or a design, or a service Im very analytical and hyper-critical. I dont make a song and dance about things but I wont go back if somewhere doesnt meet my expectations. I think putting yourself in the customers shoes is a really useful skill.