Most of us are aware of fair trade and have seen the Fairtrade Mark on products lining shelves up and down the country… but what does it really mean, how does it work, why is it important and how can consumers really be sure that they’re buying products which have been fairly-traded?
Whether you’re interested yourself or want a handy resource to share with friends and family to spread the word – we’ve grabbed our Mission and Transparency Lead, Robin Roth, for a quick-fire Q&A, scratching the surface of Fairtrade.
What is Fairtrade?
Fairtrade - written as one word - is an international standards and certification system in which producers and buyers agree to uphold certain minimum standards and payments and in return their product can be labelled with a Fairtrade Mark. Think of it as a kind of “organic” system for the way buyers and farmers behave. The whole system began with small, engaged social enterprises, like Traidcraft, wanting to improve farmers’ conditions by supporting them and paying well over the market rates to give them the necessary finance. In those days there were no standards just vibrant relationships between buyers and sellers. The Fairtrade label was introduced in 1992. To find out more about the origins of fair trade in the UK, see our about us page.
How does Fairtrade work?
Farmers agree to produce their crops according to certain guidelines: minimal pesticide use and ensuring that workers are paid adequately, for example. Buyers commit to paying a decent price, though they don’t have to ensure that their own workers are well paid or looked after. An inspector will come and check that everything has been done according to the rules.
These ‘rules’ are written by Fairtrade International, an NGO based in Bonn, Germany. Both farmers and national Fairtrade organisations like the Fairtrade Foundation in the UK (of whom Traidcraft are co-founders) get to set the rules together. Businesses then have a choice of buying Fairtrade products – or not.
What industries does Fairtrade cover?
Fairtrade started with coffee and most products that have been added to the list subsequently are classic colonial products like tea, sugar, rice, juice and cocoa. This reflects our trading history and Fairtrade is very much an attempt to undo some of the immense damage that our colonial past inflicted on many farmers. Fairtrade is undeniably political – colonialism established huge plantations of mono-crops which were not always indigenous, like sugar in the West Indies and tea in Darjeeling. Farmers – or more likely workers – on these plantations were left working with no real opportunity to feed themselves once they had done their labour.
Why is Fairtrade so important/such a good thing?
Neo-liberal economics demands the lowest possible price for each and every commodity. Unlike manufactured products, farmers are a subject to wild swings in weather conditions and extended investment periods (a coffee plant can take up to seven years to fruit). In our frenzy to have everything as cheap as possible, and in our careless use of fossil fuels, we are driving millions of farmers off their land and into mega cities where they have very few opportunities. We are driving the people who feed us into bankruptcy and that doesn’t seem like a good long-term strategy. Fairtrade is, if nothing else, a moment to reflect on what the hell we think we are really doing when we buy food.
Why is Fairtrade still as important today as it was when it initially started?
Fairtrade is critical, but it is no more critical than growing food organically, sustainably and with forest cover. It is not sensible to take one aspect of concern and see it as a separate issue from all the other challenges faced by farmers. This is equally true of our farmers here in Britain who are paid pitiful amounts for their produce in the name of “consumer choice”. We need a well-rounded view of food that begins with local, organic and seasonal production and embraces Fairtrade where this is not possible. In my opinion, Fairtrade food that is not also organic is a contradiction in terms.
How can people be sure they’re buying Fairtrade?
The Fairtrade Mark ensures that minimum standards have been observed, which is a good start. Companies like Traidcraft, however, have a more nuanced view which focuses not on a set of minimum standards, but on a holistic approach to food. We deliberately only buy food from smallholders (farmers who own their own land) and not from plantations which are often owned by mega-corporations. We focus on organic produce wherever possible and on good food quality. Our philosophy extends to how we treat our own staff, the rights of non-discrimination, self-organisation, for opportunities to train ourselves and for the pay gap between top and bottom to be no more than a factor of 2.6. This is all embedded in what fair trade (written as two words) always set out to achieve.
How does Fairtrade ensure a better life for people?
It doesn’t. The idea that if you pay more money, or higher wages to somebody does not necessarily mean they have a better life. It still requires the farmer or the worker to use that money to invest in things like education, farm machinery or health. Fairtrade does not force farmers to do this, but it certainly encourages them. I have met many farmers who did not use the additional income for any particular long-term benefit, but I have also met some fabulous examples of young people – particularly young girls – who have embraced every helping hand that was proffered and are now doctors, lawyers, farm managers or even politicians. That’s magic. That why I love working for a company like Traidcraft.
Content courtesy of Tradecraft