Meet Karma Cola's Chris Morrison

It’s a busy life for Chris – not only is he the co-founder of New Zealand’s leading provider of organic drinks, he also runs All Good Organics with business partners Simon and Matt and imports ethical and Fairtrade bananas from Ecuador. He’s had a long history with this sort of thing, starting with Phoenix Juices back in the day. Chris made time to catch up with us at Kokako in Grey Lynn and tell us how corporate social responsibility can work for any business.

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How do you fit into the big picture with Karma Cola?

I helped co-found the company, almost ten years ago now! Originally, we started by importing bananas from Samoa and that eventually evolved into a fairtrade company called All Good Organics. Once we knew the fairtrade game well, we decided to get back into the beverage industry and that’s when Karma Cola was launched.

Did you have any prior knowledge of the banana business?

None at all! It worked okay for the first year with very little capital on our end, but after that we had to re-evaluate what we were doing. We shifted to importing bananas from Ecuador and we became the first New Zealand importer to gain Fairtrade certification.

So the partnerships you established with communities in Sierra Leone for Karma Cola, that came out of what you learned in Ecuador?

Yes – we knew we wanted to follow a similar framework to what we had learned with the banana industry, and we also knew we wanted to work with communities in Sierra Leone because that’s where the cola nut was going to be imported from. It seemed important to support the communities that were growing the nuts, so they could grow as we did.

What do you think great corporate social responsibility (CSR) looks like?

To me, it’s not just about giving money. It’s about understanding the true impacts of your supply chain and building deep relationships with your suppliers. Rather than just going to a broker to buy the cola nuts, we took the time to learn about our communities and listened to them carefully. It’s the opposite of being patronising or saying; ‘here’s the money, see you later’. You actually have to ask; what do you need to be sustainable? And how can we help that?

What was the primary motivation behind becoming an ethical business?

It seemed obvious at the time, and I’ve grown up like this; buying organic, eating vegetarian, looking for ethically driven companies while shopping. The fruit business especially has been dominated for so long by big corporates, and it really has been so detrimental for growers. The margins are so tiny, and the industry is so focused on profit, so no one is really thinking about the impacts this culture will have for future generations. We were interested in whether or not we could reasonably do something to help change the industry as a smaller business in New Zealand.

How did you go about choosing which causes or projects to align with? Why work overseas and not in New Zealand?

There’s a place for everybody, and New Zealand certainly needs a lot of help too. We always support local ethical businesses or charities with bananas and drinks where we can, but we wanted to work with Sierra Leone and Ecuador because they’re facing the same problems we are, and we’re in a good position to be able to help. Kiwis eat a lot of bananas and they drink a lot of cola, so it’s on us to be a part of the solution too. These are global problems we’re facing.

Would you describe Karma Cola as a social enterprise or a for profit company? I know that’s a hot topic at the moment….

I think we’d describe ourselves as a holistic business. There’s nothing at all wrong with doing well and making a profit so we’re not ashamed of that, but holistic business is certainly about sharing those rewards too.

What companies do you think are doing great work in the CSR space?

Patagonia - they are amazing. They look at the whole process from end to end, and they especially look at the end of life process for their products and help their customers to mend and repair their goods, rather than just throw them away. I think they’re doing really good things. Closer to home, Green & Blacks chocolate, Nature Baby and Little Yellow Bird are all companies I really admire.

Do you think CSR depends on the size of a company?

It shouldn’t. Companies of all sizes can do it – even a café like Kokako here are able to go over and meet their growers face to face. CSR should grow with a company.

Do you think New Zealand is doing well with its CSR culture?

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We’d like to see all businesses be ethical. But to see that shift, other companies have to see the success of companies like ours first. It’s really important that we celebrate the success of ethical businesses, so you can see that it can be good business too. It’s not just about giving, it’s about doing well too.

Did you have any criticisms in the early days that have stuck with you?

I think some people didn’t believe we would be able to charge an extra dollar per bunch of bananas and make a success of it. But the thing is – a fair price takes into account the costs of a good for future generations too. Broccoli isn’t just 75 cents and that’s it; there’s far more of a story behind it. By paying more for goods like food, you can ensure that your growers are being paid fairly, that the premium is going back to help the communities determine what they want to develop next.

Do you think the culture around CSR in New Zealand is changing?

The culture in New Zealand is definitely changing. You can see it in even how positively people have reacted to Jacinda Ardern. We’re breaking norms more and we’re more receptive to that idea. Still, we’ve got a way to go.

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What advice would you give to companies thinking about developing community partnerships?

The main thing is that you have to be committed and passionate. Ethical businesses often have narrower margins because they’re paying more for their raw goods and they’re in competitive industries. It’s not always easy so if you’re only half-interested – don’t do it! It can be really rewarding though if you do have the staying power.

The other piece of advice would be to get advice! We’re not experts in community development and we don’t pretend to be, but we do have a great network of advisors around us between the fairtrade groups, the NGO we work with on the ground in Sierra Leone, and different business advisors. New Zealand business people tend to be really generous with their time too – so ask for help and you’re likely to get it.

What are Karma Cola’s goals for the future?

Right now, we work with eight communities and we’re focused on helping in the area of girl’s education. Often boys get to go to school in Sierra Leone, but if money is tight then it’s usually the girls that will miss out. We see it as the easiest way to create change at a large scale. We’d like to keep doing that and scaling our impact in this region.

You can read more about Karma Cola and their work over at their website, karmacola.co.nz, and you can also follow their story on Facebook or Instagram! Also - if you're feeling inspired and like the idea of forming a corporate-partnership with an NGO, like Karma Cola have so aptly done themselves, you can work with our team to do it! Step Changers is now offering consulting services, matching ordinary businesses with extraordinary causes, all over Asia, New Zealand, and the South Pacific. Contact our team to find out more. 

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InterviewsRosie