Skip to main content
Printable page generated Tuesday, 6 Dec 2022, 19:59
Use 'Print preview' to check the number of pages and printer settings.
Print functionality varies between browsers.
Unless otherwise stated, copyright © 2022 The Open University, all rights reserved.
Printable page generated Tuesday, 6 Dec 2022, 19:59

Developing communities of eco business practice

Introduction to the unit

When commodity prices fall rapidly, the impact on the lives of millions of small scale producers can be catastrophic, forcing many of them into crippling debt and many others (eg due to the low price of coffee in the early 90s), to lose their land and their homes. The cost of many products such as coffee, tea and chocolate supplied to the northern hemisphere from growers in warmer countries of the southern hemisphere has not increased in real terms over the past forty years. The value of fertilisers, pesticides and machinery imported from developed countries has, however, increased considerably. The net result is that those who grow these crops have to work much longer and harder for less income. This issue has eventually been recognised and taken onboard by international development agencies. They have appreciated that they could play a vital role in improving the situation of the producers. The concept of consumers buying direct from farmers at fairer prices would help to strengthen them. With assistance in business management, farmers could market their own products directly through their own catalogues. The charities could then offer consumers the opportunity to buy products bought on the concept of a fair trade. This approach has been in place for some while now at home and overseas and has worked well. It has put hundreds of small poor farmers back on their feet and enabled them to trade their way out of poverty and with a true sense of pride.

Learning outcomes

The aims of this unit are:

  • To explore the development of eco-business practice

  • To examine the development of local eco-business communities

  • To outline the public, participatory and inclusive imperitives

1. The Local Level

Photograph of Exeter's Farmers Market.

Closer to home and at the local level the popularity and re-generation of Farmer’s Markets in the UK continues unabated. These are fostered by initiatives including the provision of designated sites for stalls/pitches, advertising and other support from the local authorities and trade organisations. A main driver for these is the organic label. Additionally, vegetable boxes, fresh meat, fish and their products, bread and pastries locally grown/produced help to foster the sense of regionality, community and sustainability. The producer is able to cut out the middle-man ensuring profitability and the purchaser is prepared to pay a premium for fresh quality products. Regional food fares additionally assist in marketing and with fostering a sense of identification of the public with their local market. Diversification and added value are drivers. European Union-led restrictions on milk supply for example, encourage farmers as suppliers to develop into butter, cheese and ice-cream production as producers. Supermarkets are being continually encouraged to include products grown locally within their range of goods and are making gestures in this direction. Across the Channel, whilst the French embrace their supermarkets with enthusiasm, they have never abandoned their love affair with street markets which are set up each week in most of the towns and villages. Again, an identity with region and community prevails.

Walking exercise 1

Visit the Farmer’s market in your area.

  • What products are on sale?
  • Where do they come from?
  • How regional is the market?

If you can, (take care!) interview a friendly stall holder and illicite:

  • How much support they receive from the local authority and elsewhere?
  • Do they mutually support each other in any way?
  • How would they define eco-business practise?

Come up with an estimation of foodmiles for the various categories of: fish, meat and bakery products

2. Developing communities of eco business practice

2.1. Developing communities of eco business practice

Internationally, concerns over the lack of social justice and equity has resulted in some, perhaps surprisingly, far-sighted initiatives. The spectre of unacceptable exploitation of artisans in the Third World (as it was termed then) received such adverse publicity in the 1970’s that concerned groups and public alike in the developed world sought to redress at least some of the balance.

2.2. Tearcraft 1975

In order to benefit skilled artisans from around the world, giving a fair price for gifts, homeware and jewellery, Tearcraft was set up some 30 years ago. It remains highly successful in ensuring that a fair price is paid for these products and in rewarding the creative skills of some of the world’s poorest communities.

2.3. Fairtrade

The Fairtrade logo.

Max Havelaar (Netherlands) is acknowledged as launching the first Fairtrade consumer guarantee in 1986 on coffee from Mexico. Subsequently, the number of organisations included in the Fairtrade Foundation number some nineteen (19), running the international standard and setting up and maintaining the Fairtrade Labelling Organisations International (FLO). Labelling initiatives include many items such as tea, coffee etc. Producers registering with FLO receive a minimum price which covers production costs and an extra premium to be invested in the local community. Members of the FLO Board include four producer representatives two commercial partners and national Fairtrade initiative representatives. By September 2004 there were 422 Fairtrade certified producers operating in 49 countries. Hundreds of Fairtrade registered importers and retailers operate in 19 countries. Sales across the 18 countries that license the Fairtrade market are growing at about 20% year on year. In most of these countries, Fairtrade products are now mainstream items and available in major supermarkets and independent retailers and are beginning to gain market shares.

Thinking question 1

The CafeDirect logo.

Consider below an abstracted version of comments by Robins and Roberts (1997) here, relating to the success of Fairtrade coffee known as Cafédirect.

The timing had to be right for this success. After all, consumers had to be persuaded to switch from their regular suppliers and at an increased cost also. They had to show committment to change.

'A number of organisations have been working with coffee producer's groups in developing countries for many years to develop fair international trade in this commodity...................Cafédirect is one such sold in 1700 supermarkets across the UK.....with cafe Direct now accounting for 3 per cent of the roast and ground market and 2 per cent of the instant market....................It has become the third best selling brand of coffee in Safeway's...............despite being 10 per cent more expensive than conventional brands.'

Slideshow 1

Watch the following slideshow of Falaj - Community Water Supply System, Oman demonstrating an eco-community action of historic dimensions can prove highly successful in managing a precious water supply for crops, livestock and human consumption.

The slideshow lasts 4 minutes.

A slideshow of Falaj - Community Water Supply System, Oman

This element is no longer supported and cannot be used.

2.4. Rainforest Alliance Mexico/Central America (USAID)

(forestry, coffee and bananas)

The United States Agency for International Development (USAID) has harnessed market forces to improve rural living standards and environmental conditions in the rainforests of Mexico and central America. A 3-year programme coordinated by the Rainforest Alliance is designed to strengthen the competitiveness and to improve the social and environmental impacts of forestry operations and coffee and banana farms there. Its goal is to increase the supply, demand and value of such sustainably produced timber, bananas and coffee from Central America and Mexico. Again, this task is largely approached through certification and the promotion of certified products. NGO partners include FORESCOM/ACOFOP in Guatemala, Nepenthes in Denmark, Pronatura Chiapas in Mexico and SalvaNATURA in El Salvador. Amongst many, commercial partners include Balzac Brothers, Gloria Jeans, Industrias Ecológicas, Kraft Foods, Coop Denmark, Neuman Kaffee Gruppe and Procter & Gamble.

Thinking question 2

Consider the comments below abstracted from Robins and Roberts (1997) here, relating to the demand for sustainable timber creating a market advantage for southern hemisphere producers:

  1. 'When PIQRO Laminated Flooring Company, originally set up by the Mexican government, was sold, its new owners saw exports as the key to their future success..........The company began sourcing wood from Plan Piloto Forestal a nearby community forest project.........and became the first company to export certified tropical timber flooring to the US. International Hardwood Flooring (IHF) negotiated to buy and distribute all PIQRO's export grade products....... to enable it to meet world complete the metamorphosis from an unprofitable state-owned company serving the regional floor market to a world-class exporter of high-quality suatainable products'.
  2. 'Forests are being exploited at a wholly unstainable rate in the Solomon Islands as foreign timber companies buy up communal logging rights.............. NGOs in the Solomon Islands and Europe began working together to develop a trade in timber which would offer communities long-term sustainable livelihoods while maintaing forest Europe where there is a high awareness of the impacts of unsustainable logging.........individual and institutional consumers seek out alternatives.............and, in some cases pay a premium.........Producers receive 40 times more per tree than if they had sold their logging rights....and they are provided with a long-term income'.
  1. Here the key to success here was the PIQRO company gaining market advantage through certification.
  2. Here the key to success was the action of the NGO's drawing on the experience and the market know-how of European organisations. Again, certification aims were also part of the package ie. sustainability accreditation.

2.5. DEBI

A local example of developing communities of eco business practice in southwest England is DEBI. The Devon Environmental Business Initiative was launched to provide a focus for companies in the southwest with a sustainability ethos. It has developed and encouraged many organisations in the region wishing to promote ideas and seize opportunities to improve environmental performance, whilst assisting with education and awareness. Each year it holds an Awards Programme (13th in 2005) to celebrate the achievements of businesses, community groups and schools in Devon in working with the environment.

The front cover of the DEBI News from the Autumn 2005.

Above: The front cover of the DEBI News from the Autumn 2005, where competition winners were announced. Notably, one of the four Awards categories was Sustainability, for projects that take an holistic, imaginative approach to solving business issues.

2.6. Market Transformation Programme (defra)

The Market Transformation Programme provides core support for organisations coming under the UK Government Framework for Sustainable Consumption Production (Depart for Environment Food and Rural Affairs, defra). It is an outcome of the ‘Securing the Future – UK Government Sustainable Development Strategy’. It is consensus-based working with industry, trade bodies and others involved in designing and implementing policies and in measuring the environmental impact of products. Its particular focus is on the role of products and the avoidable impacts through choices such as:

  • What do they consume?
  • How much do they use?
  • And how are they disposed of?

This approach covers such items as UK product info, energy consumption, lifecycle and domestic appliances. Working with the stakeholders it sets effective standards in areas such as product life-cycles, in order to create an environment where innovation and eco-design is not stifled but stimulated.

Thinking question 3

Where does the rush to set up the World’s manufacturing in Asia fit in to all this?

  • Good thing: Provides work and income to the developing World?
  • Bad Thing: Exploits lowly paid, abundant and expendable work force?


2.7. British Executive Service Overseas (BESO)

The British Executive Service Overseas (BESO) was conceived in the UK 1972 when a group of businessmen collectively decided that they wished to put something back (ie their experience) into the developing countries. It was founded by the UK Government, the CBI and Institute of Directors as an independent (not for gain) charitable organisation. It was supported by British Industry, Charitable Trusts, Individuals, the UK Government, the World Bank, the European Community (EC) and other multilateral aid organisations. Its mission was to help deserving enterprises and organisations overseas by providing assistance for sustainable economic and social development from volunteers undertaking short advisory, consultancy and training assignments.

BESO worked in about 100 countries worldwide and had about 3000 highly qualified and experienced professional volunteers registered. Assignments lasted from 2 weeks to 6 months. The host country asked for assistance, if deemed appropriate, BESO set up and funded travel and the host country provided in-country accommodation and subsistence. Assignments were diverse ranging from improvement in manufacturing in small business (clothing, chocolate manufacture etc), the introduction of cleaner energy technology to environmental education. Volunteers ran the operation from the London headquarters. The Commercial Arm of the British Embassys (along with in-Country BESO representatives) provided additional support to volunteers whilst on their assignments.

However, during the 1990s the UK Government decided that for its support it wished to see a more streamlined and ‘professional’ organisation fitting in with UK Foreign Policy objectives. It introduced its paid DEFRA staff which led to some major changes in ethics and objectives. Subsequently the BESO position became unsustainable and the organisation merged with Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO) in April 2005. VSO is now engaged with coming to terms with the concept of Short-Term Volunteers.

Unfortunately, somewhat against the ethos of BESO, VSO has withdrawn from all countries except those on the lowest level of the 'Human Development Index (HDI)'. This reduction of geographical coverage has subsequently led to a huge demand from ex BESO clients for the restoration of true BESO-type services. To meet this demand, BESO's former commercial arm has been acquired and rebranded as British Consultancy Limited (BCL). This has set up the British Consultancy Charitable Trust (BCCT) as a division. So, 10 former BESO volunteer staff work at Vauxhall Bridge road much as they used to, re-building the network of overseas representatives. It has completed over 140 assigments since April 2005, many being either client or specific donor funded. In this way, BCCT is able to compliment the work of VSO.

Slideshow 2

Watch the following slideshow of an example of BESO support in Bolivia.

The slideshow lasts 4 minutes.

A slideshow of an example of BESO support in Bolivia.

This element is no longer supported and cannot be used.

Thinking question 4

These notes on developing communities of eco business practice should have given you some flavour of the ‘state of the art’. You might want to seek out and add some others of your own in here? Include them in your Personal Notes or learning journal.

Concluding Remarks

To conclude this Unit, much of the thrust of thinking in developing communities of eco business practice is based on a cooperative approach. For small producers this means getting the product marketing and labelling right. That is, mutual assistance is needed in getting a foot on the eco-ladder.

You might want to follow up this unit by focusing in from the eco-communities and self-help groups towards the goods and services that they can provide through sustainable product innovation.

3. Useful Websites

A listing of useful websites follows and is centred around some of the organisations cited in this Unit’s notes.

  • Tearcraft:
  • Fairtrade:
  • Sustainable Forestry:
  • DEBI:
  • Market Transformation Programme:
  • VSO:
  • British Consultancy Charitable Trust:

Do this

Now you have completed this unit, you might like to:

  • Post a message to the unit forum.

  • Review or add to your Learning Journal.

  • Rate this unit.

Try this

You might also like to:

  • Find out more about related courses ran by the University of Exeter: MSc Sustainable Development

  • Book a meeting with FM to talk live with other learners

  • Create a Knowledge Map to summarise this topic.


Robins, N. & Roberts, S. 1997. Unlocking Trade Opportunities. Report by IIED for the UN Department of Policy Coordination and Sustainable Development, IIED, London.
Starkey, R. & Welford, R. 2005. The Earthscan Reader in Business and Sustainable Development. London, Earthscan Publications Ltd, 364pp.



John Merefield

John is an Environmental, European and Chartered Geologist with research interests in atmospheric particles and science education. John is a long standing member of the Institute of Science Technology, the Geological Society of London, the Association of Geoscientists for International Development and the National Society for Clean Air.

Formerly Director of the Earth Resources Centre, he is currently programme leader in Environmental Studies for the School of Education and Lifelong Learning and tutor in Business and Sustainability for the School of Geography, Archaeology and Earth Resources. His research, training and consultancy assignments have led to work in 20 countries and 70 publications.

John Blewitt

John has extensive experience in adult, further and higher education. He was formerly Course Leader for the BA Community Regeneration and Development and Undergraduate Course Chair in the School of Lifelong education and Development at the University of Bradford and a founder member of the Yorkshire and Humber Education for Sustainability Forum.

John joined the Exeter University in 2003 and is currently co-Director of the MSc Sustainable Development where he leads the Distance Learning, OPLeaders and Sustainable Communities pathways. John is also Director of the MA Archaeology and Heritage Management.

Recent external activities include work with the United Nations Advisory Panel on Sustainability Communications, WWF International on One Planet Leaders John is currently a member of Sustainability SouthWest, the UK Sustainable Development Panel and the IUCN Commission on Education and Communication.

John's research interests are in the areas of developing Sustainable Communities and New Media and Sustainability.


All photos contained within this unit originated at the University of Exeter.