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Green Business Member Profiles 2011
Canaan Fair Trade
Palestinian Arab farmers and manufacturers have been producing olives, olive oil, and other delicacies for hundreds of years. But when Nasser Abufarha visited the Palestinian Territories in 2003, he noticed an alarming trend.
“Many Palestinian farmers had little to no access to the market,” says Abufarha, founder and director of Canaan Fair Trade—which produces, brands, and markets Fair Trade Certified™ and organic olive oil, olives, couscous, sun-dried tomatoes, and other products, based out of Jenin, West Bank.
Abufarha understood that poor economic conditions in the West Bank and Gaza Strip exacerbate the suffering of everyday people in the midst of the ongoing conflict in the region, which undermines conditions for peacemaking. When he returned to the US, he discovered Fair Trade and thought it might be an ideal system for the farmers he’d met, helping them to overcome the effects of war and “pose an alternative medium to violence in response.”
Abufarha decided he wanted to introduce the Palestinian producers to stronger markets by applying Fair Trade standards and organic methods to their traditional farming techniques.
“I thought of Fair Trade as a vehicle for which these people could bring their product to the markets in North America, Europe, and throughout the Middle East,” says Abufarha. In 2004, Abufarha held six educational workshops open to Palestinian farmers. These workshops taught the farmers modern organic techniques as well as the basic principles of Fair Trade. From these workshops, the company began.
Abufarha simultaneously founded the Palestinian Fair Trade Association, which was first comprised of 13 farmer and producer cooperatives. Today, it is made up of 49 different West Bank cooperatives, which supply raw ingredients for Canaan’s product line. Abufarha says that in 2003, the price of olive oil in the West Bank was less than $2 a bottle. Now it averages almost $5 a bottle—an increase that provides a better life for the farmers.
In 2004 when the company began, there was no official Fair Trade certification available for olive oil, so Abufarha used the general Fair Trade standards set by the Fairtrade Labeling Organizations International (FLO) to establish criteria for Fair Trade olive and olive oil production. Since then, as new standards have developed, Canaan has obtained official Fair Trade certification for its products from FLO, the International Organization for Standardization, and Fair Trade USA, formerly TransFair USA. The company currently sells to markets throughout Europe and North America.
The farmers’ economic and personal gains are important to the company. “It helps sustain their livelihoods in the midst of the conflict,” says Abufarha. Abufarha says that his company embraces a definition of sustainability that “concentrates both on soil and social community.” So teaching the farmers organic production methods is also an important component of Canaan’s business model. Ninety percent of Canaan Fair Trade products are certified organic by the US Department of Agriculture, and also by certifiers in Europe and Japan.
“We work with 1,700 farmers and are constantly moving farmers from conventional practices to certified organic practices,” he says. “The Fair Trade and organic practices the farmers are learning are new forms of knowledge and expression that all, in my view, empower the farmers to be better prepared to respond to the conflict more creatively.”
Abufarha says success with sustainability efforts would be impossible without the exposure to and interaction with foreign markets that the Fair Trade system has provided. And membership in Green America’s Green Business Network™ (GBN) has provided a way for the company to stay connected to the green community. “The GBN has given us exposure to like-minded people and communities, especially people who are interested in sustainability beyond just the product. … It has been the heart of us being connected with our friends around the world and the US in particular—to bond and speak with people that speak the same [green] language,” he says.
Abufarha is optimistic that Canaan Fair Trade will do business with Jewish Israeli markets in the near future, which will help connect those on both sides of the conflict working for peace.
When wildlife ecologist Dr. Wallace J. Nichols and ecotourism entrepreneur Brad Nahill met in 2005, they discovered they had something big in common—a shared passion for protecting ocean life, particularly endangered sea turtles.
Combining Nichols’ considerable experience studying sea turtles with Nahill’s years of working with ecotourism companies, the two decided to found SEE Turtles in 2007. This company sends travelers on trips to Baja California Sur, Trinidad and Tobago, and Costa Rica, to both enjoy the beauty of nature and—as the name says—to see and directly participate in protecting sea turtles.
Tourists can choose trips with varied levels of involvement in locally run conservation projects. For example, travelers who select the “Costa Rica Family Turtle Adventure”—a trip appropriate for children—will stay on a rural farm, helping local conservationists patrol the beach for turtle nests and release turtle hatchlings. On the fun side, they’ll get to visit an indigenous reserve and go whitewater rafting.
Tourists on the “Wildlife Adventure to the Baja Peninsula” will participate in green turtle research, camp on Espiritu Santo Island, and kayak in both the Sea of Cortez and Magdalena Bay.
Those who want to increase their involvement with sea turtles while on vacation may choose to travel as a volunteer, rather than a tourist. Targeted to “those who can brave long walks, late night shifts, insects, and occasional downpours,” a volunteer trip with SEE Turtles allows travelers to spend much of their time helping SEE Turtles’ locally based partner organizations with turtle conservation.
SEE Turtles runs primarily on grants and donations. The company doesn’t even have a central office—everyone involved telecommutes from home.
“Our goal is to keep the organization as small and lean as possible,” Dr. Nichols says. “We don’t have a headquarters or big, fancy salaries. We are focused on keeping the turtle conservation programs going while avoiding the downside of tourism.”
With a limited public relations budget, SEE Turtles relies mainly on word of mouth to keep the travelers coming. “We depend on letting people know about SEE Turtles through big networks like Green America,” says Nichols.
After three successful years, SEE Turtles is expanding into new sites such as Indonesia and El Salvador, and it plans to partner with organizations protecting other kinds of ocean wildlife. In response to the recent BP oil spill, SEE Turtles is also making a contribution to save the Gulf turtles.
“Later this year, I will volunteer in the Gulf myself,” Dr. Nichols says. “In the long term, SEE Turtles is raising funds to support recovery efforts in the Gulf.”
Neville Williams, founder of Standard Solar, has been described by his colleagues as “a long-time solar guy.” During the late 1970s, he worked for the Department of Energy, and then founded both a nonprofit solar organization and, later, a for-profit company that installed small-scale solar projects in the developing world. After spending more than a decade on this work, Williams began to wonder, “Why can’t we do this in the United States?”
With that question in mind, Williams decided in 2004 to start a solar installation company in the Washington, DC, area—an unpredictable business venture at the time. When Standard Solar began, solar installation businesses were a rarity on the East Coast. Tony Clifford, CEO of Standard Solar, says that while some solar companies had already sprouted up in Colorado, California, and other western states, Standard Solar was one of a very few in the Mid-Atlantic region.
“The theory was that hopefully there would be enough environmentally green people in the DC area to nurture an infant solar company,” says Clifford, who became CEO in February 2007. Nurture the company, the people did.
From its beginnings selling residential solar systems out of Williams’ garage in 2005, Standard Solar has grown into a leading solar installment company—and it now does commercial and utility-scale projects as well. In 2008, the company installed solar on the Department of Energy’s headquarters, which was, at the time, the largest solar array from DC to Florida.
Clifford says the company’s mission has always been environmentally driven. “We started with the notion of the need for solar energy from an environmental standpoint,” he says. Now more than ever, there are a number of benefits of going solar, says Clifford. Switching to solar energy greatly reduces a house or business’s greenhouse gas emissions, helping to fight the climate crisis. The economic benefits are significant, too. Although installing solar energy is a major investment up front, Clifford says that the long-term benefits are quickly obvious for customers. With solar energy, customers bypass rising utility rates, lower their monthly electric bill, and add value to their homes or office buildings. There are also a number of federal, state, and local tax incentives currently offered to those who go solar, and the company helps its customers take advantage of those.
Educational outreach is one of the company’s main goals. With each of its installations, Standard Solar provides a set of educational tools, including a demonstration, tutorial, and special Web site, to help its customers fully understand the intricacies and benefits of their new solar installment. Standard Solar has also installed a handful of solar arrays free of charge to spread awareness of the importance of solar energy—including on a school in a low-income neighborhood in the Anacostia area of DC. The company has also worked with Catholic University in DC to establish a class curriculum devoted to the benefits of harnessing solar energy and the mechanics behind it. And, of course, it has a solar system on the roof of its leased office space.
Even people who aren’t yet ready to put up solar panels can benefit from Standard Solar’s expertise. To help more people in the DC area shrink their global-warming footprint, Standard Solar provides energy audits through its Standard Energy Solutions branch, along with a free solar evaluation. Using specialized equipment and testing procedures, the company evaluates a home’s energy efficiency, then gives the customer recommendations for increasing energy efficiency.
Clifford says that one of the most rewarding aspects of installing solar is the customer’s initial reaction to his or her new investment.
“When it’s a bright sunny day and the customer can actually see their utility meter spin backwards, they feel good. They’re getting a very tangible reduction in the cost of their electricity and also a feeling that they’re really doing something here—they’re creating a social and environmental good,” he says.
Founded by four past employees of brand-name companies, including Lands’ End, Macy’s, Ann Taylor, and Fisher-Price, the Fair Indigo clothing company began with a business model and overall mission very different from its mainstream peers.
Inspiration struck co-founder and president of Fair Indigo Rob Behnke in 2002 during a Lands’ End trip to visit suppliers in Thailand. He saw a major disconnect in the clothing production that stuck with him for years.
“I had a moment where I was like, ‘wow,’” Behnke says. “Here’s a woman that’s knitting a sweater for us, and it’s so hot here—98 degrees every day. She’s probably never worn a sweater and yet has probably made 10,000 sweaters for 10,000 people in the US who have never met her.”
Throughout the following years, Behnke also took notice of the growing popularity of Fair Trade coffee and began to wonder why clothing production shouldn’t be held to the same standards. Fair Trade is an economic system that ensures workers get a living wage in sustainable and healthy working conditions. After four years of processing these and similar experiences, Behnke and three others co-founded Fair Indigo in 2006. Initially, Fair Indigo settled in the Fair Trade clothing niche, a place Behnke says was successful at first.
Following fall 2008 and the economic downturn, however, Fair Indigo shifted its mission. Expanding its umbrella in 2009, the company started to sell a variety of responsible goods—broadening its circle of products to include organic, recycled, locally made, eco friendly, and repurposed items, in addition to the original Fair Trade products. With the shift in its focus, Fair Indigo survived.
The company now sells home décor items, electronic gadgets, pet toys, and more, in addition to clothing. The expansion strengthened the company—a growth Behnke says the company’s six full-time corporate employees are proud of.
“We’re very grateful and happy to be where we are. We’re hitting our stride again,” he says.
Fair Indigo has six clothing, jewelry, and handbag production facilities throughout Peru, Uruguay, and Colombia that produce its Fair Indigo-labeled products. Because Fair Trade clothing certification is still in development, none of Fair Indigo’s products have been officially certified, says Behnke. However, the company makes sure each of their facilities is held up to Fair Trade standards.
Fair Indigo uses Verité, one of the most stringent third-party social auditors available, says Behnke, to make sure that each of its facilities complies with Fair Trade standards. It also uses the World of Good Development Organization’s living-wage calculator to determine the adequate living wage for each community its facilities are in and ensures that the workers are paid sufficiently. Although finding the Fair Trade facilities was “extremely difficult,” Behnke says, the effort has paid off.
Deep in the San Luis district of Lima, Peru, for example, is a production group known as Angeles Anonimos, or Anonymous Angels. Specializing in handmade jewelry, this facility employs disabled and impoverished Peruvians. While this is just one of the facilities Fair Indigo purchases from, Fair Indigo is Angeles Anonimos’ sole buyer, helping to lift up people who were once considered unemployable. (View videos at fairindigo.com/angels.)
Environmental sustainability is important to the company as well. With incoming shipments from facilities around the world, Fair Indigo receives a large number of cartons and boxes. Rather than throwing away or recycling these boxes, Fair Indigo gives all of its used cartons to Just Coffee, a local green business that uses them for shipping.
Fair Indigo also implements other eco-friendly steps in its office, including purchasing used office furniture and electronics, and avoiding buying new items whenever possible. In 2006, the company also founded the Fair Indigo Foundation, a nonprofit focused on improving education in the communities in which Fair Indigo facilities are located.
For example, in the Manchay neighborhood of Lima, Peru, the foundation helped provide a building, teachers, pens, and pencils to start a school for the local children. Fair Indigo donates five percent of its total profits to the foundation, and customers have the opportunity to donate five dollars with each purchase.
While striving to be the perfect socially and environmentally responsible business might be a lofty goal, Behnke says that the company constantly tries to take conventional business practices and make them better and greener: “We think: This is how the world does this, how can we do it better in a way that’s less harmful to the people and the environment?”
When social entrepreneur John Shegerian purchased Computer Recyclers of America in 2004, the company was over 2.5 million dollars in debt. Shegerian relocated the struggling business from San Diego to Fresno and renamed it Electronic Recyclers International (ERI). Its more inclusive name mirrored its wider recycling range. In addition to computers, ERI began to recycle a range of electronics such as televisions, cell phones, laptops, copy machines, fax machines, plasma TVs, and more.
For Shegerian, this increased range was important to strengthen both his company and the e-waste recycling industry as a whole. Today, ERI is back in the black, and it’s one of the largest e-waste recyclers in the world.
Back when ERI started, the e-waste recycling industry was virtually non- existent, even though the amount of old electronics headed for US landfills was turning into a major environmental and social problem. Containing mercury, lead, and other harmful toxins, electronics cannot be simply thrown away without harming the environment. And when they are “recycled,” it often means that the electronics are sent to developing countries like China, where they are dismantled by hand by unprotected workers.
The amount of toxic e-waste thrown away or irresponsibly recycled around the world has reached crisis levels. Around the world, there are over 300 million computers and one billion cell phones manufactured each year—all of which become obsolete within two to three years, according to the Basel Action Network.
Shegerian admits that he knew little about the e-waste movement in 2004. But when he took over ERI, he immediately realized both the social and environmental necessity of safe e-waste recycling. Rather than sending the products abroad, as many “free” e waste recyclers do, ERI charges a fee to recycle e-waste using what Shegerian claims to be “the largest and most sophisticated electronic waste shredding system in the world.” But don’t let the word “shredding” fool you: Once it dismantles the old electronics, ERI recycles every component that can be recycled, responsibly and in the US.
With seven recycling centers throughout the country, one of ERI’s main goals is to make e-waste recycling easy and convenient for everyone. Social profit has been a founding principle for the company as well. More than 50 of the 250 ERI employees come from “second chance” programs—having either previously been incarcerated or struggled with addiction.
“We’re humbled that we’re recycling lives,” Shegerian says. “We all deserve a second, third, and sometimes a last chance,” he adds.
While the quantity of electronic waste produced each year in the US continues to grow exponentially, our country continues to have one of the lowest recycling rates of all recyclable materials. Shegerian says that “although it’s so scary that we’ve created such a necessary evil, we all have an opportunity to become part of the solution.”
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