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Many ECG companies are innovative, show that it’s possible to operate differently, transform the system every day and enrich our world with their activities.
Who can judge what is “Best Practice”? The ECG companies’ business practices that are exemplified here are representative of many other good examples, that do exist.
This is why we call them “Good Practice”.
Creating value through appreciation
The Waldviertel in Lower Austria is part of the Bohemian Massif, a granite and gneiss highland with less fertile soils and a rugged and cool climate. Anyone who was born and grew up here, like Johannes Gutmann, the founder of SONNENTOR, knows that little grows here and that one must constantly defy the wind and soil erosion. But the Waldviertel is ideal for growing herbs. The slow growth is even an advantage for plants like herbs, whose aromatic and flavorsome qualities are released when you grind the leaves or crush the seeds. Johannes Gutmann recognized this and saw in it the chance to build a sustainable and beneficial livelihood in his home region.
In 1988, and unemployed, he founded SONNENTOR. Gutmann was able to forge an alliance with three organic farming families Kainz, Bauer and Zach as his first suppliers. “We started with peppermint, chamomile, nettle, cheese poplar, lemon balm, sage and six herbal tea blends. Each of the three farming families supplied two individual herbs and two mixtures. I was responsible for organization, transport and marketing. All of them could contribute to the success of the whole thing according to their talent and ability. For me, this was face to face cooperation. That’s how added value was created with appreciation,” Johannes Gutmann describes his beginnings in the Waldviertel.
While in 1988 there were only three Waldviertel organic farms, there are now 300 Austrian organic farming families, mainly from Lower Austria and Upper Austria as well as Burgenland, who supply SONNENTOR. They all receive a cultivation and supply contract in which the area under cultivation and the expected supply yield for the respective raw material are fixed. The pricing is always fair, the same for everyone and above the usual market price. In January the annual cultivation meeting takes place at the company’s location in Sprögnitz and partners come together to present current projects and share knowledge and experience.
Before the cultivation meeting, the cultivation planning is carried out together with SONNENTOR over the winter. Consideration is given to which organic farm can and wants to cultivate which plant best. SONNENTOR is in constant professional exchange with its suppliers throughout the season and visits farms providing advice and support. Regular audits are carried out by SONNENTOR employees on the organic farms. For example, harvest management and the handling of herbs are discussed together and the packaging rooms are checked for compliance with hygiene standards.
As a reaction to the decision of the EU Commission in November 2017 to allow the use of glyphosate for a further five years, Johannes Gutmann, together with farmers in the organic sector, launched the international campaign ‘Poisoned fields? – No thanks!’ and co-founded the Alliance for Regenerative Agriculture for Future Generations. Gutmann then took the initiative to Austria, where, together with the organic farmers of the SONNENTOR family, he set up his own association to promote an ‘Environment fit for Grandchildren’. Each of them gives a small part of their proceeds as a solidarity contribution, which enables the association to support individual organic farms if pesticide use in neighboring fields causes damage and quality defects in the fields.
Today, SONNENTOR is an international company that nevertheless receives a large part of its raw materials directly from small organic farms and implements the principle of fair and solidarity-based trading. In addition to Austria and neighboring countries Czech Republic, Germany and Italy, there are other growing areas in South-Eastern Europe and on the Iberian Peninsula. SONNENTOR is also involved in Africa (Tanzania) and South America (Peru and Nicaragua). There, too, the company cultivates long-term partnerships characterized by personal visits and relationships without intermediate trade, so-called direct trade and with guaranteed minimum prices. Organic farming methods and harvesting by hand also ensure that the added value remains on site, strengthening the natural conditions for long-term, fruitful harvests.
In cooperation with the Austrian Agency for Development Cooperation, an organic coffee project was launched in the mountains of Jinotega in Nicaragua in 2012. Agreed fixed prices guarantee coffee growers a predictable security that makes them independent of fluctuating world market prices. SONNENTOR only purchases Arabica beans from traditional shade cultivation. The cultivation of the coffee plants, under larger trees of natural vegetation, promotes biodiversity and ensures not only good harvests but also better protection against erosion and higher soil fertility.
Johannes Gutmann is convinced “that all of us in this world can feed ourselves sustainably and organically if we follow and respect natural life cycles.
The Round Table for Grain – cooperation, solidarity and transparency in the supply chain
Märkisches Landbrot is a bakery and mill based in Berlin, Germany. Its mill business is part of the Berlin-Brandenburg Mill Association and its bakery has been Demeter-certified (certified as bio-dynamic) since 1992. The mills produce 75% of the grain they process into whole meal grist and flour every day. This approach enables the bakery to purchase the grain directly from farmers, which means there is total transparency about the provenance of the grain in their supply chain.
Localization is key to their business: they try to source as much as possible from agricultural plants near their base in Brandenburg. If they need to go further afield for resources, in case of less than expected yield or quality, farms from Saxony and then the Demeter partner farm from Juchowo on the Polish border will be included. Only when the demand for grain from local farmers cannot be met will they seek replacements from outside their state.
The company keeps a close relationship with their suppliers. By visiting the farms, they source from annually, they are able to keep up to date on the strengths and challenges their suppliers have. One supplier, Heike Böthig from Gut Peetzig, agrees that this allows a ‘close and trusting relationship’, one which allows them to cooperate easily.
All of Märkisches Landbrot’s suppliers take part in what is known as a ‘Round Table for Grain’ every year. This forum allows bakers and farmers to discuss grain quality and harvest yields, and this affords a mutually beneficial working relationship. This forum is also open to all other Demeter bakeries, demonstrating their cooperative and democratic business practices at work.
In 2009, at that year’s Round Table, it was jointly decided that the businesses present would make themselves independent of world market prices for their grain. This decision was taken as they saw the ‘free market’ failing in its job to accurately decide the price for their products, and this in turn was letting down both the agricultural businesses but also the consumers, the bakeries. The framework they decided on was fixed prices for rye, wheat and spelt. These prices have ensured a fair income for the farms, but also affordable prices for raw materials available for the bakeries to purchase. These benefits are enjoyed by the final consumer: the stable prices mean more people can buy their high-quality product. In the absence of an effective ‘free market’, the Round Table forum has provided an equilibrium to the benefit of all stakeholders.
Since that pioneering decision in 2009, the farmers have cooperated in setting prices at the Round Table. If one party feels these prices are unworkable, the Round Table is convened and terms are renegotiated. This trust means that even if external factors (e.g. crop failures) affect the pricing equilibrium, all parties at the Round Table can negotiate to find a way forward. This relationship prioritizes binding cooperation; instead of short-term, one-sided profits, there are long-term benefits for all. A vote after each round of negotiations settles whether the agreed terms are fair, and if individual businesses (like Märkisches Landbrot) can use the logo, showing that they are a fair-trading regional partner.
On the Märkisches Landbrot website you can read a summary of the negotiations, as well as the fixed prices each year. This gives consumers an insight into how their supply of bread is connected to the region’s agriculture, something so easily taken for granted. This information also shows consumers the existential influences on these local farms, from the wages they pay the workers, the increase in lease payments, and the changing environment, such as recent periods of drought. Consumers can understand that these fair-trading methods are vital for the continuation of sustainable farming methods. As a vindication of these policies, the traditional, site-appropriate rye-varieties from these Demeter farms are favored by attendees at the Round Table for Grain.
The pricing equilibrium guaranteed at the Round Table not only means the farms and farmers are secure to work well and live comfortably, but also means Märkisches Landbrot secures the highest grain qualities on the market. It also ensures an extraordinary security of supply when buying grain. With the transparency in its pricing policy, Märkisches Landbrot wants to contribute to the sustainable development of biodynamic agriculture.
Many of the farmers supplying Märkisches Landbrot have co-signed the fair & regional charter. In the meantime, the initiative has become known beyond regional borders and is considered a model for sustainable management. Heike Böthig from Gut Peetzig is on the board of the Märkische Wirtschaftverbund, and said:
‘My wish is that the open, friendly and honest relationship that exists between us and Märkisches Landbrot will also find its way into other value chains. And we are on a good path. More and more ‘round tables’ are being set up where farmers, milliners and producers can meet to discuss their supply relationships and reasonable prices in a transparent and increasingly trusting manner.’
Such is the success of the Round Table model, in Saxony, an initiative based on the one in Brandenburg has already been launched.
A hairdressing industry that’s healthy for all
Willi Luger, an experienced hairdresser, is quietly working to combat a huge problem in the hairdressing industry: that up to a third of hairdressers suffer from occupational skin conditions, due to harsh chemicals in use.
At the outset of his career, Luger trained at leading producers of hair-care products, gaining insight into the industry and its practices. However, he had known colleagues who had sadly experienced ‘hairdressing eczema’ during their apprenticeships and training, stemming from the products they were using. Luger realized something had to change. He began to search and campaign for cosmetic products that didn’t risk the health of his colleagues and customers.
Turning to chemists, therapists and alternative doctors, Luger’s knowledge of the cosmetics industry grew and crucially, so too did his ability to provide an alternative. 25 years after he started his career, Luger founded CulumNATURA and began the in-house production of skin and hair products that prioritize human wellbeing.
“The beginnings were anything but easy”, Luger says today. “For many years I manufactured my products myself, in difficult circumstances financially. I lived and worked from the salon.”
In the beginning, Willi Luger drove around hairdressers and salon operators, personally representing his organic-certified cosmetics. He trained employees of salons who used his products on site.
Today CulumNATURA supplies 1,000 natural hairdressers in Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Italy, Poland, France and Luxembourg. Meanwhile, the share of sales of organic-certified cosmetics in these salons account for up to a quarter of the turnover. This strengthens the economic fortunes of the many small salons that sell the cosmetics on their own, a cause at the heart of Luger’s ethos. From the very outset Luger was certain that he would not give in to the unfair buying power of large firms by offering discounts on bulk orders, even if he urgently needed the revenue.
“My experience as a self-employed person has shaped me”, Luger explains. “I have seen that bulk buyers get goods at the lowest price, while small buyers pay high prices, and thus have to subsidize the low price. That doesn’t happen here. At CulumNATURA everyone pays the same amount.”
Larger salons, retail chains and pharmacies, who wave big orders but demand discounts, are turned down by Luger. The products are not available to purchase online, or directly from the factory. Luger remains steadfast in his commitment to supporting independent hairdressers – their economic health, but also the wellbeing of staff – by allowing only them to sell his products.
In addition, CulumNATURA has been ahead of the curve in its advocacy for the transparency of ingredients. For a long time, there was no legal obligation to list ingredients in cosmetics. It is only since 1997 that there has been an international labelling obligation, the International Nomenclature of Cosmetic Ingredients (INCI). However, Willi Luger is still not satisfied with the regulations of the INCI. He lists the ingredients of his products in the local language in addition to the INCI standard on all of the packaging.
Luger has also set himself some other goals: the recognition of the “natural hairdresser” as a standalone teaching profession by the responsible authority. There is no official specialization as a “natural hairdresser” yet, but at the Landesberufsschule Geras in Lower Austria, a specialized training salon in the natural hairdressing trade has been established. The vocational school students can opt to take an additional exam.
“The interest among the trainees is great”, says Luger. “At the beginning there were only a few participants, but today whole classes come.” In addition, CulumNATURA has founded its own academy, where 25 lecturers currently teach a comprehensive course program. There are over 750 applicants every year.
In this unique way, the human need of wellbeing of hairdressers and their clients, are at the forefront of CulumNATURA’s business model. The company supports the economic survival of independent hairdressers while ensuring all stakeholders’ health is protected. According to the insurance company General Accident, roughly 30% of hairdressers are affected by occupational skin conditions. CulumNATURA is helping to combat this endemic problem in the industry by promoting a healthy alternative for the Common Good. The results speak for themselves: there have been no incidents of hairdressers who exclusively use CulumNATURA products suffering from occupational skin conditions.
The pearl bottle – limiting growth and respecting planetary boundaries
Randegger Ottilienquelle was first mentioned in 1816 as a pure health giving water in the Grand Duchy of Baden. In 1892 Georg Fleischmann acquired the spring as well as the associated spa hotel. Around the turn of the 19th century, a glass bottle was introduced, which replaced the clay jugs that had been common until then.
Randegger is now in its fourth generation of family ownership, and has been a leading exponent of collaboration in marketing and product development for half a century.
In 2019, the company, along with other co-operative German mineral water wells, celebrated the 50th anniversary of the introduction of the so-called “pearl bottle”. This has since become Europe’s largest reusable bottling system.
In 1969, the mineral water industry was looking for a sustainable packaging strategy. 200 mineral water companies joined forces to create a new standard fountain bottle with the aim of saving packaging material. Designers, glass makers and customers were involved in the design and the now familiar bottle shape with a slim waist and 230 beads dis-tributed around the body was created. The “pearl bottle” is still used today to identify and distinguish pure mineral water from other waters and has become an exemplary reusable system that is still unparalleled throughout Europe.
Uniformity also benefits bottlers, who have since limited themselves to branding their products purely by labels. Customers and the planet also benefit in that they can hand in their empty bottles for reuse all over Germany. Glass is the only material in the world that can be recycled infinitely.
In 2019, the pearl bottle received the German Design Award, Germany’s most prestigious design prize. Thus signaling a challenge for other consumable producers to save costs and materials by adopting sector wide sustainable and reusable packaging.
Since 2017, Clemens Fleischmann, the managing director of Randegger Mineralquelle, has also been the national managing director of the Stiftung Initiative Mehrweg (Reusable Initiative Foundation). This aims to strengthen reusable packaging and curb the increasing consumption of disposable materials. The legally required minimum reusable packaging quota was 80 percent when it was introduced in 2003, but today it is only about 43 percent.
Although Randegger has added water capacity through new wells, the company is deliberately limiting its growth and supply to the region it already serves – customers are only supplied within a radius of 50 to 60 kilometres. This not only strengthens regional economic subsidiarity, but also saves valuable resources and CO2. To maintain the high quali-ty of the water, meadows have been purchased in the catchment area of the spring, on which no fertilizers or pesticides are applied. The meadows are leased exclusively to local farmers who mow the grass twice a year and feed it to their animals.
Randegger is focussing on the purity of its products, and challenges all commercial producers to resist growth at any cost.
Stay tuned – more Good Practice examples follow shortly!