Recognizing Leaders: Harriet Lamb, Fairtrade International

Harriet Lamb has been the CEO of Fairtrade International since 2012. As Executive Director in 2001-12, Harriet guided the Fairtrade Foundation through a period of staggering growth, with estimated sales of Fairtrade products in the UK growing from £30m to £1.3bn.
GlobeScan Director Caroline Holme recently interviewed Harriet to gain insight on the value Fairtrade puts on stakeholder intelligence to help build recognized leadership in an uncertain world.

Fairtrade is different from our non-profit and corporate clients in that you sit at the intersection of these. What’s your perspective on how these two worlds are changing?

We’ve been bridging the NGO and the business worlds for 25 years, and what’s interesting is they are trying to sit down together more and more. We see more NGOs putting on suits while the corporate world is taking them off!

How do you see leadership evolving in the future?

My vision for the NGO world is that there will be a dramatic shift in leadership.  Women from Africa, Asia and Latin America will be leading the debate.  Sitting in the outer tier would be their wings from London, Canberra, Montreal or New York, listening to what our partners in the South want us to do.

How will that affect leadership style?

Leadership will need to be much more inclusive. You have to involve people much more. Just recently I put out a tweet asking for ideas for our next strategy. Within minutes a school who had spent three hours debating it sent me all their ideas! It was fantastic – a shopping list of what we should have in our strategy. And I thought, I wish everyone else was as responsive. This is a good example of how it will be different in the coming years – I’m not just going to sit here, talking to the people I know and only we set the strategy. Today we can open it up and listen to everybody. I do think that way of working will become more important in the future.

So giving a voice to those who are interested and want to be heard?

Absolutely. I think in our case it’s really trying to listen to our partners in the South. Listening to what the farmers have to say and trying to understand what they want. What do the workers think?  You have to find all the different channels for people to feed in. That’s really the challenge for NGOs – are they listening enough to what the people they work with are saying?

At GlobeScan, we are seeing growing evidence of “a new era of engagement in CR” from the corporate world. Do you think we’re on that cusp?

I do. On the one hand, some things are going terribly wrong. Just think of events like Rana Plaza – to think that in 2013, in an incredibly wealthy world, you can have a disaster like that. The whole system is geared to driving down prices ruthlessly – as if price was the only thing that mattered.
In most commodities, you’ve got an ever-increasing concentration in the middle of what we call the ‘hourglass economy’. At one end you have 7 billion consumers, at the other 2.5 billion small farmers and workers.  But in between, just five traders account for 65% of all bananas sold, five branded manufacturers control 50% of the cocoa market and five roasters account for 45% of the coffee market. There is this unbelievable concentration of power in the middle of this hourglass.
So on the one hand, things are getting worse in terms of driving down prices, which affects working conditions. There is a sense among some corporates that they have the license to do what they like.
On the other hand, I would accept that there is a transformation and a real shift going on. We’ve seen it in our time at Fairtrade. When we started there wasn’t anyone working on sustainability – if you were lucky it was PR plus HR equals CSR. And it was really all about giving to charity. That has transformed to a situation today where all the major brands are aware of, and engaging on, sustainability issues and I think they’re engaging on them pretty seriously. I don’t think it’s just PR or greenwashing.
A place where there’s been a startling transformation is cocoa, which has been partly driven by consumer demand and partly because no one is actually going to be growing the cocoa if something isn’t done. All credit to the industry in coming together behind one plan – the Cocoa Action Plan (CAP). They are investing substantial amounts in West Africa, and telling the traders that this is pretty much non-negotiable.

How can these collaborations and partnerships become more effective?

What’s good about something like CAP is that they have involved the government. But we need to ask where is the seat of the farmer at the table? Where’s the voice of the farmer or the workers?
It’s really important that the corporates are coming together, but there is a counter argument that this is an extraordinary concentration of power that is pretty much unstoppable. There’s still an issue with not having governments involved and not having enough smallholder farmers and workers at the table, and they need to work doubly hard to ensure this happens.

I was reading about a coalition for climate-friendly refrigeration units – a business-led coalition of soft drinks suppliers and other companies who have organizations like UNEP and Greenpeace at the table with them.

Yes exactly. Collaboration is the right way to go. But it’s got to be balanced out. What’s happening now is that you’ve got people talking and then they remember the NGOs. So they call them and ask if they want to be part of the plan. It needs to be a bit more fundamental than that – you’ve got to have all stakeholders involved right from the start, helping you co-create and work on it. And some companies are very good at that – they are really serious partners, seriously challenging us and we’re challenging them.

Can you give some examples of who the really serious partners are?

Two examples are Mars and Sainsbury’s. We can have a robust debate with them, try to solve problems and work out solutions together. They are both really good partners.

In the other interviews with thought leaders we’ve talked about a fast-changing environment and increasingly complex stakeholder networks – to me, the Fairtrade stakeholder eco-system seems particularly complex. How do you deal with this?

I think we have a lot of learning and a lot to share about how to work together and find solutions together. Obviously for us, it helps that we are united around a common vision and passion. We have a vision of things being different and a passion to get there.
But it is a constant negotiation of interest to make sure the voice of the farmer comes out loud and clear, because the voice of the consumer in the North is obviously very loud. And you can always hear that voice the loudest. However if we had to choose, then we would always choose the producer voice first.

Looking to the future, from our recent research with Fairtrade Foundation, we know that young people (Generation Fairtrade) are ready to be involved. What do you think that group of future leaders will bring to the next 20 years of Fairtrade?

I feel incredibly hopeful that we have these young leaders coming through who are as committed and passionate as the current leadership. So that’s wonderful.
The other part of the puzzle is to make sure we are investing in the young leaders among the farmers and workers. They have less opportunity than our young people with leadership courses. Our schools have got really good at building young people’s confidence and speaking abilities. But of course you get much less opportunity to do this if you are battling against climate change in the mountains of Uganda. So it’s making sure we give those kinds of opportunities to the next generation of young people throughout the world.