What Christmas trees can teach us about fair supply chains

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

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Credit: @toomBaumarkt

René Haßfeld is the CEO of toom Baumarkt GmbH.

Christmas anticipation means enjoying rich sweets, wrapping presents and decorating the Christmas tree. When it comes to buying the perfect tree, most people value regional sourcing to support local retailers and tree nurseries.

However, few are aware that the life of our Christmas trees begins elsewhere. In the case of the Nordmann fir, it usually begins in the economically weak region Racha in Georgia.

The region is home to fir seeds of particularly high quality that are ideal for cultivation. During harvest season in autumn cone pickers climb into the trees at a height of 30 to 40 meters, often collecting seeds under precarious and unsafe conditions.

As there are hardly any jobs in this remote area of Georgia, the locals depend on the income of harvesting the fir seeds. Although the Christmas tree industry is quite big, with almost 30 million trees sold yearly alone in Germany, the local communities in Racha hardly benefit from it.

A holistic approach is key to fair supply chains

toom Baumarkt cooperates with the Danish Fair Trees® organisation to secure decent working conditions and livelihoods for cone pickers and local communities. This includes professional climbing equipment of EU standard, safety trainings carried out by a professional German safety instructor combined with first aid classes in cooperation with the Georgian Red Cross, fair salaries and accident insurance for the cone pickers. But most importantly, it is a holistic approach.

This means that the families of the cone pickers are included in the measures by receiving year-round health insurance and local communities are supported by social projects such as providing scholarships, free healthcare services and establishing dental practices for children at a primary school. These projects are the fruit of a close collaboration with local organisations and authorities.

As any agricultural industry, a successful harvest and the income of the cone pickers strongly depend on climate conditions. An early frost or the lack of rain can mean that the fir trees do not develop enough cone seeds. For this reason, a fair supply chain must also mean income security for the workers in case of harvest failures.

When affected by a bad harvest, the cone pickers employed by the Fair Trees® organisation have the possibility to work for the organisations social projects to receive their full salary that covers for the whole year.

Effective due diligence needs European solution

When buying a Christmas tree, consumers are seldomly aware of the provenance of the trees and the people that depend on a good harvest to secure their income. And although consumers are becoming more conscious regarding social and environmental impacts of products, their knowledge of what product is produced under fair conditions quickly meets its limit.

But also, the influence of most companies on upstream suppliers to effectively set the rules for fair production is limited. It falls upon EU legislation to harmonize regulations of due diligence and set the standards of corporate responsibility. We firmly believe that a binding framework is required to provide for fair conditions throughout global supply chains.

An inclusion of third-country benchmarking would furthermore provide additional incentives for local authorities to become actively involved. Furthermore, we call for a European solution for global supply chains that not only includes large companies, but also small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs). In our view, supply chain laws on the purely national level and which solely hold large companies accountable, are not sufficient to effectively improve standards of due diligence throughout global supply chains.

Not without local stakeholders

The case of the Christmas trees highlights the importance of involving all stakeholders to find a solution that has the greatest impact on improving livelihoods and working conditions.

The collaboration with non-governmental organisations (NGOs), private organisations and local authorities has led to the improvement of not only the working conditions of the cone pickers but also of the access to healthcare services and educational resources as well as conservation of natural resources in Racha.

For companies, it is a matter of taking even greater responsibility for their supply chains and taking a closer look at which risks exist regarding forced labour, child labour, precarious employment and working conditions as well as environmental damage. Involving all stakeholders is crucially important to evaluate these risks and to define measures with the greatest and long-term impact on local communities.

Our commitment at toom

toom has been committed to more transparency and fair practices in its supply chains for years, looking all the way back to the origin of the products. We have achieved better working conditions in many supply chains of our products, such as Christmas trees, natural stones or Fairtrade plants by cooperating with relevant stakeholders and initiatives.

Since 2018, toom has been cooperating with the Fair Trees® organisation to improve the working conditions of the cone pickers and support the local communities in the harvest region of our Christmas trees.

For every Nordmann fir sold, a new Fair Trees® tree is planted. In doing so, we take special care to protect the environment as the fir seeds are sustainably sourced and we have special agreements with our suppliers on the use of plant protection products that go beyond legal requirements.


About toom:

With more than 300 stores in its portfolio, 18,000 employees and a gross turnover of 3.2 billion euros, toom is one of the leading providers in the German DIY sector. The company is part of REWE Group, one of the leading trading and travel and tourism groups in Germany and Europe. In 2020, the company achieved a total external turnover of around 75 billion euros. Founded in 1927, REWE Group is present in 22 European countries with its more than 380,000 employees. +++ Since 2016, toom has held the “audit berufundfamilie” certificate. With the “audit berufundfamilie” (work and family audit), an initiative of the non-profit Hertie Foundation, toom is taking a future-oriented approach as an employer and supports its employees in different phases of life and the associated challenges.

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