Hmmm, I can feel a bit of a rant coming on . . .
I have long been suspicious of accolades, awards, qualifications and labels. From the little red triangles that my Mum used to sow onto my green Cubs shirt, to the Tourist Board diamond rating that can be so meaningless in terms of one’s anticipated B&B experience, I have often thought that such badges are little more than a passport to laziness, complacency, manipulation and even corruption. Just because a label such as Fair Trade benefits from good PR and the public’s sympathy vote, it does not guarantee infallibility or render it free from the manipulative influence of those who live by the laws of deviousness.
Earlier today, Sally was talking to a neighbour of ours about supermarkets and their impact, and the neighbour said, “Yes, but isn’t it good about Fair Trade and the way it gets people out of poverty?” Well, no. The truth is quite a long way from this common perception. To make matters worse, the level of unquestioning acceptance amongst the majority of the general public is astonishing. Doesn’t anyone become even mildly sceptical when they discover that their home town has suddenly declared itself to be a Fair Trade Town? And I hear that Wales is a Fair Trade Country. A Fair Trade Country?? What exactly does that mean? Sally and I live on the border of Wales and have spent a lot of time there over the years. It doesn’t look like a Fair Trade country to us. Quite frankly, it looks like everywhere else in terms of its retail business, i.e. overrun with supermarkets. They are the absolute antithesis of fair trade, but they do love to get their hands on any green badges that are up for grabs, so they tick the necessary boxes to get onto the bandwagon.
The line we are given, particularly by the supermarkets, whose PR execs like to bask in any green light available, is that Fair Trade ensures workers make a living wage. Not so, I’m afraid. It merely guarantees a minimum price paid to cooperatives and the like. Whether the coop passes on enough of the profits to the growers, or whether that minimum price can support living wages in the first place is beyond the scope of Fair Trade certification. On top of that, the negotiated price may well be fixed for a period of five years, on the pretext of protecting the growers from the vagaries of the market, but this means growers cannot benefit from advantageous market price rises within that period. Yet media journalists, social commentators and certain freelance writers keep peddling the same old half-truths, and the corporate retailers flaunt their Fair Trade status with puffed-up pride, despite the fact that Fair Trade still accounts for only about 1% of the whole world market.
Furthermore, even if the price paid to the growers is fair, there is no guarantee that child labour or other forms of exploitation are not present in the supply chain. That chain can be a long one, involving local buyers, wholesalers, packers, exporters, importers, processors, distributors and retailers. One thing that is guaranteed is that all of the people involved (particularly the retailers, who squeeze everyone else) will want their cut. How much room is there in such a chain for self-interest and corruption? Even an organisation as high profile as Kuapa Kokoo, the cooperative that supplies the chocolate for Divine, is not immune, because so many people are involved in the industry. Kuapa Kokoo is supplied by 1200 cocoa communities, made up of 45,000 farmers in 52 major growing districts in Ghana. The management recently had to suspend seven out of 33 communities in one district because they were using child labour, a serious problem throughout the cocoa growing regions of West Africa. In Ivory Coast, for example, it is estimated that 100,000 children are working as slaves instead of going to school. And let’s not forget that any given ‘cooperative’ or ‘grower’ may in fact be a Western corporate owner, whose plantation is being run by a local manager, with field labourers under his jurisdiction. Is there any guarantee that, in these circumstances, the labourers will get a fair wage? I think not.
I would like to think that Fair Trade is exactly that, but simple observation of the facts tells me that this is the case. We buy Fair Trade products for Aspen House in the hope that we are doing some good somewhere, but we still question the whole idea, because it looks to us to be flawed. Yet we seem to be virtually isolated in our thinking. Many consumers and greenies unquestioningly bestow Fair Trade with infallibility, accepting without question what they are told. Some of them might spend an inordinate amount of time navel-gazing about whether the coffee itself is actually good for them or not, but never question the Fair Trade label stuck on the bag. Just like those other logos – Freedom Foods, the Little Red Tractor, the Union Jack, etc, etc – the label gets no more than a cursory glance (and will not stand up to close scrutiny). It looks to me as if it is all too easy to accept the pronouncements of Higher Authority. Thus we have no need to question what we are told to believe. We have done what we have been asked to do. Blind faith is, and always was, a comfort. Blind faith means never having to engage in a truly meaningful discussion about what each of us can do to make the greatest positive impact on the challenges we face.
Most people desperately want to believe they can make a clear and constructive difference with an effortless, personal purchasing decision – something as simple as the label on their bag of coffee. The desire for such an uncomplicated solution to exist is so strong that many of us are willing to commit to the first promising thing that comes along. We can then live with a good conscience that we have played our part. Buy a VW Bluemotion Golf, drive all you want, and global warming is no longer your responsibility. For some, it’s that easy. But I wonder how many of us are just conveniently assuaging a secret guilt that we are not really living up to the ethical standards we set for ourselves?
The Fair Trade logo is selling us the feeling of being a benefactor, helping people out of poverty, but I see it as little better than an uncomplicated morality play in which any compliant consumer can act out the character of the morally conscious responsible citizen. I buy Fair Trade, therefore I am a Better Person. Sadly, this is nothing more than buying into a sales pitch which signposts the easy route to the moral high ground. The other route is more arduous and requires some extra effort.
That effort involves asking a lot more questions, and making decisions based on the subsequent answers. It might mean deciding not to buy a particular item because of having insufficient information to make a truly informed choice. Or it might mean working a lot harder in sourcing the kind of products that can carry a Fair Trade label. For instance, most of the disappointingly low 1% of trade that falls into the Fair Trade category goes through Big Business. Be suspicious, be very suspicious, because Big Business looks after itself, whatever badges it wears.
It is possible to find small businesses that deal directly with the growers who supply them, are upfront and transparent in flagging up their business ethos and are more than willing to converse with their customers. By way of example, at Aspen House we can offer coffee from James Gourmet and tea from Trumpers Teas, small-scale local businesses who deal directly with their own suppliers in order to pay them a fair price for their goods and bring a superior product to their customers. Such companies are still relatively scarce, but growing in number as demand for this kind of transparency increases. It takes effort to find them, and sometimes effort to buy their products (in that it might require online purchasing), but it is worth it because they show us the difference between Fair Trade and trading fairly. It’s a world of difference.
I want to believe that Fair Trade is the same as trading fairly, but I see nothing that persuades me. I want to be told I’m wrong, but I don’t think I am. I want the Fair Trade Foundation to point out that I have completely misunderstood it all, but I doubt if that will happen. Most of all though, I want more people to challenge what is written on the tablets of stone that are laid before us by the mouthpieces of the food industry, because with big business nothing is ever as it seems.