As a teenager, Jo Fairley bought herself a postcard with a picture of a man on a high diving board. It was captioned: ‘If you don’t do it, you’ll never know what would have happened if you had.’
Those words inspired Jo to take risks but even she could never have predicted how huge her pioneering Green and Black’s brand would become.
Deemed ‘bigger than Marmite and cooler than Prada’ in an official ‘cool brand’ survey, the world’s first organic chocolate and UK’s first Fairtrade chocolate is a true global phenomenon.
This success is no happy accident; it’s the result of passion, motivation and hard graft.
As Jo is fond of quoting: “Luck is what you have left over when you’ve given 100 per cent.”
The entrepreneur and self-confessed chocoholic describes herself as an ‘ecoveggie’ and has always been concerned about environmental issues.
“Even as a 15-year-old girl in the 70s I can remember putting my mother’s Mateus Rose bottles in the recycling bank,” she says.
She believes Fairtrade and organic should be wrapped up in one and is an advocate of shopping for small amounts of food rather than big supermarket shops with groaning carrier bags, which results in 30 per cent waste on average.
Fairtrade is a huge passion but she feels there is much work still to be done. “There’s no reason why any Third World crop could not be certified Fairtrade. I would like to think that in the future the majority of products would be Fairtrade but we’re still a long way from that.
“For products to be successful they have to be as scrumptious and attractive as the mainstream offering. That’s the best way of converting somebody.”
And the high cocoa content which gives Green and Black’s chocolate its distinctive taste was the key to converting a nation of chocoholics. From the beginning, Jo has never advertised her products, preferring to allow people to try the chocolate for themselves through consumer shows, trade fairs and PR, a method that proved highly successful.
It was the taste that won over Jo after a bar of delicious Fairtrade chocolate was sent to her husband, Craig Sams, founder of Whole Earth Foods. After trying it, she was hooked and decided, with Craig as a partner, to turn her passion into a business.
The initial challenge was to find the right name, which Jo believes was crucial. ‘Eco-choc’ might not have become the huge success story that Green and Black’s has been. The name was chosen to reflect the green issues that are so important to Jo and the darkness of the cocoa-rich product.
“It has had a lot of positive effects; chocolate lovers get great chocolate and cocoa farmers get an entirely new way of life. It’s hard to believe that 15 years ago nobody had really heard of Fairtrade.” Now there are more than 493 million products available.
The first of Jo’s chocolate bars to go on sale was the orange and spice Maya Gold. The fortunes of the Maya Indians in Belize who grow the cocoa have since been transformed, with seven times more village children attending secondary school. Green & Black’s has picked up a host of awards for entrepreneurial and ethical achievement, and was the first UK business to earn the Fairtrade mark.
Jo revealed her business journey to a packed audience when she gave an inspirational leadership seminar at Wolverhampton Science Park as part of the University’s Leadership and Development programme (LEAD).
Dean of Students, Jon Elsmore, was delighted to welcome Jo as one of the pioneers of the Fairtrade movement. The University was granted Fairtrade status in 2008 and is committed to making Fairtrade goods available.
Jo’s commitment to ethics and corporate social responsibility has been at the heart of her business. She also encouraged would-be entrepreneurs not be to deterred by the current financial climate.
“We actually founded in the last recession in 1991. I think the whole global financial meltdown could bring about a whole new culture of entrepreneurialism.”
She revealed the challenges she has overcome – from hurricanes which felled thousands of cocoa trees, to finances – and how she juggled a journalism career with her business, operating a “one-woman customer service” for eight years.
The Green and Black’s confectionary range is now owned by Cadbury’s, a company which impressed Jo by what it did for its workers and by the work it does for homeless people.
Although some people would be content with early retirement, Jo is still passionate about the brand she founded and is also consumed by her other businesses and interests. She is the author of more than a dozen books, contributing editor to the Mail on Sunday YOU magazine and chair of a Soil Association committee. Along with Craig she now runs an organic bakery and a health centre in Hastings. All this, from someone who was once told by a teacher at school: “Jo Fairley, if you ever make so much as a Girl Friday, I’ll eat my hat.”
If the same teacher was still around today, Jo would relish the chance to insist that headwear was Fairtrade and organic.