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Ethical online retail: a Q&A with CERES Fair Food

Running an ethical company can seem like a little too much investment of time and money, but an ethical business model isn’t just easy to implement, it can boost staff innovation and your bottom line. We get the low-down from Chris Ennis, General Manager of Melbourne’s ethical organic food delivery service, CERES Fair Food.

Eating organic, fresh, locally sourced fruit and vegetables that have been delivered to your door, saving you that dreaded trip to the supermarket – what could be better? As if that wasn’t enough, when you order from CERES Fair Food – which works out of Melbourne’s beloved CERES Community Environment Park in Brunswick – you’re supporting the employment of asylum seekers and a not-for-profit organisation that funnels its profits into educating our youngsters about the environment. Need more information about how to buy from or run such an ethical organisation? Read on.

How long has CERES Fair Food been in operation and how did it come about?

We had a little food co-op just at CERES and then people around the neighbourhood starting finding out about it and asked if we could supply their street or their group of friends. It grew from there and about six years ago we decided to turn it into something bigger. We got a website made up and started employing a bunch of people to help us.

How many staff and volunteers are involved in getting CERES veggies from the farm to our door?

At the warehouse we have about 38 employees full time and 70 volunteer food hosts who just provide their front porch for food to be dropped off to.

Does all your food come from CERES or local farmers, too?

Less than five per cent comes from CERES. The rest comes from 60 organic farmers and grocery makers as well as some wholesale suppliers. Our buying policy is to choose closest first. We choose Victorian produce whenever we can, so for example we’d always go with a Victorian broccoli farmer over one further afield. However, sometimes we need to go further afield to get access to the range of veggies we offer.

The food host system is quite unique – has it been complicated to implement?

It’s come about very organically. When people started asking us to deliver to their street or group of friends we arranged for one of them to take the delivery for the others in their group. We started with the co-op model of each “host” dividing up their group’s food and taking the money, but that meant a lot of work for the hosts. Now we box each individual order and drop them all at the food host’s front porch and people pick their order up from there. We have 70 food hosts around Melbourne and people tell us it’s been really nice for their community, with little hellos and links being made as people collect their order. It’s so much nicer than a sterile shopping environment with no human connection.

It’s also much better for the environment, with one van servicing everyone, instead of the hundreds of cars that would drive to the supermarket.

Tell me about your fair employment, with 30 per cent of staff being asylum seekers.

When we decided to expand the business six years ago we employed a bunch of staff including sourcing our entry-level jobs through AMES (Adult Multicultural Education Service), and that started us on the path that we’re on now. We’ve also had a long association with AMES at CERES and had worked with asylum seekers on our growing mushrooms project and through their catering service Seven Stars Catering. It fit into our “fair approach to food” ethical framework.

We started just going through AMES and then included the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre, which has a dedicated employment service. Its service is just like any employment agency – it helps us find the right people and for us, it’s been very straightforward.

How does the business do financially and where do you funnel the profits?

We’ve been profitable since year three and we funnel all our profits into supporting environmental education at CERES.

Do you think an increasing number of people are interested in eating ethically and organically.

It’s one of the fastest-growing areas in retail for lots of reasons – from people’s health awareness to environmental awareness and wanting to know where their food comes from. We’ve seen a lot of community and commercial businesses pop up since we started!

A lot of companies probably feel that running an ethical business is complicated and expensive. Could you suggest a couple of straightforward ways businesses could create a more ethical business model?

  • People congratulate us for employing asylum seekers like it’s a charitable act, but actually when you step back and think about it you have people who need stability and long-term employment. They’ve shown resourcefulness and courage simply by getting here, and they’re often highly qualified and motivated, so asylum seekers are actually a very powerful addition to a workforce. It’s been a no-brainer for us!
  • My other suggestion is sourcing locally. By supporting other local businesses you keep the dollar local, you support your community and you help the environment by keeping down travel miles.

Header image: Vince, CERES Market Gardener; top right is Christos, Fair Food Packer; bottom left is Hassan, Fair Food Leading Hand. 

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