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Respectful organic cotton

Interview with Helmut Hälker, CEO of Remei AG

European Business: For too long, prosperity and plenty in one part of the world have meant poverty and hardship in another. How is Remei working to change this?

Helmut Hälker: We are not a charity, but we do believe in giving back. A business can only be sustainable if its profits are shared. We put social value on equal footing with profit and have found a good balance that ensures the business is successful and the people in the value chain can enjoy a good quality of life. It also helps that more people in the rich countries of the world care about how the things they consume are produced. Out of sight, out of mind belongs to another time.

European Business: What concrete benefits can Remei offer to its growers?

Helmut Hälker: Remei guarantees to buy at least 80% of its growers’ annual harvest. We also pay 15% more than the market price. That reinforces loyalty and ensures that they conform with the regulations governing the production of organic cotton. We aim to distribute dividends of between 2 and 4% to investors. That guarantees stable returns for shareholders over the long term.

European Business: Remei is cofounder of the charitable bioRe® Foundation. What projects is it engaged in?

Helmut Hälker: In order to help the farmers grow organic crops, we needed to give them training in organic cultivation methods. The bioRe® Foundation was put in place in 1997 to do this in India and Tanzania. Today, it sponsors a host of social projects in these countries. As well as training farmers, the bioRe® Foundation has built over 20 schools. These are vocational training centers teaching people trades and practical skills. They also work on environmental projects. They have installed over 3,000 methane gas burners in both India and Tanzania as well, to provide domestic heating by burning organic waste. These remove smoke from living areas and greatly improved people’s health. Another way of improving quality of life and health is by ensuring reliable access to clean water. The bioRe® Foundation has built over 90 wells in Tanzania and also has a malaria project in India as well as a health bus that visits remote villages.

European Business: bioRe® is also the brand name of your organically and ethically produced cotton. Where can ethically minded consumers find it?

Helmut Hälker: Among others, our customers are brands like Mammut and elkline, and retailers like Galeries Lafayette and Coop Switzerland with the private label Naturaline. We have also introduced a new brand called OC Outfitters of Change. This range of basic cotton garments is available through around 100 dealers in Switzerland who sell in shops for corporate wear. It is a big market that is developing well. We are also getting a lot of enquiries from retailers who want to set themselves apart from the rest of the market. Ethical lifestyles are very much in fashion at the moment, and we fill a gap in the market.

European Business: How do you ensure the long-term future of ethical and sustainable clothing?

Helmut Hälker: Realistically, the only way to ensure that people shop ethically is to make sure we are competitive. There will always be those people who buy sustainable and organic products because they believe in its goals, but in order to get the greater majority of people on board, the pricing has to be right. We are always looking for sustainable partnerships. We also sell yarn to clothing manufacturers. At the start of the value chain, the differences in price are not so extreme. We also sell cotton cloth, but this is more challenging. We pay more for the raw cotton than our competitors, which can lead to single business cases which are not beneficial. However, we have to accept this as the price for being ethical. A change has to come in which those privileged to live in rich countries accept that the lives of people in poorer countries are worth more.

European Business: How do you empower people in poorer countries to break the cycle?

Helmut Hälker: At the moment, we focus on human rights issues. We have two people doing special training in this area. We want to empower people to stand up for their own point of view by encouraging them to participate in the decisions concerning the business. By giving them power and responsibility, we can increase their self-confidence. We are trying to introduce the system with our suppliers too. Progress can only come through education. Our attitude is to treat people and nature with respect.

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