When, in 2017, Sainsbury’s announced that it was planning to develop its own “fairly traded” mark, more than 100,000 people signed a petition condemning the move. Today, on the eve of Fairtrade Fortnight, the fact that most supermarkets have moved away from the standards developed by the Fairtrade Foundation is worrying.
While some grocery chains have sought the foundation’s stamp of approval, many have gone their own way. This means most consumers have little sense of which organisation is doing what to protect the wages and rights of developing world workers. Over the next two weeks, the foundation plans to focus its publicity efforts on cocoa farmers in west Africa and the way the Fairtrade mark can improve their lives.
Later this year, the base price of Fairtrade cocoa will increase by 20% from $2,000 a tonne to $2,400. The premium farmers put aside for community projects will also rise by 20%, from $200 to $240. This is great news for the farmers who are part of the scheme – and the higher price is easily within the pockets of chocolate lovers in the rich west.
It is a premium on today’s open market price, which stands at around $2,260 a tonne, and protects farmers from the drops in value that hit the industry in 2017, when it dipped below $2,000.
Yet the focus on cocoa reveals the limits of the Fairtrade system, which was once going to provide a popular alternative to most goods sold on the high street. There are standards for everything from cotton to gold and flowers, but such products are usually only available at specialist providers or the Co-op.
The foundation has tried to persuade some bulk buyers to buy marked goods only, and has had some success. For instance, Transport for London has made sure that the safety vests it provides to staff are made of Fairtrade cotton.
But more local authorities, government agencies and corporations need to follow this lead, ensuring that when they place orders in the thousands, it is always for a Fairtrade product.
Big businesses, with their large personnel departments, have the resources to explain to their workers why Fairtrade matters when they buy stuff, and what it means for those people at the other end of the production process.
But in other sectors, it is left to the Fairtrade Foundation to publicise its efforts and achievements – with the help of its most active members, such as Divine Chocolate.
That is a sad situation. After the great financial crash of 2008, a commodity boom that lasted from 2013 to 2017 turned into a slump that has robbed farmers and developing world governments of vital cash. Just as they were managing to stabilise their finances and set aside money to invest, the world price tumbled and wiped out their profit. Fairtrade practices protect farmers from this sort of setback and allow them to plan for the future.
Of course they have their critics. These are most mostly from the US – people who favour unfettered markets and seek to undermine the Fairtrade ideal, saying it is a form of protectionism that dampens innovation and ultimately ruins farms.
Theirs is an almost religious adherence to the free market that discounts the gains in stability and security that Fairtrade provides, and the scope of the community premium to promote universal education and the rights of women.
But without large employers making strides to adopt the standardised and transparent Fairtrade practices put forward by the foundation, it will be left to consumers to drive the project forward.