Take a Step Towards Fairtrade – But Keep Going

Today is the start of Fairtrade Fortnight in the UK – two weeks of promoting Fairtrade products and the positive benefits for developing world producers.

This year’s campaign is titled ‘Take a Step‘.

The basic idea of Fairtrade is that consumers pay a price premium, which is then fed back to the producer and their communities, to improve local welfare, support education and medial initiatives, provide investment capital, promote sustainable and democratic practices, support price stability, meet minimum welfare standards and provide a living wage for the workers involved.

Products wishing to display the Fairtrade logo, must register with Fairtrade International and comply with the requirements of the certification scheme.

A wide variety of fairtrade products are now available, including chocolate, coffee, tea, cotton, bananas, honey, gold, flowers, rice, sugar, wine and a wide variety of snacks and gifts. And an equally wide variety of celebrities have given their support – including Emma WatsonFearne CottonSteve Redgrave and Harry Hill.

But not everyone is so supportive.

Many of the critics are the usual ‘why should I pay more to help someone else, especially someone in another country’ type – which is a perfectly valid opinion of course, but an entirely personal one, and one I’d expect not too many readers of this blog share.

But some of the criticisms are different.

Many relate to specific practical aspects, such as failures of certification, debate about how the price premium is employed etc – some are more valid than others, and considered collectively they simply illustrate that no large complex system is perfect.

But there is another, more fundamental criticism of Fairtrade, and it’s one I largely agree with.

Can a few extra pence on the price of a jar of coffee really make an outstanding difference to the lives of the world’s poor ?

Are the ambitions of the Fairtrade movement far too low ? Does it risk kidding people into thinking that all they need to do to resolve the significant and multiple injustices of the global trade system, is to spend an extra pound or so a week on the weekly supermarket shop, in order to feel good that they’ve bought the bananas, tea bags, coffee and chocolate with the Fairtrade sticker on them ? Is it perhaps really more about assuaging the guilt of Western shoppers than ‘fixing’ the world ?

Fairtrade IS a fantastic way to get people thinking – to begin to consider the startling differences between their plentiful lives as they wander the aisles of their well stocked supermarket, and those living much harder and meager existences.

There are billions living in real poverty – the world is clearly not fair, and buying a few Fairtrade products will not by itself change this.

Sometimes I wonder how we’d feel if we were a Peruvian hill farmer being paid $5 a day for 10 hours of hard work growing chocolate that our families couldn’t afford to eat themselves, whilst knowing many rich Western companies make large profits selling chocolate to ‘well fed’ rich Western consumers, many of whom eat far more chocolate than is good for them. Would I still be happy with the term Fair Trade ?

Don’t get me wrong, I AM a big supporter of Fairtrade, I know it does make a difference to the lives of many farmers. I buy Fairtrade whenever I can, and encourage others to consider doing likewise, but I feel strongly that we can’t leave it there. We must also do more.

The philosopher and political commentator Slavoj Zizek quotes Oscar Wilde in his illustrated talk below, and discusses the need to address the core problem, “reconstructing society in a way so that poverty is eradicated, and charity is no longer necessary”.

In the meantime we should keep buying Fairtrade, of course – and encourage our friends and family to do likewise. It’s a great first step on the road to a Fairer World – but we mustn’t loose sight of the fact there’s still a long way to go !


Photo by Ian Ransley Design and Illustration, via Flickr

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  1. A Fair Deal Locally says:

    Not only should we do more but we can do more!! I buy most fairtrade products from small companies like Traidcraft, rather than in the supermarket. This is because the profits go a dedicated fair trade organisation rather than to the supermarket shareholders. By buying from such companies, and in particular their fair trader stalls, more money goes into helping the communities they invest in.

    • I absolutely agree with that. Traidcraft and others like them are always going to be more ethical than any supermarket. It does not matter how a transnational retailer dresses itself up, it is still a highly competitive, profit-driven corporation and cannot be trusted to look after anyone’s interests but its own.

  2. Good point Rob – the idea of ‘trading fairly’ should apply not only to those in extreme poverty around the world, but to our own economies too.

    It’s an issue of removing so called externalities from the price we pay – so that, for example, the costs of rectifying environmental damage, pollution, sustainable reinvestment etc – is not captured within the price the market pays, but left for someone else.

    In many cases it is the role of regulation to ensure producers/operators address these ‘externalitie’ and remain responsible for the consequences of their actions . . . but that’s a whole other article :)

  3. I think the title of this piece says it all! We should look at Fairtrade as one way of flagging up the unfairness in the world today. What we should not do is to accept that the Fairtrade logo on a packet of tea is any kind of guarantee that we are ‘doing right’ by those in involved in bringing that tea to us. Watch out for parastic middlemen! I have tried to piont out some of the pitfalls in my own blog of 5th August 2011.

    As you suggest, Fairtrade is a start, and it should be used as a nudge that we need to think hard about how goods are supplied to us. Whilst doing that, we should also bear in mind that unfair trade is going on right here on our doorstep, but in this case we can make a REAL visible difference through our purchasing decisions.

    To quote one example: I buy my milk from a local dairyman. It is the best milk that money can buy, coming from a pasture-fed organic small Jersey herd. It is unpasteurised, un-homogenised and un-standardised – it’s the real thing and it’s like nectar. I pay £1.50 per litre for it (it’s worth every penny), but if the dairyman has to sell it wholesale, so that all the middlemen can make a profit before it hits the supermarket, the price he is forced to accept is 19p a litre – about 10p a litre less than it costs him to produce it!

    So, a litre of milk in a supermarket is not fairly traded, and we would do well to think about the wider implications of fair trade every time we make a purchase.

    • Don’t get me started on the price of milk!! I paid £1.74 for 6 pints today in Morrisions. I was disgusted it was so cheap. It is rediculous. Last week I got cross in the Co-Op for advertising they’d slashed the price of milk! I would rather see a sign explaining that its increased because the farmer needs to make a living from milking cows!! Its no wonder the dairy industry is on its knees!! If I am in Waitrose or Morrisons, I usually buy non-homogenised milk (none there today) a) because its unfiddled food and b) its yummy. Unfortuantly, both these supermarkets are quite a distance so I can only get it when I’m near them. Whats even more annoying is my husband is a farmer and has cows!! But not the milking sort.

      • Sadly, milk is what the supermarkets call a ‘loss-leader’ (along with bread, baked beans and others). Loss leaders are items the supermarket is prepared to sell underpriced in order to get you through their door rather than the door of the competitor down the road. But supermarkets like to make a profit even on loss leaders, so their economic leverage in the market place (i.e. they dictate prices to the supply chain) is such that they dictate a price to the wholesaler that still delivers a profit for the supermarket. The wholesaler then simply slashes the price further down the supply chain in order to retain his own profit, and the person right at the start of the supply chain (the dairy farmer) is the one that gets shafted.

        And if you want to know the truth about the kind of milk you can get in the supermarket (even non-homogenised organic whole milk) feel free to email me! Always glad to help!

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