Words by Lydia Paleschi
An experimental business, trading in wild ideas and delicacies.
New Dawn Traders works with sailing cargo vessels to import produce from across the Atlantic Ocean and along European coastlines with zero compromise on ethics. Inspired by people, projects and businesses that promote resilience in local food systems, they work with a network of ships, producers and allies to build new models for supply chains that put people and the planet first.
Ninety per cent of everything we consume travels by cargo ship. Coffee from Colombia, pineapples from Costa Rica, cacao beans (chocolate) from Ghana, and olive oil from Portugal – most of it travels thousands of miles before reaching our homes and our cupboards. Goods considered luxury 50 years ago have become everyday staples. The choice we have has never been vaster. “But there is a price to pay for this,” says Alex Geldenhuys, founder of New Dawn Traders. “We pay through our health, through degradation to the environment and through unethical supply chains.”
Alex has been working for years to find a solution to these issues, exploring carbon-free transportation and providing fair prices for producers. Initially creating New Dawn Traders to see if it is possible to transport goods in an ethical and sustainable way, the company now functions as a brokerage, bringing together growers, customers and ship owners. Underpinned by a pre-order and collect model, risk is shared equally amongst its customers, who invest in the voyage as a whole. The outcome is that producers are paid a fair price for their goods, customers know exactly what they are buying and high-quality products are transported to UK shores with minimal environmental impact. However, it’s also about inspiring people to be curious about where their food comes from and understanding where their responsibility lies as consumers. Whilst Alex realises that responsibility isn’t on everyone’s shoulders equally, she believes that it is important for those with purchasing power to make good decisions: “The more we spend our money in ways that are ethically and environmentally beneficial, the more those choices become available to other people. Food is the one place where if you spend your money, it goes to the right people.”
Over the past years, Alex has been finding small producers that wouldn’t normally have an opportunity to export because of their scale compared to mass-producers. However, because of their size, they can give their best care to the land and to their communities, therefore making incredible and ethical produce that is full of flavour. “There are plenty of incredible producers out there”, Alex tells me. “However, the real challenge comes when competing with all of the choices in the UK.” According to Alex, much of the food available in supermarkets depends on economies of scale where producers are pushed down on price. These financial savings are often met with farmers not being paid enough, or with the land not being treated as well as it could be. In addition, there is a compromise on the quality of the produce, which is transported using fossil-fuel-intensive cargo ships. Alex believes that this distorts what the real cost of food is and that we have never been less connected to where food comes from. When I ask her what the solution is, she explains: “In an ethical utopia we’d probably be sourcing 90% of goods from our local biosphere. However, in reality there are thousands of solutions, including more sustainable ways to transport goods.
A large part of New Dawn Traders’ business model involves cargo being shipped under sail, powered by the wind instead of fossil fuels. They currently work with three tall ships, which transport produce from the European coastlines and even as far as the Caribbean. The ships are crewed by highly skilled skippers, alongside trainee sailors and volunteers who join for the experience for certain legs of the journey. When I ask Alex what the main benefits are to transporting goods under sail, she explains that, “it doesn’t just come down to fossil fuels. The global shipping industry has a much wider impact on the ocean, including sound pollution which affects sea mammals, cross-pollution of ecosystems through the movement of ballast water and large industrial harbours which impact not just the ocean, but also the people living near them.” However, whilst transporting goods by sail removes many of these issues, Alex explains that it doesn’t come without challenges of its own.
“When it works well, it works really well,” she tells me. “But, one of the main challenges is when a ship isn’t able to keep to a schedule. It creates a huge amount of administration and communication work reorganising all of the individual customers to change their plan.” Whilst weather patterns and seasons for shipping were once more consistent, climate change means “they are not quite as predictable any more,” she adds. Alex also explains that the shift in currents and weather patterns are creating issues for suppliers, who have experienced wildfires, droughts and even snow in June in recent years. Despite these challenges, New Dawn Traders is successfully transporting tonnes of goods to UK shores each year and sharing what they’ve learnt with other companies looking to do the same. Amongst their most popular produce is olive oil, panela and their exquisite single-origin Colombian coffee, which has been transported over 7,500 miles by the sailing cargo schooner De Gallant. New Dawn Traders also supply coffee beans to local roasters Yallah Coffee, who take great pride in high-quality, sustainably sourced produce.
When it comes to understanding whether transporting goods under sail is scalable, Alex reveals that whilst there is a real pressure to make change happen really quickly, the Government’s fossil fuel and shipping industry subsidies show that society is not ready for it yet. Nonetheless, businesses like New Dawn Traders are a fascinating example of what the future of trade could look like and are food for thought when it comes to understanding where goods come from. Whilst it is clear that issues with the food industry are incredibly complex, Alex explains that the main danger is “the feeling of inertia, where people feel like nothing they do will make an impact. It is important to remember that there are so many options and that how you choose to spend your money can make a difference.”