To compete independently against the world’s major fresh produce corporations, Colombia banana growers learned more than 40 years ago that it was imperative to band together — and that their employees were vital to success.

The first step was to form a cooperative, Uniban SA.

“Sustainability and social responsibility have been very trendy for the last few years, but because it’s a grower-owned company, those concepts have been the cooperative’s philosophy, the way we’ve operated for 40 years,” said Marion Tabard, marketing director for Coral Gables, Fla.-based Turbana Corp, the cooperative’s marketing division.

Social responsibility was a part of the cooperative from its inception, but was formalized in 1987 with the founding of Fundauniban, a social foundation aimed at improving living standards for employees, their families and their communities.

“In the beginning it was mainly a housing problem for the workers,” Tabard said.

As the years have passed, Fundauniban has tackled multiple issues, she said, thanks to the cooperative’s donations that now total more than $60 million. The effects have been far-reaching.

According to Fundauniban, Tabard said, the foundation has served 13,500 families, nearly 18,000 students and 5,400 adolescents.

It has provided more than 5,000 housing solutions, supported 15 educational institutions, funded the building of 19 aqueducts benefiting more than 27,000 people, and has provided loans and other support to nearly 4,000 small businesses and 5,800 start-up businesses, she said.

The cooperative’s social responsibility efforts have paid large dividends.

“Uniban has become the largest grower-owned banana company in the world,” Tabard said.

A small percentage from the sale of every box of Uniban/Turbana bananas is dedicated to fund the foundation.

In more recent years, the Uniban-backed foundation has provided medical care and psychological therapy. Colombia remains a third-world country, and many of its citizens lack basic health care, especially prenatal care, Tabard said.

Turbana reinforces the cooperative’s philosophy.

“We are focused upon family values, and our dedication to fruit quality, fast response times to our customers’ needs, and corporate responsibility is paramount,” Tabard said.

As for the cooperative’s reputation for sustainability and social responsibility, Tabard implied such efforts come with the territory.

“It was in the company’s interests to provide workers with basic needs,” she said.