Cynical about Fairtrade?

Someone asked me over the weekend what the best brand of tea was. Being English I am expected to be an expert on such things. My response was ‘Fairtrade’. This was met with some cynicism and critique of the Fairtrade label as a development strategy.

This week marks the beginning of Fairtrade fortnight:

Twenty years on from the launch of the Fairtrade Foundation as a charity by aid organisations Oxfam, Cafod, Christian Aid, Traidcraft, the World Development Movement and the National Federation of Women’s Institutes, it now reaches 1.5 million farmers and workers around the world, paying them a premium which goes toward better health and education, enabling many smallholders to survive the competitive pressures of a globalised market.

The Fairtrade movement has its fair share of critics, some arguing that it is only the privilege of those who can afford to ‘take their morals shopping’ and others insisting that Free Trade systems can offer the same benefits without the cost and bureaucracy.

The Fairtrade label is a unique strategy that tackles unfair and unjust trade practises by guaranteeing a fair price paid to producers for their produce. Producers are guaranteed a minimum price which must never fall below the market price and receive a premium which is then invested into social, environmental and economic development projects in the community identified by a committee of producers. The stringent standards and monitoring procedures ensure that every product bearing the Fairtrade label represents a producer who receives a fair wage. Other labels such as Rainforest Alliance demand similar levels of compliance but their standards are not as high or as comprehensive as Fairtrade.

However, Fairtrade is not just about consumers taking the moral high ground and paying a little extra for the swirly label on the side of the packet. The Fairtrade movement is far bigger than that. It represents organisations committed to addressing the deeper structural issues in the global trading system, engaging in advocacy and challenging the status quo. It offers a viable, workable alternative that not only ensures a fair price is paid, but helps to build up communities and empower them to strengthen their market position and tackle poverty.

Cynics might argue that it doesn’t work in practise, and that there will always be someone who loses out. However, the alternative Free Trade system fails in many respects and exploitation is rife within current trade practises. Fairtrade may only currently represent a drop in the ocean compared to the corporate giants who dominate the market, but it offers disadvantaged, discouraged producers a secure, sustainable wage, enabling them to step with confidence into the global market.

For the producers, if offers hope and a positive future and I would encourage consumers to take their morals shopping, for the sacrifice of spending an extra few pence can make the world of difference to an individual producer – even one on this little Caribbean island:

In my life, you know, I never thought that an organisation as important as Fairtrade could exist.  For us small producer, we are very committed to Fairtrade, we hope it will continue making progress; it is our means of survival here in the Dominican Republic.” 

But buying a more expensive packet of coffee is not enough to ensure really fair trade. Political action must accompany the consumer response. Companies are beginning to see the benefit of paying a fairer price to ensure the survival of their suppliers. Consumers are essential in driving the market, and Fairtrade is a means of pushing corporations, and governments, towards reform. Buying Fairtrade is a simple, yet significant step towards seeing unjust and unfair trading systems change.


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