It could be the quintessential dilemma for a naturals shopper: There she stands, reusable shopping tote over her shoulder, two apples in hand —one grown in her own region of the country, the other flown in from New Zealand. After a moment's consideration, she sets down the air-freighted fruit in favor of the locally produced variety. But what if there is no local option?
For most exotic, benefit-boasting superfruits, that's the case. So far, the United States has failed to enter competition with the Amazon in a?ai production. And it's quite rare to hear of a neighbor growing goji berries in their backyard. So what's an eco-conscious shopper —or retailer —to do when the health benefits of products weigh heavily against the effects of transportation? Look to other environmental and social factors, say several of the leading superfruit producers.
As shoppers become increasingly interested in where and how their food is produced, and how far it travels to their plates, becoming familiar with the production process behind popular superfruit products will help you reassure customers as they reach for their favorite, be it noni, a?ai or goji.
When Jill Ettinger, director of sales and marketing for Kopali Organics, considers the environmental costs of shipping her Miami-based company's superfruit products, she says it's not the cost that shoppers will care about in the end, it's the savings —"saving the environment, saving workers from being exposed to harmful chemicals, and saving their own bodies from exposure." Though there aren't many sustainable shipping options for companies like Kopali, the environmental benefits of organic agriculture and wild harvesting provide a stark contrast to the environmentally harmful monocropping that many indigenous cultures are being pressured into.
For example, while thousands of acres of Amazon rain forest are being slashed and burned to make room for chemical-laden soy farms, superfruit producers are dedicating patches of land to agro-forestry, preserving the plants that function as the planet's lungs, as well as other wildlife that dwell there. San Clemente, Calif.-based a?ai producer Sambazon has worked with the riverside communities of the Amazon River Estuary to develop sustainable berry-harvesting systems that take their cues from traditional, local environmental knowledge. The palm trees that a?ai is harvested from are a renewable resource, so instead of destroying their surroundings, the locals can make a living preserving it. The primary waste leftover after harvest is the seeds, which local brick manufacturers use as an alternative energy source instead of burning wood from the rain forest. Sambazon is also working on a biomass energy-generation facility to produce all its own energy from the seeds, as well as a surplus that can be used by the local utility provider for regional use.
Kopali, which produces ready-to-eat packages of organic dried goldenberries, mulberries, mango, pineapple and goji berries, partners with the Rainforest Alliance. The Rainforest Alliance provide incentives to growers and buyers to meet social and environmental standards, aiming at problems associated with industrial agriculture, such as contaminated drinking water and excessive runoff.
Environment aside, the superfruits trade affects economies in developing countries, where workers are often exploited. By developing organic farming and supporting a sustainable economic system, superfruits exporters can give indigenous cultures fair footing where other industries might not. "An essential part of our mission is to create economic opportunities among indigenous peoples in developing countries," says Zach Adelman, founder of Novato, Calif.-based Navitas Naturals. By increasing demand for the products these people have been harvesting for generations, Adelman explains, his company allows family farmers to continue to own their land and make a living wage. Navitas works with the Fair Trade Federation to certify that workers are treated fairly.
Ettinger explains that working with smaller communities and farmers to help convert or sustain organic agriculture is better for the environment. "And by improving their farming conditions, it enables us to have a consistent supply."
Though it appears that for now, consumers and producers alike must accept the long-distance relationship they have with superfuits, small changes are helping ease the strain of international shipping. Navitas, for example, is analyzing the carbon use of its entire operation —including product shipping —to purchase offsets.
So how can a retailer communicate to shoppers all the issues behind superfruit production? "You have to have a more intimate connection with consumers," Ettinger says. She suggests demos, lectures and signage. "Put up a simple question, like, ?What does fair trade mean?'" That way, when you're sampling goji berries or mulberries, you can also give shoppers a taste of all the environmental and social contributions these producers are making.
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXIX/number 4/p. 20,22