Fairtrade Fortnight Fun!

The 24th of February to the 8th of March is Fairtrade Fortnight in UK. This year the University of Edinburgh is celebrating its ten year anniversary of becoming Scotland’s first Fairtrade University and they are holding events to celebrate this fact. I attended a public lecture held in the stunning surroundings of the Playfair Library in the historic Old College of Edinburgh – it is a beautiful building if you are ever in Edinburgh you should try to visit it. The lecture was entitled Does Fair Trade make a difference? and the key note speaker was Paul Chandler, former chief executive of leading fair trade organisation Traidcraft. I did not manage to stay for the full event but I did listen to the whole of the speech from Paul Chandler which I thought I would do a short write up on. I hope you enjoy it!

The theme ‘Does Fair Trade make a difference?’ was a great one to choose, while most if not all the attendees were supportive of fair trade Paul Chandler did his best to help us all be able to answer the questions and criticisms of fair trade that are often put out there.

First though some interesting facts:

In the UK in 2012 sales of fair trade products were worth around £1.7billion

The growth in the sales of fair trade products was largely unaffected by the economic downturn

In 2012 (again in the UK) a quarter of all roasted and ground coffee sold was fair trade

But is this just a marketing ploy? Does fair trade actually have a negative impact? Does fair trade prop up unsustainable farming and business methods? Has the fair trade “brand” sold its soul to join with big business?

First Paul Chandler discussed the free market economists argument against fair trade, this is one that I have been involved with before with people arguing that all fair trade does is keep non-viable businesses in business. Without fair trade people would have to adapt and change their practices leading to greater wealth in the future. Putting aside the arguments about whether we have a “free trade” economy or not it is true that if the market is left to its own devices greater wealth would be likely to occur BUT the market does not always have our best social interests at heart. We would have to question whether the dramatic human impact that the free market argument would have. People would end up destitute and unable to raise the capital to make the transition from their current production, this may even out over time but that is a big may – do the ends justify the means? On top of that we have seen that the free market does not create wealth equally as throughout the world we have seen inequality grow alongside wealth.

The free market argument that fair trade props up unsustainable business practices is also simply untrue. Far from fair trade keeping people trapped in old methods of production it allows producers to have access to capital to allow them to modernise. Paul Chandler also made the rather intriguing point that fair trade is actually a free market solution to poverty, the consumer is choosing to buy that product with all the alternative options that are available. However, fair trade products do show that we don’t just buy on economic choice of individual benefit.

Paul Chandler then discussed the next argument often heard about fair trade that is has sold its soul by allowing big brands such as Cadbury and the dreaded Nestle to use the mark on their products, Chandler said that this is an understandable feeling. The motivation of the big companies is very different from the committed small brands – their involvement with fair trade would disappear if the consumer demand vanished! There is also the very real danger that big companies try to dilute the mark. However, Paul Chandler argued that if we are wanting to make a real impact then we need to work with the big companies and retailers.

As a final part of the first section of his talk Paul Chandler turned to the more recent criticism made of fair trade that it is a marketing ploy. That fair trade does not make a difference, that people still live in poverty. Journalists head to areas that produce fair trade produce and find people still poor, then the charge is levelled that fair trade is simply smoke and mirrors. Chandler refutes this entirely, first he commented on how great it is that we have people scrutinising fair trade, it makes everyone involved in fair trade focused on doing things correctly (indeed he later spoke about the independent audits Traidcraft had done on their projects – fantastic idea). However, all that these investigations by journalists are showing is that fair trade works with the poor – fair trade is a tool for sustainable development. Also fair trade is only a small % of what the producers make and therefore can’t transform lives and areas in the way in which is it sometimes expected to.

Chandler then spoke about three case studies – the producers of jute bags (one of Traidcraft’s longest standing fair trade relationships), fair trade cotton produced in India and a case study with a local context in Bangladesh. These case studies were interesting to hear about as each had differing effects. While the producers of the jute bags were still poor and still dependent upon subsistence farming they had been able to use the extra money from the fair trade to send their kids to school and even University – the differences were being seen across generations and in a world where we tend to want instant results it can be difficult to stop and look for deeper results instead. Chandler also found that being involved in fair trade, and it should be noted that these fair trade products were a supplementary income, had particular benefits for women increasing their confidence, allowing them to buy land and enable them to have an increased status in the family.

In the case of the fair trade cotton from India, Traidcraft commissioned Mott Macdonald to undertake an investigation into the difference that being involved with fair trade has made. The report found that overall income levels had remained the same, by going organic the yields had gone down. However, now 60% of income comes from the cotton rather than 90% making it a more stable income and alongside the fact they no longer need to shell out for pesticides the farmers can invest in new technologies such as drip irrigation and there is talk of investment in a cotton gin plant thus diversifying further.

The final case study touched upon the relatively newer path that fair trade has taken with looking at a more local context within countries, Bangladesh in this instance and examining whether the tenets of fair trade can actually be made to work on a smaller level thus helping more types of farmers. There has been work going on with how to channel private supply chain expertise down to the local farmer and the creation of support groups. So far in one region income levels have risen by 60% for those within the scheme while out with the scheme income levels rose by 20%. It is still quite early in this scheme to evaluate its success but it is certainly showing an interesting initial results.

Chandler summed up by explaining that fair trade is not a silver bullet or a perfect scheme, it has a positive impact but not always through income. It is worth noting that the fair trade mark has raised public awareness of global poverty and allowed consumers an option to make a difference as individuals. Fair trade is very successful within schools in the UK helping to nurture the natural sense of fairness that kids have alongside the idea of being a global citizen. Fair trade has also contributed to the boom in companies producing Corporate Social Responsibility policies and documents (of course these have their flaws), I mean would you ever have thought that KitKat would go fair trade?

In his closing remarks Paul Chandler talked about what next for fair trade and for the University of Edinburgh’s role as a fair trade University. He spoke about the potential watering down of the fair trade mark (cue much booing in the audience) and whether fair trade should be a gold standard or should it be made easier to achieve to allow more items to be labelled as fair trade? Should the fair trade mark be in a different place on the wrapper to denote how fair trade it is? There is also the idea of fair trade branching out and including the living wage campaign or seasonal/migrant workers? How about combining fair trade ingredients with local produce to help farmers struggling closer to home? He also discussed increasing the range of fair trade products, for example ranges using sustainable palm oil. In the case of the University he suggested that rather than focus research upon the traditional areas of fair trade versus non-fair trade that it would be more beneficial to look into the impact that the different parts of fair trade have and how successful they are. In closing he stated that we are at a point where we should have a lot of hope for fair trade and there are great opportunities but that we cannot be complacent.

The University did record the event but I currently cannot find a link to that recording, I will post it when I can. In the meantime here is a link to University’s fair trade website http://www.ed.ac.uk/about/sustainability/fairtrade

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