Unsatisfied by the production of conventional beverages, in 2008 a group of three friends set out to challenge the drinks industry. Germany’s popular Fairtrade brands Lemonaid and ChariTea have recently hit the shelves in the UK and this is their story.
The vast array of choice on a supermarket’s colourful soft drink aisle is often associated with overly sweet, sugary beverages produced by one or two major multinational corporations. Whilst artificial sweeteners and ‘natural’ flavours may be available, the choice of both organic and Fairtrade alternatives has been somewhat limited.
Without knowing much about the beverage industry, the concept of the Lemonaid & ChariTea project came alive in 2008. All we knew was that we wanted to create a drink as simple as home-made, containing only ethically grown, organic ingredients. The appealing idea of building a company as a social enterprise, rather than for the sake of profit alone was crucial to us, but is quite an unusual setup for a new business in Germany. Setting up a non-profit charity that ran parallel to the business (which receives five cents from every bottle sold) gave us a sense of freedom when deciding where proceeds would be spent. Rather than just creating goods with the mere goal of consumption, Lemonaid and ChariTea makes a difference to other people’s lives.
Whilst producing a tasteful lemonade from real fruit and brewing iced tea from loose leaf seems like an easy job to do, production and bottling proved to be a real challenge. It was difficult to find a bottling plant that was willing to work with fresh juices and real tea. Over the course of six months, Lemonaid faced rejection from more than a hundred beverage bottling companies who all laughed at the idea of working with natural ingredients. Fruit and tea leaves were merely seen as disturbances in a highly automatized and sterile manufacturing process which generally relies on industrial syrups.
Besides the obvious lack of quality and taste, the real downside of using a syrup over fresh juice, was the missing transparency in regards to the origin of the ingredients used. Our aim was always to source ingredients straight from the farmers, particularly in regions of the world which global economic development has placed communities at a significant disadvantage. Travelling to rural areas of Sri Lanka, Paraguay and South Africa enabled us to find the fresh, organic produce we were looking for first-hand, on small farmer co-operatives and plantations. From limes and passionfruits to rooibos tea and agave nectar, the people behind them were known and paid a fair price – under Fairtrade guidance and standards.
Giving up on the use of pesticides, for instance, resulted in a significant drop of skin and lung infections, tea farmers in Assam, India, who had converted to organic farming, told me. And whilst Fairtrade is seen by many primarily as a system of paying higher wages to the farmers, I was impressed to see that establishing democratic structures within the workforce often led to fundamental changes in the workers’ self-esteem and, in consequence, their role within their community. On many plantations, where workers have merely been regarded as means of production for generations, individuals now talk at eye level with the landowner about their needs and demands – and realise that they have a voice that can be heard.
In 2009, we eventually found a small family-run company that was willing to take over the role of bottling our beverages, made only from fresh, natural ingredients. They also believed in our mission and have since grown with us as a partner from the start. We never compromised on quality or our ethical standards and have been able to raise more than £560,000 for our charity’s projects in the farming regions to date.
It is my conviction that companies, no matter the industry or size, have a responsibility for their workers and the environment that stretches till the very end of their supply chain and must not be excused by the complexity of globalisation or the dogmas of industrialised production methods that sacrifice quality for quantity. The Lemonaid and ChariTea project has always been about taking a leading example of doing business differently and taking stakeholders into account. At the end, we do not only want to quench people’s thirst, but also hope to inspire other businesses to set out finding more ethical and sustainable ways of being successful.