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 Watson, Fearne Cotton, Steve 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