[IHEART] Cristina Talens Fairtrade Manager


A nice cuppa brewed on fair trade
Cristina Talens, an ethical trading manager, on why her company takes corporate social responsibility seriously

Fay Schopen

There isn’t an immediate link between toasted teacakes and human rights in Guatemala, but Cristina Talens bridges the divide.

She started her working life toasting teacakes at Bettys Café Tea Rooms in Harrogate, a job that led her back to the company, Bettys & Taylors, four years ago. “My mum – who is a Bettys waitress – called me up and said that the company was looking for someone to work on labour issues with their suppliers, and I just had to apply,” she says.

Talens, 33, studied international business at Leeds University, and after graduation joined a charity, AntiSlavery International, living in France, Spain and Italy and working on labour and human rights issues. But the role at Bettys & Taylors, who buy hundreds of tonnes of coffee a year, tempted her back to the UK. “There was more awareness that the social, working and living conditions for people in developing countries might not be all that great,” she says. “Our buyers were already travelling out to these places and were picking up on problems.”

As ethical trading manager for the firm, Talens travels to places such as Rwanda, Nicaragua, Guatemala, El Salvador and Zambia, carrying out audits that examine conditions for workers on coffee plantations. The company sells six million packets of coffee and 22 million boxes of tea a year, so Talens also liases with the company’s tea buyers, who do their own audits with the help of a third-party organisation, the Ethical Tea Partnership.
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“There are some countries that we can’t visit because it’s just too dangerous,” she says. Auditors who tried to gain access to a plantation in Aceh, Sumatra, a couple of years ago were shot at, for example.

Her last trip was to Guatemala, in March, where the company is looking at environmental practices and is developing its own standards with a US-based organisation called the Rainforest Alliance.

Part of the skill in her job, she says, is being “really gentle”. “The initial approach is really important because people can balk.” Evaluations are held according to standards set out by the Ethical Trading Initiative, an alliance of companies, charities and trade unions, and Talens reels off a list of things auditors look for when talking to workers: “Minimum age, minimum wage, working hours, discrimination, health and safety, accommodation, benefits. You really are looking at everything that affects that worker’s life. And you have to put everything into a local context.” But bureaucracy doesn’t detract from her enthusiasm. Guatamala, she says, was the “most amazing experience”. “The great thing about [looking at these issues] in a business context is that you can do something about social conditions,” she says. Last year the company opened two child-care centres in Nicaragua, and in Guatamala Talens has seen housing conditions improve. “Things do change as a result of the audit,” she says.

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