Road Block or Detour?

June 3, 2011

I’ve hit a major snag in soap making. Whether it’s a road block or a detour has yet to be determined. I’ve been trying to get ethically produced coconut oil, and it’s been extremely challenging. I’ve been pursuing every lead, trying to leave no stone unturned. I’ve gotten leads from the Fair Trade Federation about possible vendors who are not yet members of the Fair Trade Federation, but who indicated a commitment to being pro-poor. I’m not sure whether those vendors are just swamped with work, or if they are only giving lip service to Fair Trade ideals. Either way, once I started asking questions, e-mails weren’t returned.

I was encouraged by Diane Adkin from Canaan Fair Trade to contact Serindipol, who is Dr. Bronner’s source of coconut oil. Serindipol is a wonderful company out of Sri Lanka. You can read about them here. Interestingly, Dr. Bronners also ran into the issue of finding ethical coconut oil suppliers. They have been in the Fair Trade space for quite a while and have the capital to develop their own suppliers. They’ve done this with both coconut oil and palm oil. I contacted Serindipol asking if they would be willing to sell to me. They replied that they don’t work in small quantities. I pleaded my case and told them that we could stretch to buying 2 barrels or roughly 420 liters. For us, this was going to be a big stretch. He replied and stated that, at a minimum, Serindipol sold 4- 1000 liter totes. Ouch. This is clearly out of our league (at this point).

I have also been in contact with Gay Timmons, owner of Oh Oh Organics out of Los Gatos. She’s been truly helpful. She provided clarity for me in my struggle to understand the reality of Fair Trade organic coconut oil. Here’s what she said:

Here is how it works: someone with MILLIONS of dollars builds a factory to process coconut oil. One or 2 days out of a year they allow a load of oil that has been contracted by a collective or cooperative of FT farmers – this takes tremendous organization and oversight. Then you have to have a exporter who sells at least a container load – that alone is about 60 or 70,000.00 worth of oil. Then you need to have a market for it so that it does not sit in your warehouse and go bad.

In the past year I’ve had 2 people (besides you) ask for FT coconut oil – neither one of them would have used more than about a 1/2 a drum – 200 lbs. A container is 44,000 lbs.

So – we have a cart horse deal here.

Hope that info helps. If I can find someone who is willing to work on really developing a market for this type of product, we could do it – but it will take a lot of cooperation and communication.

Gay’s response brought clarity to my struggle. I’ll be honest- it was also depressing for me. At this point, with what I understand, there isn’t enough of a market to support Fair Trade organic coconut oil. There is a huge market for coconut oil. It’s a health craze right now. People want organic coconut oil, but they’re not yet demanding that it be Fair Trade.

I think there is a great opportunity here. One of the tenets of permaculture is that the problem is the solution. The production of Fair Trade organic coconut oil could provide the liberation from poverty in the global south while providing an ethically produced, pure product in the global north. Clearly, I don’t have the ability to make that happen, though.

So, what now? Where do I go from here?

There are a few options that Charlie and I have discussed.

  • We could do nothing.
  • We could move ahead with soap making using organic coconut oil that is not Fair Trade.  I’m not super excited about this option.  At the core of this business, we’re trying to do something about poverty.  On the positive side, this would allow us to bring a market to Fair Trade olive oil and shea butter suppliers.  But, I would really love to have all of the ingredients be from suppliers who are trying to alleviate poverty.  An idea is to drive demand to the point where we would have the capacity to buy from Serindipol.
  • We could pursue another product.  I’ve been working on a formula of body salves using olive oil and beeswax.
  • God moves the pieces on the chess board and changes the game.  I know that God cares about poverty.  He makes it so clear in the Bible that he wants us to care for the poor.  I believe that He has a plan for us to be involved with this.

So, I’m living in the tension right now.  Trying to live in the tension between doing nothing and plowing ahead with my own ideas.  I’m trying to heed the warnings of leaders I respect.

Specifically, I’m mindful of  Shane Claiborne’s observation that Christian’s often go ahead with a plan that they think is a great idea- then they ask God to bless it. I’m also heeding a sermon that our pastor did a while ago. He was talking about how when Moses went up on Mount Sinai to receive the ten commandments, the Israelites had to wait. While they were waiting, they made idols. I don’t want to do this. I don’t want to plow ahead with my own ideas just because I don’t want to wait.

So, I’m sitting with it.

Charlie is reading a great book called Leading with a Limp by Dan B. Allender. He handed it to me this morning and suggested that I read the section on discernment. I found it to be very helpful. Here are some highlights:

Discernment . . . is not merely an effort to answer the question of effectiveness, affordability or viability. Yet in answering the question of what is most honoring given our current situation, the questions of practicality must not be seen as an absence of faith, but as the context in which we live our trust.

. . . it calls for me not to assert with dictatorial certainty that God has revealed himself or that I know the will of God, but to offer humbly my understanding of what is best to do.

I’m also chastened by Proverbs 14:18, which says “Foolish dreamers live in a world of illusion; wise realists plant their feet on the ground”.

So, I’m sober and waiting. Waiting to see what God has next. Meanwhile, I’ve been reading some of the articles that my friend Wanjiru gave me about aid, development and Fair Trade.

I’ll keep you posted on our journey.

Your insight in welcome!

Image by gwdexter via flickr used under a Creative Commons


4 Responses to “Road Block or Detour?”

  1. Andy Says:

    God always answers our prayers. The answers are yes, no, and not now…wait. I’m glad you are exercising patience (which isn’t fun either) rather than plowing ahead into something that God may not be ready for you to venture into just yet. Continue to bathe your ideas, goals and dreams in prayer…God will provide an answer.

    I’m proud of you.


  2. Lisa Robertson Says:

    I thought I would read your blog. Check out this supplier
    The video is very interesting and it just might be an answer. You can e-mail the guy and find out if it is fair trade, but it seems it might be.

  3. […] organic ingredients proved to be very difficult.  You can read more about that here, here and here.  So, how does this relate?  It’s this:  something has to give.  It took […]

  4. […] The last time I gave you an update, I thought that we probably wouldn’t be moving forward. But, all the pieces seem to be falling into place. So, Charlie and I continue to put one foot in front of the other to take the next steps. Prayerfully. Listening. Discerning as best as we are able.  One thing I’m certain of is that God cares about the poor.  He cares about poverty alleviation.  If this business doesn’t go for some reason, we’ll move forward with whatever is next.  But, I do want to be involved in some way with Fair Trade and with addressing poverty through development.  It’s exciting for me to engage with people who care about this.  It gives me hope as I engage with vendors who don’t shrink from my hard questions.  Honestly, now that I think about it, I wouldn’t be appreciating these vendors so much if I hadn’t gone through the process of vendor after vendor being unresponsive after I asked hard questions. […]

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