Nevado Roses, Ecuador…Say it with Fair Trade Flowers

“If I had known 10 years ago that we’d be in the same position today as back then, I wouldn’t have bothered with Fair Trade certification”. So says John Nevado, the charismatic owner of Nevado Roses. He’s as colourful as the flowers he grows here. After my trip to Nevado Roses in Latacunga, a two-hour drive south of Quito, I reflected on the some of the complexities of Fair Trade certification. It’s not all a bed of roses…

Latacunga is a medium-sized town, a typical mix of a few pleasant, central, historic cobbled streets surrounded by forgettable, dusty, congested concrete roads. I took a short bus ride a few kilometres out of town to get to Nevado Roses.

Up until this point, most of my Fair Trade visits had been to co-ops, farms and small-scale operations that typically worked with land-owning farmers. In a few cases I’d seen small operations that employed local people, such as the APPTA fruit/cacao co-op in Costa Rica and Fruandes in Bogota, Colombia. Nevado Roses, high up on the hillside of the altiplano, has a very different style of operation.

Nevado Roses is a Fair Trade certified flower producer. Fair Trade flowers differ from other products like coffee and cacao because of the nature of the business. Flower production typically uses a ‘plantation’ style model, in which people are employed directly for a set wage and have no ownership in the land. It all looked very professional, very modern. John Nevado is a committed Fair Trade producer, but he has many reservations about the process.

After a quick introduction with the energetic John, I was shown around the site by Miguel, a somewhat more subdued sort of bloke. And my post-lunch visit meant I missed the height of the action, which takes place in the mornings.

There are 90 greenhouses here, each about half a hectare in size, making 45 hectares in total. Flowers are cut and shipped on the same day. It was quiet wandering amongst the six-feet tall (they were huge!) flowers, with some workers quietly attending to the flowers, trimming, feeding, conducting quality control. Each plant takes around 13 months to flower from initial planting. For about 90 days it will produce flowers, though a plant can last up to 20 years.

It was much more active in the processing and packaging areas. Dozens of workers were preparing the flowers that had been cut that morning. A modern, efficient production line of equipment and workers took the freshly cut flowers, sorting, cutting and arranging into their packaging. In a separate room many more workers, layered in warm coats and gloves, were busy in the 5C degree refrigeration area putting the final touches to the roses to get them ready to be flown out that evening.

The roses themselves were quite amazing. Growing conditions here (warm days, cool nights) are some of the best in the world. The colours, textures, size; everything about them stood out. These were quality! As John repeated many times, quality always sells.

Fair Trade in flowers

John was one of the most opinionated and excitable people I met on my travels. Originally from Spain, he spent many years in Sweden which influenced his “fair” principles and conscience. Around ten years ago John helped develop the standards for Fair Trade flowers. As the sales of Fair Trade products increased, Fairtrade International, FTI (previously known as Fairtrade Labelling Organisation, or FLO), was keen to expand the range of products that could be certified as Fair Trade. John was willing to contribute his expertise.

However, the ‘promises’ of Fair Trade for flowers have been hard to realise. John changed his working practices at the farm to meet the new Fair Trade standard. The farm became “100%” certified Fair Trade. This included ensuring a minimum (fair) wage, creating a ‘social premium’ for the workers and local community and enabling the workers the right to association (unionisation).

Nevado Roses was one of only a few growers that adopted Fair Trade standards; just 10 out of more than 550 growers in the country. In the ten years since, this is still the case. Nevado Roses sell only 7-8% of their flowers as Fair Trade, a figure that has barely changed in these ten years. How can this be? Like I said, the market for flowers is very different to coffee and cacao. Flowers can’t be stored in a warehouse. Quality and the ability to distribute fresh flowers is paramount. People who buy flowers tend to place a high premium on quality and freshness ahead of Fair Trade certification (imagine giving someone wilted flowers and trying to convince them that because they’re Fair Trade they are ‘better’ than conventional flowers!). Sadly, this is the reality.

Even organic flowers here are a tiny part of production. Only two hectares out of 90 are grown organically. Organic production requires more work, higher costs and is less productive. Without the associated demand, it doesn’t make business sense.

The low percentage of Fair Trade sales means the amount of the ‘social premium’ that goes back to the community is limited. Although it can reach up to $100,000 annually, this amounts to very little considering there are 500 workers here. But despite frequent bureaucratic interference, this is one area where the employees have a lot of say in what to spend the money on.

Some final thoughts:

Despite John’s equitable principles, he’s a capitalist too. His approach to Fair Trade is very much market-driven. He disagrees with a lot of how the current Fair Trade model works, particularly its lack of flexibility and costs. There has long been issues with how Fair Trade was perceived as a ‘northern’ initiative that made the decisions on how to help the ‘southern’ farmers, including how the farmers and cooperatives had to pay for certification. However, this is changing. But John advocates for even more flexibility, such as companies making their own decisions about Fair Trade purchasing (think Whole Foods and their “Whole Trade” brand). In this respect, I got the impression he was in favour of controversial recent moves by Fair Trade USA to change standards and start working more directly with companies.

I liked John. He swore a lot, he was funny. But he was knowledgable and I could understand his frustrations with the Fair Trade system. He wanted it to have achieved more in the last 10 years. It is still a work in progress.

Fair Trade has a place for many products, but each is unique. For us, as end consumers, we see the “Fair Trade” symbol on the products we buy and we trust this. I saw some of the problems with certification of flowers, but it is imperative that to maintain trust in the symbol it must be tailored effectively to each different product. I left Nevado Roses knowing that John treats his employees as well as he can and that he has had a positive impact on the lives of thousands in the local community. However, the Fair Trade model for flowers still needs improving. It’s possible it will only ever achieve limited success, but I hope that John continues to work towards the benefit of this and whatever the picture is in 10 years’ time I hope these communities see continued benefits.

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Why does Fair Trade differ for flowers compared to coffee?

So how is flower production different from coffee? Here’s a quick overview of how this model of fair trade flower (roses) production differs here at Nevado Roses from what I’d seen elsewhere:

  • It’s a ‘plantation’ type of structure. The owner, John Nevado, employs more than 500 workers, who work for an hourly wage
  • Flowers must be shipped the day they are cut to ensure freshness for the markets they are sent to in Europe, Asia and North America. This makes it difficult for small owners to succeed within the Fair Trade model
  • Flowers require an intense amount of work and Fair Trade introduces additional costs that cannot be saved in other parts of the supply chain (unlike coffee) so Fair Trade flowers are more expensive for the end consumer
  • Because of the higher consumer cost, small florists in developed countries rarely adopt Fair Trade flowers. The nature of flowers as a product typically means appearance, quality and freshness override any concerns over the means of production
  • The Fair Trade model insists on workers’ right to unionisation, but this is difficult in Ecuador due to inherent political influence

A few stats on Nevado Roses:

  • Employees: >500
  • Workers are paid hourly rates as typically determined by Government
  • Fair Trade “Social Premium” is invested back into the business
  • Fair Trade certified for 11 years
  • Very small percentage is sold as organic (~4%) or Fair Trade (7-8%)
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