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Fairtrade and networks empower women in business

27 April 2016

MollyWhen Molly Harriss Olson (above) left school in Palo Alto, California in 1978, she was on a path toward a career in education working with special needs children.

That was until the Three Mile Island nuclear reactor had a melt down in Pennsylvania, changing Molly’s life, completely.

“I was in my first year of University in Boston. I travelled to a huge march on Washington DC: the very place where Martin Luther King gave his ‘I have a Dream’ speech. It was a full day of Woodstock music stars and experts, actors like Jane Fonda and politicians. I particularly remember being impressed by an Australian, Dr Helen Caldicott, who founded Physicians for Social Responsibility. She spoke about the medical impacts of nuclear radiation on children, and nuclear arms proliferation and our growing reliance on nuclear power and its dangers. What she said changed everything for me.

“I was really clear. I wanted to make a difference in the world in the environmental space,” says Molly, who then enrolled in joint Economics and Environmental Sciences degrees at the University of California, eventually doing a Masters in Environmental Policy at the School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, Yale University.

Having played telephone tag for a couple of weeks, Molly and I are finally chatting about her Australian Financial Review and Westpac 100 Women of Influence award and her role as CEO Fairtrade Australia New Zealand.

She tells me she’s been in Australia for 20 years now, and can’t imagine living anywhere else. She has tried to leave for good but always finds herself drawn back. The last time was when she met her husband, the Australian environmental and indigenous rights activist, lawyer, and founder of Landcare Australia, Phillip Toyne.

Toyne, who died in mid-2015 from cancer, is the father of Molly’s two teenage boys and, according to Molly: they shared the same values and beliefs, both wanting to make a difference to the world.

But how did an American environmentalist end up in Australia in the first place? The answer lies in an earlier marriage. Molly’s first husband was doing a PhD at Harvard and came to Lizard Island for research. She accompanied him, and did some of her undergrad work at Macquarie University, eventually working with The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority.

Molly’s career in the area of sustainability and environment spans more than 25 years at all sorts of levels and within all manner of government and non-government contexts both here and overseas.

She has been Director and Co-Founder of Eco Futures, an Australian-based international policy firm working on building sustainable strategies with business, government and civic leaders; Founder and Convenor of the National Business Leaders Forum on Sustainable Development; President and CEO of The Natural Step USA, a non-profit environmental education organisation working with business leaders, and Co-Founder of Earthmark.

Molly also brought Al Gore to Australia for his first visit as the keynote at the National Business Leaders Forum on Sustainable Development in 2003 and was the US representative on the steering committee of Sweden-based organisation, The Natural Step International.

During the Clinton administration, Molly worked in the White House as the Founding Executive Director of the President’s Council on Sustainable Development. A job, she says was done on a very small budget but with President Clinton’s full backing.

Around eight years ago she joined the board of Fairtrade International and in 2014 became the CEO of Fairtrade Australia New Zealand.

Why the move into a global network fundamentally interested in poverty alleviation?

“Because,” says Molly, “the positive impact of the organisation on the ground – its ability to transform the lives of marginalised agricultural communities, women and children – is overwhelming.”

Fairtrade began when a charity in the Netherlands was installing wells in Mexico. The coffee farmers receiving the wells who were at once grateful and curious – said ‘you know if you just paid a fair price for our coffee, we could buy the wells ourselves’.

“It made people think about trade justice and the commodities trade,” says Molly.

Take coffee, for example. According to Molly, there are 25 million coffee farmers out there and four traders controlling more than 40 percent of the global trade in coffee.

Fairtrade has successfully created a shadow trading system. A system which takes into account issues around environment, sustainability, child labour, and women’s equality.

“Fairtrade,” Molly explains, “does two things to create a far more just global trading system.  It sets a minimum price for commodities, which is like an insurance policy for farmers. They know they will achieve their sustainable cost of production - even when many commodities like coffee and tea fall well below the cost of production forcing non Fairtrade farmers further into poverty. On top of that is the premium. Each community decides on how that is going to be invested –in water or schools or hospitals, etc. Standing behind the whole system from the farmer into the market are the Standards which must be adhered to, by all the farmers, traders and companies in the whole transparent supply chain. Violate the Standards and you’ll be suspended or deregistered.

“Fairtrade’s role is to set the global standards, audit for compliance across the entire supply chain, to ensure the standards are being met and promises delivered. We also raise awareness in the market about what a big difference choosing Fairtrade makes to the lives of the farmers.”

Fairtrade focuses on seven major commodities: cocoa, coffee, cotton, sugar, bananas, flowers, tea, and is now an $8 billion global business with 1.6 million farmers and workers. As Chair of the International Fairtrade Board, Molly was instrumental in the governance transformations that made the producers and workers in the Fairtrade system half owners of the global organisation.

For the communities and people involved, the impact of ownership has been extraordinary and extremely empowering, according to Molly.

As part of the Australian Financial Review and Westpac 100 Women of Influence alumni, Molly counts network diversity as one of the most empowering benefits for her: “We are often inclined to mix in the networks we know, the ones that surround our own disciplines and interests. The Women of Influence events are incredibly different and bring together people from every single discipline I can think of. They bring us together in ways that make for really fruitful and thoughtful conversations around how we are managing our roles and lives. We have different stresses and issues to those male executives may encounter. These events offer a forum in which to discuss and plan out ways of thriving and making the world a better place, in a still male dominated world. They consistently reach out and support us to make the time to get together and reflect on some of the challenges we face as women in leadership.”