CAOBISCO Conference: Creating Uncommon Collaborations

The annual CAOBISCO conference held in Brussels earlier this year was another opportunity for the industry and others to come together and share ideas and best practices for sustainability going forward.  I have the opportunity to share the Mars commitment to cocoa farmers, farming communities, and to industry collaboration, along with Kraft Foods, FairTrade, the International Labor Organization, the European Trade Commissioner, and many others.

This conference was an opportunity for the wider business community interested in sustainability to discuss the challenges of pre-competitive initiatives and the ways to overcome barriers that may stand in the way of effective implementation.  The European Commissioner for Trade, Karel De Gucht, delivered the keynote address to 150 attendees representing the worlds business, international development, and government.  The director of sustainability of Kraft Foods Europe, Francesco Tramontin, offered the audience detail to the business benefit of sustainability in three ways: efficiency, in terms of reducing: waste and cost; growth, through increasing the appeal and preference for a company’s products; and long term risk mitigation, by avoiding supply security risks being realized.

  I had the opportunity to participate in a panel entitled “Inclusive Growth,” which focused on the social impact of our supply chains, alongside Simon Steyne, who heads  the Partnerships and Social Dialogue Section of the International Labor Organisation’s International Programme on the Elimination of Child Labour (IPEC); Lily Deforce, General Manager of Max Havelaar Belgium; and Benjamin Vallin, who is an officer in the Forum Food Supply Chain section of the European Commisssion’s DG Enterprise initiative. The panel was moderated by Jacki Davis.

I stressed the interdependence of Mars success with the success of cocoa farmers, based on our Mutuality principle that asserts that only shared benefits will endure. To achieve benefit for farmers, Mars feels it is inappropriate to try to tackle social issues in isolation. The needs and concerns of farmers and their families stretch across economic, social and environmental areas and are inextricably connected. There was consensus among the panel that we need to tackle the underlying root causes of social issues, not just the symptoms. The importance of developing more productive and profitable farms was agreed on by all on the panel concerned with social impact. I encouraged all to approach the issue by putting Farmers First.

There was also a spirited exchange with the audience, who questioned whether stakeholders could actually operate in a pre-competitive manner. They recognized that competition between companies in the market place with certified products would exist, and that companies would contend to be perceived as leaders for reputational reasons. I proposed that we recognize that some elements of sustainability work are competitive, and some pre-competitive. Therefore, it is incumbent on the industry to define what a pre-competitive scope looks like before proceeding further in our efforts to convene dialogue and action between the major players. Looking at the three buckets of value presented by Kraft, it seems clear that cost reduction and brand performance will remain inherently competitive, while long term supply risk mitigation is an inherently pre-competitive issue. Creating alignment on the long term risk we all share regarding unsustainable production practices is a key preliminary step to realizing truly collaborative action behind a set of common goals.  Addressing that challenge at scale – by putting Farmers First – is something Mars Chocolate has committed to do by pledging to purchase 100% of its supply from certified sustainable sources by 2020.

Now that there is agreement on the need to realize uncommon collaborations by defining clear pre-competitive spaces, the key will be to see if we can move into action. The next challenge is to create a strong platform on which to convene conversations that will move these collaborations forward, and a small enough group to ensure action is not limited.

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