All Good Interviews: Molly Harris Olson

Molly Harriss Olson is the Fairtrade Australia and New Zealand CEO. From being an Executive Director of the president’s council of Sustainable Development under Bill Clinton, as well as being awarded Australian Financial Review and Westpac 100 Women of Influence Award, she’s set out to change the world and do good. Hear her thoughts on the impacts of Fairtrade and how you can change the world too.

on March 21, 2022

Tell us a little bit about how Fairtrade operates in New Zealand.

As we do all over the world, Fairtrade in New Zealand changes the way trade works through better prices, decent working conditions and a fairer deal for farmers and workers in developing countries. By choosing Fairtrade certified products, people in New Zealand can create change through their everyday actions, and farming communities in those countries can improve their lives and invest in their future. We work closely with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade (MFAT) to foster economic development in the Pacific Island Countries through Fairtrade certification. And we also partner with businesses throughout New Zealand to encourage the sale and purchase of products carrying the Fairtrade Mark.

What is the process producers go through to become Fairtrade certified?

To become Fairtrade certified, small-scale farmer organisations and plantations can partner with us to meet internationally agreed Fairtrade social, economic and environmental standards. The standards include protection of workers’ rights and the protection of children, the preservation of the environment, payment of at least the Fairtrade Minimum Price to cover the cost of sustainable production and an additional Fairtrade Premium to invest in initiatives to support local communities or business development.  Producers are audited regularly against the standards, as are the traders and consumer brands that carry the Fairtrade Mark.

Can you explain what the Fairtrade Premium is, and how it has benefitted Fairtrade banana producers?

The Fairtrade Premium is a sum of money which goes into a communal fund for workers and farmers to use – as they see fit - to improve their social, economic and environmental conditions. Producers determine what is most important to them; whether this is education or healthcare for their children, improving their businesses or building vital infrastructure such as roads and bridges for their community. In 2016, the banana producers we work with, who are growing crops destined for the shelves of Kiwi shops and supermarkets, invested 36% of Fairtrade Premium funds in farmer initiatives, such as training on best agricultural practises, agricultural inputs, tools and additional payments, 52% to strengthen their organisations' capacity and facilities and 11% on community initiatives such as healthcare, education and social services. 

How does Fairtrade ensure banana producers’ incomes are not affected by the fluctuating market prices?

The Fairtrade Minimum Price is set to cover the cost of sustainable production. If the market price for bananas is higher than our minimum price, then producers receive the market price. This acts as a vital safety net for farmers and workers and protects them from fluctuations in the market. This protection helps to provide a stable income and enable planning for their future. Fairtrade is the only certification scheme that offers this unique Minimum Price protection for farmers.

Fairtrade bananas and conventional bananas can often look the same in the shops. Apart from the producers being paid a fair price, how can the way these bananas are grown benefit consumers?

The benefit for consumers is in the way Fairtrade products are produced, particularly the banning of harmful chemicals and the promotion of organic production. We help farmers manage soil health and soil fertility using recycled organic inputs, increasing farm efficiency through lowered costs and driving productivity up, while also protecting the environment. And that all contributes to improving the quality of the bunch that you take home. 

What are some of the benefits of working with small-scale producers, instead of larger plantations?

Small-scale farmers and workers are among the most marginalized groups globally. Through Fairtrade, they can lift themselves out of poverty to maintain their successful livelihoods. Some products, such as coffee, cocoa, and cotton, can only be certified by Fairtrade if they come from small-scale farmer organisations. By working through democratic organisations of small-scale farmers, Fairtrade offers rural communities the stability of income which enables them to plan for the future and invest in developing their organisation.

With bananas, Fairtrade also certifies plantations (companies that employ large numbers of workers on areas of land called estates). Our standards for plantations also focus on the protection of workers’ basic rights; keeping them safe and healthy, allowing them freedom of association and collective bargaining, preventing discrimination and working to ensure no bonded or illegal child labour is present. Fairtrade Standards require employers to pay wages that progress towards living wage benchmarks. 

Large-scale banana production can be chemically-intensive. How are Fairtrade farmers protected from potentially harmful chemicals?

The Fairtrade Standards regulate substances used in farming, particularly pesticides and other chemicals. Chemicals classified as hazardous to human health by a number of organisations, including the World Health Organisation (WHO), are banned in Fairtrade production processes. When approved chemicals are used, we help to provide access to and training in the use of safety equipment and proper storage methods. Fairtrade Standards also require farmers to protect waterways and biodiversity, and use chemicals appropriately, through, for example, localised spraying instead of aerial spraying.

It’s not just chemicals we’re worried about. Fairtrade provides real support to farmers and workers so that the environment can be protected. We help farmers adapt to the world’s changing climate, supporting long-term and positive ways of dealing with unpredictable weather patterns. Waste management is another vital concern in an all-round mission to care for the natural world. 

Have you seen a positive change in New Zealanders’ consumption of Fairtrade products?

We continue to see sales of Fairtrade products grow year on year as well as awareness of the Fairtrade Mark - now at 77% as more and more consumers are becoming mindful of sustainability and questioning where and how products were made.

What is something we can all do better to support Fairtrade products?

As well as choosing products with the Fairtrade Mark, talk about us with your friends, family, co-workers and on social media. We’re always aiming to reach as many people as possible and explain to them the potentially life-changing importance of their consumer choices. You can be an advocate for Fairtrade every day, by word and deed!

And finally… what is your favourite way to enjoy Fairtrade bananas?

It’s got to be straight up, and on the go! I often barely have time to stop as we work hard to support our producer partners, and encourage conscious consumers here and in Australia, so when I’m New Zealand with the team, a Fairtrade certified banana is exactly what I need to keep going.