Stories of positive change – an interview with Fairfood’s new director Sander de Jong

27 September 2016

Sander de Jong became the new director of Fairfood in September 2016. He obtained a degree in Business Administration, before initially working in marketing and consulting. However, he later harnessed this commercial expertise to move into the world of entrepreneurial start-ups focusing on social and environmental issues. In 2012, for example, he co-founded the Dutch Weed Burger, a company selling a sustainable plant-based alternative to the hamburger. In this interview with Richard Glass, he talks about the need to inspire consumers and companies with stories of positive change, his plans for Fairfood and how he would change our unsustainable food system.

Could you tell me a little about your background?

That story goes back to when I was a child living on a farm in the north of Friesland. I grew up among animals; we had chickens, horses and even 2 squirrels. At the age of 6, I decided to become a vegetarian. When I grew older, I realised that was the right choice. I was already conscious at that age of my actions, in that case towards animals. More generally, I am very aware of my personal actions in relation to my environment and the planet we live on. I studied Business and I entered the advertising, marketing and consulting industry. The more I learned there, the more I thought that I could use that knowledge for my personal ideal, which is helping to create a better world. So, that’s what I tried to do: use the knowledge I gained from advertising, consultancy and marketing, and working as a start-up entrepreneur, to create a better world. Once I started to do that with the Dutch Weed Burger, the floodgates opened. I had found my mission. It’s all about making an impact. Trying to reach people with a positive story of change. The Dutch Weed Burger is an example of a positive story of change; how you can help, for example, by eating a hamburger made out of seaweed and soy.

So how does the Weedburger do that? By rejecting intensive farming and meat consumption?

In essence, it was about the huge issues we face with our meat consumption and the meat industry: the ethical issues, the social issues and the animal welfare issues. It’s also about the ecological issues, as almost 20% of our worldwide CO2 emissions come from the meat industry. So, we can actually make a huge impact by changing our food habits and out diets. But, instead of saying you should not eat meat, you can also say ‘Why don’t you try something else?’ What we did was to open a new door, a door that wasn’t there yet. We showed the public that they could actually be part of a positive change. The idea was not to tell people what they shouldn’t do, but tell them what they should do instead.

But there seem to be new hip burger bars popping up every week. Will consumers ever change their eating patterns willingly or will the government have to intervene?

I believe in the power of people. I also believe in the supportive powers of governments. But in essence, it should come from the behaviour of people. I feel as consumers, we are still very much an untapped resource in terms of pushing positive change. What you see with the Dutch Weed Burger, for example, is that people actually like it and buy it, even people who are a bit more cynical. They don’t see it as a substitute, but just as something different. So, we just placed something positive next to the negative, if you will. That helps and that works.

Obviously, it would also help if the government would be willing to stop the subsidies on dairy, meat and agriculture in general. There are defects in our food system on multiple levels: subsidies, the purchasing power of a few corporations and the lack of transparency. So, there are a lot of levels where we have to intervene and find a way to stop those forces and transform it into something positive.

A lot of people in our previous interviews have said that the current food system is unsustainable. Do you agree with that? And how do we change that? Do we need to buy local? Do we need to sacrifice certain comforts?

I think it all starts with awareness and care. What I see around me is that people don’t care for food anymore. We are so used to having food as soon as we want it. We treat it as something that is of little value to us. If you know a little more about the food, you will probably care about the food and then you will start to appreciate it much more, and then you will be willing to change your behaviour and habits. There’s a lack of awareness, and even if people do know about it they say ‘Yeah, but what can I do about it?’ A lot can be done to inspire people to act.

You have advocated an ‘inclusive economy in which people live and work in dignity’ and there is ‘social and economic value for all’. How can economic value for large corporations, for example, not be at the expense of workers lower down in the chain and the environment?

Almost 1.5 billion people work in the agri-food sector. If we can give these people a proper income that will affect almost half of the world’s population. Fairfood is trying to raise the awareness of the inequality in the food system, and the exploitation of people and the environment at the other end of the food chain. By raising that awareness, showing people how they can be part of the change and showing companies how they can change their buying habits, for example through initiatives like the IMVO covenant for sustainable food, we will find coalitions of the willing and work together to find practices. We will learn how to reinvent the value chains, because we have to reinvent them. There is no choice.

What are your main goals for Fairfood and what is your added value as director?

I believe that Fairfood has a great legacy and has done great work here and in the countries where the issues are greatest. I have background in business and marketing, starting and growing social enterprises, but also helping companies and NGOs transform their businesses in order to make more impact. I hope I can contribute to that and strengthen the Fairfood cause every year, so more people are connected and more people know about food and the true story behind their food. I want more people to be part of that positive change and help create a sustainable, fair food system.

You have talked in your video about wanting to harness the power of the consumer. There are already obviously consumer movements like Foodwatch, the Consumentenbond and Question Mark. What do you plan to do differently?

I think there are a lot of allies in the field. One of the areas where I see much potential is working together. What Fairfood can contribute is being the voice of the unheard and the face of those who are hidden. We can tell the untold stories of the workers and farmers in the middle and low-income countries.

So what do you want consumers to do?

We need to engage people and connect them with the food. But we don’t want to point a finger. We actually want to say ‘Hey, do you actually know what is going on and that you can actually do something about it?’ So, we’re thinking about starting an eerlijke supermarket wijzer (fair supermarket indicator): an app on your phone that explains how fair and sustainable your supermarket is, and which offers advice on what products to buy.

We also want to be a platform for storytelling and to showcase best practices. There are a lot of companies that are already doing very good. There’s the Fair Trade initiative and other companies like Tony Chocolonely and Moyee coffee. There are many of these examples of best practices; companies that are willing to be part of change and are trying to find new ways of innovating their supply chains. So we also want to push that.

Which figures or companies in the food system inspire you or provide an example in your opinion?

A great example if Tony Chocolonely, a company that is relatively young. Last year, they celebrated their 10th anniversary. Within 10 years they have grown to be the second biggest chocolate maker in the Netherlands. That’s a huge success story. That is based on the fighting the unfairness in the chocolate sector and fighting slavery. They combine it with great consumer marketing and branding. What they do is use the tactics and strategies from the corporates and top brands for the better good.

Could other NGOs do with using the entrepreneurial marketing skills of these kinds of companies?

There’s a lot to learn from them yes. I hope the NGO sector can reinvent itself and innovate its business model. What surprises me is that commerce often leaves a bad taste in people’s mouths, while commerce can actually be part of the solution. People have to eat, and they have to buy. But let’s make good food that is fair and sustainable, so that our children can live without exploitation of our environment and our resources. Ultimately, we have to fight to for the lives of the unborn. We are not passing our planet on; we are borrowing it from the unborn. We have to be more considerate because our children’s lives are at stake.