Thursday, September 11, 2008

relational trade [part 2]: Level Ground Trading

Studying some marketplace theology at Regent College, I have been reflecting on my experience of working in the business world and looking to find examples of businesses that are run by Christian people, who don’t follow the pervasive rules of strict profit-maximisation that the capitalist market economy demands, seeking instead to run their businesses by different rules, with multiple bottom-lines, perhaps even going as far as God’s Kingdom rule here on Earth. During summer school, I met Hugo Ciro [read part 1], a founder and the CEO of Level Ground Trading, a business leader and a business with which that I am deeply impressed.

Being involved in the fair trade movement, seeking to bring economic justice and opportunity to small-scale producers of coffee, cane sugar and dried fruit is impressive in itself. Hugo’s company however seems to take the ‘fair trade’ concept far beyond a simplistic definition, and thread the ‘fair trade’ ethos throughout the whole of Level Ground’s business activities and relationships. Here’s how they do it:
  • Fair trade & relationships with producers – there are established minimum premiums that are paid to producers in order to be certified as a ‘Fair Trade Company’. However, instead of meeting the minimum, Level Ground seeks to know their producers personally, and thus their producers' needs and circumstances. As a result, they frequently pay in excess of the minimum requirements, to ensure a fair deal is negotiated.
  • Level Ground goes beyond the traditional B2B supplier relationships, by donating time, money, and expertise to enable its supply partners to produce more efficiently and develop communities, thereby supporting farmers who are seeking to experiment and farm using sustainable techniques, like an organic farmer who uses “a bio-digestor that converts his compost and manure into usable cooking fuel.”
  • Level Ground seeks to be actively open and accountable to their stakeholders, including customers, by making information about "what the farmer gets" available online, and be audited to prove it.
  • Fair trade & relationships with the environment: through composting, twelve recycling streams and smart purchasing decisions, Level Ground only trash one shopping bag of waste each week – a growing medium sized business achieves a feat that would be impressive for a small household! Plus, they try to be aware of where they are failing, be open about it with their customers and seek solutions.
  • Hugo arrived at Regent College, coming from Vancouver Island not in the company car, but on his recumbent bike (see similar bike). Level Ground also support their staff who are seeking to make environmentally friendly decisions that are connected to their work: “On an on-going basis, staff who regularly cycle, bus or carpool to work are paid a monthly green transportation bonus.”
  • Hugo’s business card was “Printed on 100% post-consumer paper”.
  • Fair trade & relationships with employees – They try to recognise that employees have different motivations and commitments outside of the workplace and seek to be flexible to accommodate these needs to achieve an effective, rather than just talked about, work/life balance. In-turn, Level Ground has been recognised by the provincial government with a WorkLife award.

    To me, this model of business is remarkable in how the ‘fair trade’ concept is permeating all facets of Level Ground Trading’s business, or in Level Ground's words:
    “Level Ground Trading envisions a world wherein lifestyles are simpler, relationships are deeper and justice is inherent in each exchange. We remain focused on Direct Fair Trade through dialogue with producers, payment of a fair price, respect for the environment and transparency in the marketplace.”
    In class discussion, Hugo told us of interactions with other sellers in the coffee industry, who could not comprehend why Level Ground would not want to maximise their profits by paying the premiums they do. Hugo then challenged us to re-think our business relationships, ensuring that they were fair. The ongoing success, growth and profitability of Level Ground Trading gives me hope that seeking fair trade relationships in all aspects of marketplace exchange is viable, and much of the exploitation, injustice and dehumanising tendencies of our global economy can be overcome, if we have the will to pursue fair trade relationships.

    I am thinking about making a ‘field-trip’ to Level Ground Trading's HQ on Vancouver Island; I think taking my bike on the ferry would be the appropriate way to travel, and I will take my empty coffee bags with me, so that Level Ground can turn them into energy (as they aren’t yet recyclable). I want (or need) to ask Hugo about what is the primary motivation behind his company:
    • Is it that Hugo is a Columbian-Canadian, who knew first-hand of unjust trade relationships in Columbia?
    • Is it a shared Christian faith among Level Ground’s founders that drives them to seek shalom in this world?
      Are they seeking to live out Micah’s challenge ‘to act justly’?
      Are they seeking to be aligned with Jesus, as he read from Isaiah’s scroll ‘to release the (economically) oppressed’?
    • Or something else?
    I would like to ask Level Ground’s Canadian based employees…
    • If they feel like their work is more fulfilling and rewarding because they work for this fair trade company?
    • How so they think fair trade relationships could be encouraged and implemented in other business?
    Over to my readers: please post a comment…
    • Are you impressed with Level Ground Trading?
    • What else do you think I should ask Hugo and the Level Ground staff?
    • Do you value fair trade relationships enough to sacrifice a ‘maximum profit’?
    • What do you think Jesus would say about the need, or lack of it, to pursue fair trade relationships?
    • Do you know of any other businesses that adopt Kingdom of God ethics to their relationships in the marketplace?
[part 1] / [part 2] / [part 3] / [part 4]

Wondering what the Mosers are up to?

Monday, September 08, 2008

Whistler Summer

The last week has been hectic - long days and late nights getting summer school assignments finished, so I haven't yet had a chance to write my follow-up post on why I am impressed with Level Ground Trading. Having worked hard all week, we thought we'd enjoy a few days of Whistler in the summer-time before we start classes again today.
I spent a ski season in Whistler in 2002, but after three days of mountain biking through the valley and hiking in the alpine, I feel like I have discovered so much more of this spectacular place than I got a chance to experience in the winter. There are endless mountain bike trails, both paved and off-road with skier type difficulty ratings (Green, Blue & Black), which wind you along streams, golf courses, railway tracks and to beautiful lakes, parks and vistas throughout the valley. We spotted a HUGE black bear from Green Lake lookout, wandering through the 'Golden Bear's' Nicholas North Golf Course.
Hiking the High Note trail (see map) from the top of the Peak chair through the alpine and meadows on-top of Whistler mountain was incredible! Wildflowers were abundant, views of the 'Black Tusk' and Cheakamus Lake superb, and finding a posing Hoary Marmot a real treat!
After an energetic few days of hiking and biking in spectacular Whistler, we are now feeling ready to start the Fall semester at Regent College...

[more pics of our time at Whistler @]

Thank you to the various 'sponsors' that helped make this trip possible: H. Ross (Truck loan), Sung-Ock (Hostel $), Pinpoint (Universal Gift Card for food), UBC Lodge (Cheap beds for Regent students), Intrawest (Free tickets to the Peak).