The campaign to persuade multinational companies to take fair trade seriously has long been an uphill battle. Larry Bush is no stranger to the struggles of smallholder farmers; he grew up at the bottom of the supply chain that was his family’s farm. At an early age he saw how, even in the UK, small family-run farms experience injustice as, despite working hard to produce a product, those higher up the food chain impose their power to increase profits.
Bush inherited from his parents a love for the land and also an enthusiasm for his Christian faith. But at Oxford University, Bush’s college chaplain, Tom Wright (who would later become Bishop of Durham) challenged him to go deeper. Wright threw Bush’s self-description of “committed Christian” back at him, asking, “What does it mean to be a ‘committed Christian’?” It was a question which Bush initially struggled to answer. But as he studied Earth Sciences, he expanded his thinking and realised that faith was about more than praying a prayer of salvation. “It’s not just about saving souls, it’s about putting our faith into action,” he realised.
THE UNJUST COFFEE MARKET
In his final year at university, Bush visited Uganda and discovered that something was out of kilter in the coffee market. In each village he visited, there were huge piles of coffee beans left under trees. These beans were not the result of a glut but due to smallholder farmers being unable to sell their product because of the structure of the global coffee market. “People were really suffering,” Bush recalls, adding, “It gave me a sense of anger. Something had gone seriously wrong that you could have these really hard-working coffee farmers producing amazing quality coffee beans but they were being treated really badly by global traders and no one cared about them.” An interest in fair trade was sparked. Initially Bush’s grand plan was to change the culture of big businesses and be an advocate for fair trade. “I wanted to make a difference from the inside…I was a very idealistic student!” Fast-forward a few years and Bush had discovered enacting change wasn’t as straightforward as he had hoped. Nevertheless, his career was thriving as he found himself at food and beverage multinational PepsiCo in 1996, working in new product development and marketing roles. Working in the Walkers department, he helped to launch Doritos in the UK and was the brand manager for household favourites Monster Munch and French Fries. “I learned a lot about brands, marketing and the trends. But in the back of my mind all the time was this experience of going to Uganda and the injustice I saw,” he recalls. Bush worked at PepsiCo for over a decade and encountered the usual challenges that come with working as a Christian in a large for-profit business. One of his small but influential successes was lobbying to get fair trade products in the work canteen. “That felt like quite a small thing, but what was interesting [was] it became a topic of conversation at break times and lunchtimes. So all the people who were talking about fair trade at coffee break then walked into a meeting about sourcing products! So all of those issues were suddenly plunged into the everyday business of PepsiCo.”
THE ROLE OF CHALLENGER BRANDS
Following Traidcraft's launch of the Geobar into UK supermarkets, Bush grabbed the opportunity to challenge his company to respond to the emerging fair trade movement. “It was my job to say to PepsiCo, there’s this fair trade brand that has launched into our market, what are we going to do about it? We have to get our heads around this thing called fair trade.”
"It’s not just about saving souls, it’s about putting our faith into action"
Bush understood the influence that small organisations and companies such as Traidcraft could have on the food and beverage sector. “By doing something ethical in the marketplace it sends out a ripple that cannot be ignored by big companies,” he explains.
He is convinced that with an increase of “challenger brands” (fair trade alternative products such as Traidcraft, Divine and Cafédirect), large companies such as Kraft, Mars and Nestlé have no choice but to respond. Ultimately, he says, these companies are driven by profit. They will only do the minimum required despite being “ten steps behind where they know they should be”.
The average consumer may assume the big confectionary companies are making progress, but Bush says they shouldn’t be misled by the well-placed Fairtrade Foundation logos on popular chocolate brands such as Dairy Milk, Maltesers and KitKat. Although this signifies some movement, Bush says that when it comes to ethical practises, they are “way behind” smaller organisations such as Divine Chocolate.
The next chapter in Bush’s career began at the Greenbelt Festival where the Body Shop’s Anita Roddick was speaking on the power of business as a vehicle of social change. She challenged the audience, “What are you doing right now to make change happen?” Bush was convicted. A few weeks later he attended a Traidcraft event and asked, “Can I be of any help?”
Today, Bush is marketing director at Traidcraft. When he first took the job in 2006 he was daunted by the prospect because, although Traidcraft is a smaller organisation than PepsiCo, it has a much more significant task on its hands – fighting poverty through trade.
He believes that change requires continued pressure from consumers and NGOs. But it isn’t hopeless. Over the last three decades, fair trade has become a part of the public’s lexicon. Bush directly credits British churches with this increased awareness.
“Fair trade is becoming popular, people are aware of it. It’s something the Church should take a lot of credit for. In the early days, congregations were buying fair trade products way before it got out into the commercial marketplace.” This increased level of education around the injustice embedded in the supply chain of much of our food has made Bush’s job easier. “Once you know it, you can’t unknow it. Once you understand the concept, it’s difficult to argue against it,” he explains.
"Fair trade is something the church should take a lot of credit for"
Bush is keen to emphasise that working for fairer practices in business is not limited to small Christian organisations. “When you work for a really good organisation like Traidcraft there is a risk of feeling a bit worthy and better than everyone else but that really isn’t the case. I know that there are loads of amazing people working for big companies and making those companies better places as a result.” In his current role he still works with larger companies and aims to form strategic alliances, and he’s delighted by the real progress that has been made: “In the past couple of decades there’s been [a] seismic shift in the attitudes of people in business because of consumer demand for ethical practices, and the fair trade movement is a big part of that.” Bush says the biggest challenge of being a Christian in a business environment is when the company’s ethics fall short of what they should be. In those situations Bush is encouraged by Jesus’ words: “You are the salt of the earth” (Matthew 5:13). His words of encouragement to fellow Christians who are still involved in the important task of representing Christ inside multinationals are: “You are doing your bit to make it more salty, but don’t be discouraged if it all doesn’t become salty tomorrow – keep at it!”
Larry Bush was speaking to Sam Hailes. To find out about Traidcraft's range of products and their latest campaigns visit traidcraft.org.uk