News that Sainsbury and Cadbury are moving away from the Fairtrade mark “threatens to bring Fairtrade crashing down,” according to a recent Guardian headline. Brad Hill, Fairtrade Strategy Manager at the Co-op, who’s been fighting our Fairtrade corner since 1998, is certainly not ready to give up. In fact, he tells Rachel Machin that our Co-op is ready to do even more to support producers.

“Fairtrade is facing huge challenges,” admits Brad. “We need to work harder to convince people that Fairtrade is the right way. We need to be braver. I believe we can be the champions of Fairtrade again,” he says defiantly.

A looming Brexit, where potential new trade deals could leave producers high and dry, has left the man known as ‘Mr Fairtrade’ in our Co-op with a lot on his mind.

But he has some positive news.

“We’re thinking carefully about the future because of recent announcements, but the next 12 months will see us continue our path. We’ll remain focused on our core Fairtrade products which make up about 85% of sales: bananas, tea, coffee, sugar, cocoa, flowers, wine.

“By next May our ambition is that the four biggest food categories will be Fairtrade in all ingredients,” he says proudly.

Clear evidence that #TheCoopWay really is a different way of doing business.

Brad in Columbia

Brad harvesting coffee cherries at Aguadas, Colombia

Brad’s reason for being

He’s worked tirelessly for two decades to influence the decisions made in our business about Fairtrade – keeping its light shining even when others wanted to switch it off in the dark times – particularly during the crisis.

“It’s been a massive rollercoaster but we’re back to being our best,” smiles Brad. “Right now the business model is aligned to Fairtrade but there’s still a massive element of championing needed, especially given the current situation,” he admits.

“While historically I’ve had to prove the commercial case for Fairtrade, that battle is won and I’m now confident to stand up and say that I represent the producers in all of this. 

“I feel a real sense of responsibility for speaking out for them. I’ve fought tooth and nail on many products because if we ditch them, it’s the people we’re going to leave behind,” he stresses.

“There’s a great deal of responsibility that sits with me on their behalf. If I don’t speak out for them, nobody else will.”

The people behind the products

Take a closer look at a box of Co-op 99 Fairtrade tea and you’ll see a photo of a smiling lady called Betty standing in the middle of a tea plantation in Kenya. That photo was taken by Brad on one of his many missions to meet the producers behind the products we sell in our stores.

“Every single product has a person behind it,” says Brad passionately. “I can’t look at a box of 99 tea without thinking about my visit to Betty.”

This won’t be the first time Brad talks about the people behind the products as I travel round the world with him (in my imagination!) through Namibia, Ghana, Panama, Kenya, Malawi, and more recently, Cote D’Ivoire where he’s just come back from meeting the producers behind the cocoa in some of our chocolate bars.

Brad was the guest of honour at the opening of a women’s empowerment project which will transform the lives of local women – all thanks to Co-op. This is the kind of story that brings Fairtrade to life and Brad has suitcases full of them.

 Brad’s Fairtrade first

I’m quite surprised to find that Mr Fairtrade wasn’t always a believer. “It was quite an ironic journey for me,” laughs Brad, who started with Co-op 36 years ago straight from school at 16 years old in our then travel business.

After moving to an admin role in Buying (and going to night school to get his marketing qualifications) he pursued his dream of becoming a product manager.

And was nearly thwarted when the people running the graduate trainee programme tried to convince him he wasn’t a people person and should be an accountant.

Thankfully they failed and he ended up as a graduate trainee in Co-op’s biscuit manufacturing business. “That was a really strong learning curve for me – if you empower people and give them responsibility, you get the best out of them. That’s been the basis of my career,” he says.

Brad planting his own cocoa tree in Ghana at Kuapa Kokoo

Brad planting his own cocoa tree in Ghana at Kuapa Kokoo

For a man who wasn’t convinced by Fairtrade, he’s come along way. “I started with the question of: it doesn’t sell, why are we doing this?

“But after that it was a rapid realisation of how powerful it was. For very little investment it changes lives.

“The real spark came on my first Fairtrade visit to Ghana in 2003. Cocoa bushes were everywhere and we were driving for hours down this red, dusty road.

“We parked up at this stainless steel water pump that just stuck out against the picturesque backdrop. There was a guy there drawing water and he said: ‘This is Fairtrade funded’. I said ‘That’s why I’m here. We buy cocoa from here and sell chocolate bars in our stores in the UK’. He looked at me and said: ‘This is because of you’. And I just thought: ‘Oh my god’.

“In that moment it all made sense and the realisation that we had changed lives in rural Ghana from an office in Manchester meant I had a new long term vision. Simply to do more,” he says.

“We need to keep repeating these great stories and finding new ones. Without awareness, nothing happens.

“I’d like to see in a year’s time all our stores emblazoned with images of people whose lives we’ve changed.”

Quick-fire questions

Favourite Co-op own brand product: 99 tea – for sentimental reasons as I don’t usually drink tea.

In three words, Co-op culture you’d like to see: Empowering. Brave. Passionate.

Top priority in the next couple of years: To help protect Fairtrade farmers through the current difficult climate and then getting their faces and stories in front of our customers and members.

One bit of advice you’d give to fellow leaders: Giving people the opportunity to grow through making mistakes.

Most difficult moment: The realisation that the crisis was going to effectively halt all the good work we were doing. Persuading some of the new high level people that 15 years of work was actually the right direction.

Proudest moment: Every day.

Three words that best describe you: Passionate. Empowering. Honest.

Happiness is: Family and friends, travelling.

Personal ambitions: To see my three sons healthy, settled and happy in their very different paths in life. Play piano and learn Spanish.