“I seldom write this kind of letter but I do feel that I’m reaching an interesting point in my life that I want to share some of my thinking/feeling with you. In a week time, I’ll be giving up a… job at Greenpeace… to promote fair trade and eco-friendly products in Hong Kong. (Don’t laugh yet, I know I’m a bit crazy!)”
In September 2007, I wrote a long letter to you began with the above paragraph. Six years has passed and it is amazing that I’m still running Fair Taste, we have not closed yet, YEAH!!! In a few weeks time, on Jan 11, 2014, it will be the 10th Anniversary of Fair Taste (although the first 3.5 years was just a project after work), I felt that I should write you another personal letter to share what we have gone through and share with you some of our success, failure and moments. It will be another long letter, hope you don’t mind.
A quick recap of Fair Taste – we now have a team of 5.5 dedicated persons, very enthusiastic and always contribute whole-heartedly. We occupy almost two units of 1,300 sq ft in a factory building in Kwai Fong. We have just built a food factory so that we can produce more products of our own brand. Under the brand of FAIRTASE（細味公平）, we have Fair Trade and organic products including: Arabica coffee from 8 origins; 4 different kinds of teas; two cashew snacks, the cashew brittle and roasted cashew; and our multi-purpose organic raw cane sugar and sugar sticks. We also produce our own seasonal items like the Phoenix Moon Cake for Mid-Autumn Festival and FAIRTASTE of life chocolate for Christmas.
We are the sole distributor of Plush chocolate, and the importer of Thandi wines from South Africa and Canaan Fair Trade’s olive products from Palestine. Not to mention that we are the first one to introduce Divine chocolate and Traidcraft products, now being sold in many stores in Hong Kong.
Financially, the first three years were the period of loss, the fourth years, more or less balance and on the fifth year, we have a small profit (for the first time we can plough back some profit to our producers as set in our profit sharing policy). This financial year is going to be the sixth year, a surplus accounts is possible. I hope we have really gone through the most difficult period. We are more or less doing what we hope to do when we set our direction in 2007. I attached the letter in 2007 for your interests. Below, I have some more thoughts to share with you!!
First of all, I hope to share with you – happiness! May be I’m very Ah Q (a character of Mr Lu Xun, famous for “spiritual victories”), I do think that the awareness of Fair Trade has increased significantly after a few years of hard and persistence work by many friends promoting the cause. A few “successes” can be cited. In the past six months, Spaghetti House has introduced Fair Trade wines in their menu as table wines, the first restaurant chain in Hong Kong to do so – a brave pioneering step to make by the Café De Coral Group. In addition, Taikoo sugar also introduced three Fair Trade sugar under it’s own brand and are widely available at supermarkets. It has significantly increased the Fair Trade sales and reach out to average families in Hong Kong. Fair Trade products are available in many Universities, including HKU, CU, HKUST, City U, HKIED, Poly U etc. There are nine Fair Taste mini-stores around Hong Kong, helping people to reach Fair Trade products easily.
In Asia, excluding Japan, Hong Kong is the place where we collect most Fair Trade licensee fees, ahead of South Korea and Taiwan, despite the fact that we have a smaller population. This means that we have the highest sales volume of locally produced Fair Trade products and Fair Taste is one of the key payer of these fees. At times, I feel that all the hard work is paid back.
Secondly, the support we get is an important element for the survival of Fair Taste! It was amazing how many people do have dreams. The long letter I sent out in Sept 2007 received a lot of feedback. Many friends told me that they have dreams too but they may not in suitable circumstances to work on them. They are happy to see friends like me working on our dreams and are willing to support. In the last few years, many people tender their support because they support Fair Trade. Gradually, it was realized that Fair Taste is not only a social business, but a platform for people who support Fair Trade to act, and be a part of the social movement. They make contribution in whatever ways they could, with their expertise, with their connections, with their skills, time and energy.
One of the good example was the cooperation with Groundwork Architecture + Urbanism 元新建城, as an architect firm, they support Fair Trade as well and are willing to involve. Groundwork ended up lead the re-branding project of FAIRTASTE and give a new soul to the brand. The new brand featuring “Fair is the new taste” and is displaying itself honestly on shelf. Many people find the new brand very impressive and we like it so much. We work together intensively for 6 months and the Groundwork team was with us creating new looks and tackling many urgent issues. The art direction has always been uncompromising, resulting quality in design. Without the dedicated input from the Groundwork team and the commitment of Manfred, the owner, and his friend Hinz, the designer cum art director, the new FAIRTASTE brand would not be realized.
We have also built an Ambassador team who are ready to help promoting Fair Trade products at different occasions. Promoting Fair Trade needs continuous efforts, the time and energy of these young ambassadors are important. We also have honorary PR manager, mini-stores manager and connoisseurs to help us promoting Fair Taste, improving the quality of our products and strengthening our sales force, we can’t make it without their support!
There are times that we need to make decisions, many of them is an executive choice really. There is no right of wrong in making the choices, for example, in our re-branding project, do we want to focus on promoting the Fair Trade messages, or focus on the quality of products, how to prioritize the different messages. Questions we keep asking and will continue to ask.
At some point, we are puzzle to whether we want to be more focus on the products we carry or we should broaden our product lines. There are pros and cons on both sides. If we expand our product lines, we need not only more product knowledge but also cash flow to stock more products. We also need to see if the product line matches with existing clientele. For example, we cannot imagine putting a bag of rice at Kubrick, one of our mini-stores, for sale. On the other hand, if we do not expand the product lines, the choice of Fair Trade products would be limited, it is not good for the expansion of the market as a whole. Clients would also be bored with the few choices. There are many considerations in making a business decision. There is no right or wrong, but an executive choice. Once you make the decision, try to make the best out of it. You cannot revert your choice, or know what if other decisions were made. Life is just like that I guess!
One of the good things about running Fair Taste is I get the chance to meet many good people. In the social business circle, many people are dedicated to make the world a better place, it is their choice to enter the field. Many people want to make a contribution even they do not run a business themselves. As a result, there is a lot of positive energy around. We meet occasionally, share our work, our difficulties and support to each other. I see the positive side of humanity. Sometimes, in sharing with other friends, they would complain about the dark side of the business world, how people are fighting/bad mouthing each other, a lot of negativity. Life is sometimes determined by how we perceive things and what kind of people we meet. If we are able to see the positive sides and mingle with good people, we will have a happy life, something that cannot be measured by how much you earn.
In the past six years, I learn something new regularly. There are a lot of things I don’t know in running a business. For example, pricing is an art, working on numbers is also an art. I know nothing about cash flow at the beginning, but it is yet such an important item that we must learn how to handle it. Unfortunately, I am still not mastering it very well. Product knowledge is always very important and always enjoyable.
Learning how to appreciate a tea for example gives you a lot of joy. Imagine how a tea tree take 4-5 years to mature, how farmers nurture them, pick them at the right time, process them into tea that we drink, differentiate the quality, export to Hong Kong, and get to the shelf in retail stores, then you grab them from the shelf and bring them home. It is such a long way. I learned how to appreciate and treasure them.
The worst thing for me is HR management. It sometimes drives me mad because it is probably the least important (sorry to say so, just from my own perspective) and most tedious. The motivation to get them done is almost close to zero, but you have to do it. How to build a team with trust and team spirit is as important. How to reward staff with a reasonable package is also part of Fair Trade. Since there are so much to do and so much to learn, you won’t feel you don’t want to go to work in the morning, that’s a blessing!
Throw a party!
Overall, it is a very rewarding experience to jump into the sea (the big social business sea!). Something that worth celebrates. I hope to invite you to join us together at the 10th anniversary Fair Trade Wine dinner of Fair Taste. We are going to match our Fair Trade wines, Thandi, with traditional Cantonese food of Lin Heung Kui (蓮香居傳統手工菜) . You will see how they re-enforce each other to enhance your taste buds. To add to that, all proceed of the night will be donated to Amnesty International Hong Kong for the Human Right education work. It’s time to celebrate! You can find out more from the attached leaflet. Hope to hear from you then…
Merry Christmas and a relaxing holiday ahead!