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Nic Jooste To Speak
At London Produce Show:
The Fresh Produce Industry Has A
Moral Responsibility
To Focus On Sustainability
And Can Make A Profit Doing It As Well!

Nic is one of the most distinguished names in the produce industry, and he has written many ‘European Marketing’ columns for PRODUCE BUSINESS.

He has also been featured as a speaker in our shows and events:

Making ProduceMarketing Everything It’s Not: Creative, Innovative, In-your-face, Non-conventional, Digitally Driven, Attitude- And Adventure-oriented… Nic Jooste Of Cool Fresh Guides The Trade On How To Capture Gen Z And, Next, Gen Alpha!

Preparing For Tomorrow’s Consumers: Cool Fresh’s Nic Jooste Returns To New York’s Global Trade Symposium With Ideas Garnered From His Unique ‘Market Match’ Challenge

A Letter From The Netherlands: The Pandemic Year Well Spent

The Disruption Of Established Markets: How Four Strategies Can Help Transcend Today’s Dilemmas Can Retailers Show A Little Love For Produce Marketing? Dutch Marketer Nic Jooste Will Share His Thoughts On Swimming Upstream At The Global Trade Symposium

PRODUCE AND GENERATION Z Can We Make Our Pitch Effective In Eight Seconds Or Less?

Nic Jooste
Dutch Business Development Partners
Barendrecht, Netherlands

At our upcoming London Produce Show, Nic will be doing a presentation on ‘The 5 steps in developing a sustainability action plan’.

European fresh produce suppliers often see sustainability dominating the discussions with retailers and foodservice companies. These organizations see it as their moral responsibility to be involved in sustainability all the way down the supply chain. They also understand that such an involvement can provide a competitive edge in marketing to the new generations of consumers, who have a true passion for respecting and protecting the world. Nic will look into a 5-step plan for establishing a sustainability strategy in small and mid-size enterprises.

Nic Jooste was born in South Africa and has spent the past 30 years in Europe. He is a sustainability specialist with a penchant for social issues. His experience includes the interaction between sustainability, marketing, communication, brand development and storytelling. Nic has developed and activated 12 global fresh produce brands.

Steven Loeb, contributing editor at Pundit sister publication PRODUCE BUSINESS, spoke to Jooste about what sustainability means, how much progress the industry has made, and how the different parts of his 5-step plan work.

Q: “Sustainability” may mean different things to different people. Tell me what it means to you.

A: In Dutch, we have a saying: ‘een argument plat slaan’’. This means literally taking an argument and beating it until it’s flat and uncomplicated. For me ‘sustainability’ has become all about things that I can do within my own span of control. I know that I can cycle to the farm and buy milk in a bottle, instead of driving my car to the supermarket and buying milk in a carton.

Same in business: if I can reach out to one rural farm worker and change one life by making a small contribution, I am doing something. Imagine if all people in the world were able to change just one little bit of their behavior for the good: we could save the world in a week! I use the following definition to define my vision: ‘DOING GOOD FOR TOMORROW, TODAY’ and ‘MAKING WHAT WE HAVE LAST AS LONG AS POSSIBLE’.

Q: We’re coming up to 30 years since the signing of Agenda 21. How far have we come since that time?

A: Let’s be honest: a long way! When I started on my ‘road to sustainability’ in 2003, it was a word very few people knew about. And look at where we are today: in my business network, there is no single company that has not at least made one step in embracing sustainability. Sure, it is never enough, but I am very proud of how far fresh produce has come!

Q: How important is corporate social responsibility currently? Can companies survive without it?

A: Today, people jokingly say that very soon there will only be two types of companies: bankrupt companies and sustainable companies. Certainly in fresh produce, sustainability has become the most talked about topic. Without it, a fresh produce company does not even make it to the first round of negotiations with retailers.

Q: Who are the companies accountable to: is it their own customers, thanks to pressure that comes from social media? Or are there other reasons why CSR has become so important?

A: In the first instance, it was certainly the case that external pressure ‘forced’ companies to get involved in sustainability. In the beginning, it was a question of ‘yikes, another list of demands.’

However, what has changed (albeit under the surface) is that a new generation of consumers (and employees) has become involved. These global citizens (mostly GenZ) do not accept window-dressing and green-washing. They demand action from brand owners and employers.

So, I believe that the demand for sustainability is now coming from citizens who have the most to lose, should the world screw up: the young people who still have their future ahead of them!

Q: How is CSR measured? What are the standards that they are supposed to be following?

A: There is no certifiable, standardized system for measuring sustainability. In my time as CSR director of sustainability, we used the CSR Performance Ladder that was originally developed by Det Norske Veritas, Lloyds and Bureau Veritas. This always gave me a solid grip on our performance. But there is also the ISO 26000 standard that provides good guidelines.

Q: Are companies living up to those standards? Or do many have more to do? 

A: Yes there are definitely companies that go a long way to implementing and adhering to these standards! That being said, it is a complex issue that is often very challenging, especially for smaller sized companies. I always advise companies to identify ‘smaller’ issues that they can have a direct control over, instead of trying to implement the full set of sustainability items and requirements.

As I always say to my sons when we discuss assignments that they have to do for their studies: it is better to submit something than to talk about everything but do nothing!

Q: What stands in their way of achieving full sustainability? 

A: In fresh produce, definitely time. Our industry is always under pressure, and we do not always comprehend long-term issues. For many years, fresh produce has centered only around commercial issues (buying/selling/trading/solving problems). To become involved in sustainability, one has to free up time from the daily activities and try to comprehend the implications of one’s actions (or non-actions) on the future.

Q: What makes sustainability especially challenging in produce and what unique challenges do produce companies have to deal with? 

A: It depends from what perspective we are looking at it. A company that deals with produce from ‘far away’ has to manage a complex supply chain, where one does not control a large portion of what happens. Let’s say an importer in the UK imports grapes from the north of Peru. It is a completely different culture, climate and socio-political environment. Yet, every action that the importer takes has an impact all the way back to the laborers that work on the farms.

Plus, we are dealing with perishable products that require pesticides and herbicides to be used in production and packing. It literally means that an importer must understand all the components in the chain and try to build sustainability measures in every step of the way. I spent most of my working life in our company traveling to far-away produce countries to try to understand and safeguard the effect of our actions on sustainability. But not every small or medium enterprise has the luxury of having a dedicated sustainability manager.

Q: What role do retailers play? If big buyers demand a specific standard, it can create an ecosystem of sustainability. But it can also serve as a ceiling: if growers or shippers go beyond the buyers’ specifications, they might spend money their competitor, who just meets standards, did not. How can we make sure that doesn’t happen? 

A: This is a dilemma. I have seen retailers demanding exactly this (an extremely high level of sustainability) from suppliers, yet opting to buy — at the lowest price — from a supplier that barely meets the basic requirements. This is an issue that is still happening every day.

Q: How do you weigh one silo of sustainability against another? For example, if two companies spend the same amount but one invests in reducing negative environmental impacts, and the other invests in enhancing the pay of African workers, which is more sustainable? What metric can be used to evaluate one against the other? 

A: I do not think that one should compare the silos of sustainability. Every measure that is taken to improve sustainability is a good one! What I have seen is that if a company implements sustainability measures that are (a) close to the heart; and (b) firmly in their span of control, the actions become much more effective.

Q: How has COVID affected sustainability plans? Have worldwide supply chain issues made it more difficult for companies to achieve sustainability? 

A: I would rather argue that COVID has paved the way for a deeper involvement in sustainability! COVID has shown us very clearly the fragile nature of mankind, as well as the havoc that an unexpected pandemic can wreak on our world. If anything, companies should have realized that they need to take action, and then not necessarily far away but also close to home.


Q: I want to walk through the five steps you’ve previously outlined toward achieving sustainability. The first you mentioned is “discovery,” which essentially sounds like an interrogation of the business itself and what it is, and is not, doing. Why is this the most important place to start?

A: For sustainability to be successful in more than a commercial sense, sustainability should become part of everything. It is no longer a department that sits off to one side doing things that only the board knows about. Sustainability must be embedded in every part of a company’s DNA. Otherwise it often is better just not to do anything!

In my model, I take my clients on a journey of discovery so they get to understand sustainability in the broadest sense, but also their own motivation and reasons why they are becoming involved. If it is only because of market demands, it is one thing. If it is to truly change the course of the company, it is a completely different kettle of fish.


Q: The second is “alignment,” in which the companies have to identify their stakeholders and how they can help create sustainability. Give me a few examples of who these stakeholders might be and what role they can play in these efforts. 

A: A stakeholder is any individual, organization or company that has a vested interest in your business and can potentially either affect or be affected by your business operations and performance. Typical stakeholders are investors, employees, customers, suppliers, communities, governments, or trade associations. Stakeholders can be both internal, and external to your company. So it covers a really wide arena!

Q: What would happen to these efforts if the companies don’t take their stakeholders into account? 

A: It is the age-old concept of 1+1=3. Working with your stakeholders can create outstanding benefits. Ignoring them leads to chaos and conflict.

Establishing Priorities

Q: Third is, “establishing priorities.” Obviously, each company will be different in their priorities, but what have you seen that works best? Which priorities lead to the greatest success? 

A: As I stated before, if a company places focus on those areas or items of sustainability over which they have direct control, and which are ‘close to their hearts’, it will fast-track success. Of course, identifying possibilities for collaborations within one’s stakeholders also creates opportunities for taking big steps.

From our own experience: at one stage we wanted to launch a new, sustainability-oriented brand. We took this opportunity to carton manufacturers, trucking companies, shipping companies etc. If we had done this project in isolation, it would have cost 35% more, and taken a year to complete.


Q: The next step is, “implementation,” where companies need to work with their employees to identify the actions that can lead them to sustainability, and be sensitive to their needs. How can companies make sure they are working in partnership with their employees and minimally disrupting their day-to-day work? What’s the best way to facilitate that communication? 

A: I am originally from South Africa. We have a process that we call ‘consultative dialogue’. This means that we take discussions from group to group and back again, until such time as we have found the right framework for our project or plan. I think the same process helps when implementing sustainability in a company. It is only by having many discussions that one finally reaches a point where all the boxes are ticked. Bear in mind that this is how to approach sustainability!

It certainly does not mean that this is the ‘alpha and omega’. My approach is very focused on achieving practical, effective, inspirational and collaborative sustainability. It will not work everywhere, but I have proven that it works really well in small and medium enterprises in which the owner wants to change the world.

Looking, Learning and Adapting

Q: Finally, there’s “looking, learning and adapting,” which looks to the future and how employees can create sustainability on their own. What are some ways you’ve seen them do this?

A: Well, firstly, sustainability must be a board room topic. Every time a formal meeting is held by the directors or the management team, sustainability must be part and parcel of the discussions. Decisions that must be taken should be measured in terms of the impact on sustainability.

Whoever is responsible for sustainability should regularly give an update to the staff detailing the progress that has been made. Publishing a colorful and inspiring newsletter that focuses only on sustainability creates even more momentum.

There should also be a focus on ‘looking outward’, i.e., drawing inspiration from other companies that are making inroads into sustainability.

Sustainability should not be something that ‘we do for ourselves’, but rather a process that brings together like-minded individuals and companies, even if they are competitors.


The issue of sustainability is an interesting one. There is no question it is catch word that appeals greatly to certain segments of the population, and also there is no question that many businesses have found the term and the movement the kind of thing with which they think it wise to align themselves.

Employees can be motivated and made to feel their employment is about more than just making money. They can be motivated by feeling there is a higher purpose in their work, and this is powerful.

Yet, despite there being countless courses, books and articles, it is not 100% clear what it means to commit to sustainability.

At its base, much of what is endorsed under sustainability is simply long-term thinking. So, if the lightbulbs in your warehouse use a lot of electricity, new, better bulbs that use less electricity may be more expensive in terms of initial installations costs but may save money over the lifetime of the bulb.

Offering the lowest wages and minimal benefits, just enough to allow you to staff your business, might be the wise short-term play. But, if this results in lots of turnover or hiring people of low quality people who can’t rise through the ranks, offering a better wage might increase short-term labor costs but increase long term profitability by reducing turnover — thus reducing recruitment costs, training costs and allowing people to gain greater expertise in their jobs and rise through the ranks.

The truth is the produce industry was great at environmental sustainability long before sustainability was cool. After all, keeping land rich and fertile is a requirement to maintain its value as farmland.

Sometimes sustainability gets sidelined because the financial condition of a company doesn’t allow for what might be the best long term option. In other words, if new bulbs for the warehouses cost $100,000, plus substantial installation costs and burn $100,000 a year in electricity — and will need to be replaced in a year — but sustainable light bulbs cost a million, will last 20 years and use only $50,000 a year in electricity, the financial calculation may well favor the million-dollar investment.

But… if you don’t have a million dollars, can’t borrow a million dollars, well that “solution” is not sustainable at all! You spend $100,000 and live to fight another day.

In the end, after years of studying this, it seems that sustainability is not actually a value choice. It makes no business or logical sense to be opposed to sustainability. It is just a practical matter. One issue, as mentioned above, is that because sustainability is about the long term, there are often short-term investments required, and not every company has the resources to do this.

The other issue, as Nic explains, is time:

Q: What stands in their way of achieving full sustainability? 

A: In fresh produce, definitely time. Our industry is always under pressure, and we do not always comprehend long-term issues. For many years, fresh produce has centered only around commercial issues (buying/selling/trading/solving problems). To become involved in sustainability, one has to free up time from the daily activities and try to comprehend the implications of one’s actions (or non-actions) on the future.

This is, I think, the heart of the issue. The important thing to understand, though, is that this is not about paying attention to some distraction from the business; it is the business! It is about maximizing profitability and return on investment by recognizing the true costs of things.

All too often, businesses are on automatic pilot… constantly replacing the light bulbs because that is what they have always done. For many businesses, long term profitability can be enhanced by having a person on staff or an outside consultant who is basically in charge of taking the business off automatic pilot. 

So decisions are not made just because “that is way we have always done it,” but are made because they offer the best returns.

One advantage of events such as The London Produce Show and Conference is that they give industry members an opportunity to delve into issues such as this. Sure, there is the buying and the selling… that is part of the event, but there is the “learning part” too — and this often presents the opportunity for greatest long term returns.

Come join us at ExCeL… network and learn and engage in issues such as how your organization should be dealing with issues around sustainability.

You can register for the event here.

There is still an opportunity to exhibit or sponsor, and you can tell us your interest here.

We look forward to seeing you at the “reunion edition” of The London Produce Show and Conference!

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