Partnerships driving change in the food sector: Representatives from DISCO, B Lab and Trabocca share what you need to know

After a sequence of virtual events – the last one hybrid – the Living Wage & Income Lab returned to an in-person setting. The session had speakers from DISCO, B Lab and Trabocca reflecting on the importance of partnerships to drive change in the food sector. More importantly: how can we make such joint efforts actually work in practice? The key takeaways of the session can be read below!

The idea of joining forces and working collaboratively sounds beautiful in theory. But, in practice, its efficiency depends on aligned goals and a lot of flexibility. On the journey towards living wages and incomes, these are key attributes for developing efficient partnerships at all levels of the supply chain. As a process that depends on intensively sharing of data, knowledge and insights with one another, each actor has a key role to play in fighting poverty and enabling food workers at the end of the chain to get their share of the profit. 

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“Coffee is a beautiful product, and it should be valuable for everyone in the supply chain.”
Cerianne Bury Quality Systems Supervisor at Trabocca

With these thoughts in mind, the third Lab session of this year brought together experts from different backgrounds to share their learnings: Namely B Lab, a private certification of ESG performance of companies, the multi-stakeholder platform Dutch Initiative on Sustainable Cocoa (DISCO), and Trabocca, a coffee importer now working to set a new standard for Ethiopian coffee in partnership with Fairfood, Simon Lévelt and the Global Living Wage Coalition. Playing different roles in the journey towards decent payments for agri-food workers, each initiative representative helped us  understand the opportunities and challenges when establishing meaningful partnerships at all heights of the supply chain. 

Partnering with corporations towards decent wages and incomes: what’s working and what’s not

Arjen Boekhold, Chair of the Dutch Initiative on Sustainable Cocoa (DISCO), began by acknowledging that recent European due diligence regulations have dragged more and more actors onto the table of multi-stakeholder initiatives. This goes beyond CSR managers and CSOs, but also traders, who had little involvement in discussions on living incomes before sustainability and human rights due diligence became an expectation in European markets. Actors with widely different goals now find themselves side-by-side in multi-stakeholder initiatives such as DISCO, faced with the difficulty of finding overarching interests to guide their partnership towards positive impact. That is where the challenge of multi-stakeholder initiatives lies, as while in theory they can be a key instrument to resolve issues by bringing together the expertise of multiple stakeholders, as Arjen explains: “they can also be the reason for parties to say; ‘hey, I’m committed!’, and lay back down again.”

Arjen further reflected on how multi-stakeholder initiatives are crucial spaces for bringing together actors from different backgrounds, and some of the challenges this may bring to the table. While for some joining such initiatives are just another task for their jobs, we need to move beyond to ensure goals are achieved: “You need to ask yourself if you share the same goal or the same vision. For some actors, sustainability objectives are simply the means, and for others, those objectives are the end goal. That is a key question to answer in the early stages of every partnership”. 

Bernard Gouw, Senior Manager of Social Standards B Lab, followed the panel by sharing his perspective as part of a multinational certification organisation, which supports more than 5,000 companies globally. As he put it, B Lab aims to create a movement. By providing companies with guidance on how to navigate living wage data and benchmarks, the organisation facilitates companies’ transition towards transparency on fair wages and contributes to the movement towards corporate due diligence. “Data on living wages often weren’t accessible, so certifying the data on producers’ wages wasn’t part of companies’ agendas. Now that we provide global coverage of data, it is a clear message to all companies that regardless of which country you are sourcing from, the living wage for your employees is relevant. Saying that ’there is no data’ is no longer an excuse.”

Arjen and Bernard defended the importance of partnerships with the private sector. Legislation and data availability are pushing corporations to recognise living wages and incomes as a relevant topic of discussion. Still, partnerships between diverse actors are difficult to navigate due to contrasting goals, so platforms like DISCO and guidelines offered by B Lab are examples of initiatives driving collaboration in closing the living wages and incomes gaps. 

Partnerships on specialty coffee supply chain: Learnings from Trabocca 

Cerianne Bury, Quality Systems Supervisor at Trabocca, made it clear that as an importer, it is urgent to be conscious of the impact of ones’ product in sourcing areas. That is why Trabocca decided to commit to paying Ethiopian coffee farmers a living income. Getting partners such as Simon Lévelt on board was the smallest of their challenges compared to the difficulty of building trusting relationships with partners at the beginning of the chain. 

Trabocca saw that an essential part of fulfilling its commitment to living incomes was developing transparent relationships with local exporters. Working with the same Ethiopian exporters for 11 years, they were able to gain important information and insight into the supply chain they were working in. Since Trabocca cannot directly pay the coffee farmers as an importer, but the local exporter, they rely on transparent data and communication with these players to ensure smallholders are receiving the fair wage they were promised. Yet these partnerships have been impacted by Ethiopia’s current inflation and civil war. With local partners under pressure, greater transparency on payments transactions has moved to the bottom of their priorities list. 

When we work on living wages and incomes, we become obsessed with numbers. I think it’s good to remind ourselves that even though having a number is important to help us implement it, it isn’t about just the number. It’s also about the process and the partnerships that come out of it.
Bernard Gouw Senior Manager of Social Standards at B Lab

Joint efforts in closing the income gap

Our speakers agreed that in order to make fruitful partnerships the norm, there are internal and external challenges that need to be addressed. 

External challenges come along with partnerships, as actors throughout the supply chain hold different interests and goals. As Trabocca’s Cerianne demonstrated, there is a significant gap between committing to decent prices and actualising this promise on the field. Still, such joint efforts of actors with different interests and backgrounds push living incomes higher on the agenda for corporate due diligence. 

Internally in a company, actors also need to direct their sustainability efforts  beyond their direct reach by involving sectors such as sourcing and procurement, for example. With due diligence regulation close to becoming a reality, initiatives like DISCO and B Lab support this mission by creating engagement between smaller and larger influential partners, as a way to drive living wages and incomes towards the new standard. 

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