What’s Fair about Fair Trade

What’s Fair about Fairtrade?


Well we’re now coming to the end of Fairtrade Fortnight in the UK.   I hope you were able to take part in some of the events, such as Fairtrade Foundation’s ‘Sit down for breakfast, stand up for farmers!’ campaign, or grab a tasty Fairtrade muffin (or two).  The Fortnight has undoubtedly raised the profile of Fairtrade but I did come across some misunderstandings and cynicism on the subject – people confusing Fairtrade with charity or a fear that Fairtrade somehow went against our farmers at home.  This blog is my take on the subject and I hope it will help with some of the misunderstandings and concerns that people have.

There have been some wonderful events going on this past couple of weeks, but my guess is that they passed some people by altogether – partly due to the business of life (where we work, who we know) and partly the general tunnel vision that often takes us over. I gave talks at two primary schools during Fairtrade fortnight and children have a refreshingly simple view on Fairtrade – it’s just the right way to do things.

Fairtrade is NOT Charity

Many people have a misconception about Fairtrade and shy away from it, believing it’s about giving away their hard earned cash to someone else. This is not the case. Fairtrade is the opposite of charity in that it is ensuring that the people who make and grow our products are receiving the correct payment for their goods. You just have to think a little bit to realise that for every cheap product we buy the shop will take their cut, the wholesaler will take their cut and the freight company will take their cut, so that the person right at the beginning is left with very little. There’s something crazy about a farmer who grows food for us not being able afford to feed his or her own family. But this is the truth. If you don’t like charity then Fairtrade is more likely to be for you as it is rewarding the producers for their hard work rather than forcing them to live on hand outs.

Producers are People Too

Jo and patrick

It is much easier to ignore the issue if you don’t have any idea of who actually made your products. The majority of people don’t want to think of their food being farmed by starving farmers, their clothes being sewn by slave labour or the cocoa for their children’s’ Easter Eggs being harvested by young children armed with machetes. Building a connection, so that we affirm to ourselves that these are people with lives and rights too, is what the Fairtrade movement does. Last week in Ipswich (where I live) we had a visit from Patrick, a Fairtrade tea farmer from Kenya and I met up with him at our local (wonderful) Fairtrade Shop. Patrick explained that he sells only 3% of his tea using the Fairtrade model, the remaining 97% being bought using standard market methods. However the premium gained from only that 3% has enabled them to build a maternity hospital – literally a life saver for the women who were giving birth without medical care. At Where Does It Come From? we strongly believe that the more you know about the people who make your product, the stronger the bond you will have with it and the less likely you will be to waste it – this is why we provide garment stories for all our clothes.

How does Fairtrade work?

MARK - colour small

Now the next bit is a bit heavy, so feel free to skip on to the next paragraph if you don’t want the mechanistic detail ……. 🙂  I believe that change happens most effectively when people work together and form a movement.   The concept of Fairtrade has been around since the second world war (although there were many ‘moral trading’ frameworks before that). Now there are 25 Fairtrade organisations across the world, co-ordinated by Fairtrade International.  There is also  FLO-CERT which is the organisation responsible for awarding Fairtrade accreditation after auditing the producers and the supply chain for each product. In the UK our main Fairtrade organisation is the Fairtrade Foundation who promote Fairtrade products, support voluntary groups in towns, schools and universities and licence the use of the Fairtrade Mark (which hopefully you will recognise!) in the UK. We also have BAFTS (The British Association of Fairtrade Shops and Suppliers) which is a membership group for businesses involved in Fairtrade retailing.

Becoming certified to use the Fairtrade Mark on products is not easy – I know this from personal experience – but if it was too easy the whole system could be open for abuse. It is also expensive to apply for and use the mark, which tends to mean that smaller businesses and suppliers in developing countries are excluded. It works best for farmers and producers who can group together under a large umberella organisation that handles the administration (such as Café Direct for tea and coffee and Agrocel and Chetna for cotton).  On the brand end it works best for large companies who can make the financial commitment required to register and audit their whole supply chain and to commit to purchase a set amount of Fairtrade product going forward. It’s extremely positive that big businesses such as Cadburys and Marks and Spencer are committing to the Fairtrade Mark as it implies that they believe that their customers are demanding it – and these are the guys with the large marketing departments who have tested the theory.  According to Ethical Consumer Magazine the Fairtrade market has grown 10% per year since 2000 so there is certainly data to back up their plans.

But What About the Smaller Businesses?

Rafiqubhai dyes fabric for Where Does It Come From? scarves

But there are smaller, start up businesses that are following Fairtrade principles too. Where Does It Come From?, being a young business, is earlier in its certification journey. We are currently licenced by the Fairtrade Foundation and members of BAFTS, but we have not achieved full certification for our whole supply chain as yet – not because we are not Fairtrade but because it takes time and money. Not only does Where Does It Come From? need to pay for audits and licences but we need to persuade our suppliers and their suppliers, who are mainly co-operatives, to do so too. They are members of the Fairtrade Forum India and the Khadi Village Industry Commission and need persuasion that they should pay to join something else as well!

Other younger businesses that we are big fans of, such as Arthur and Henry and What Daisy Did are also on this journey. The fabulous Peopletree, which has been working in Fairtrade Fashion for over 20 years, is a lot further along the road.  But what we all have in common is our belief in Fairtrade and our determination to ensure that our producers are treated with respect and justice.

So How Do You Buy Fairtrade?


Well the simplest answer is to look for the Fairtrade Mark on your products. You can buy anything from bananas and chocolate to tea and coffee if you are looking for foodstuffs, and you can also buy gold, cotton and flowers with the Fairtrade Mark. If you see the Mark then respect it – it’s been hard won!

If something is claiming to be Fairtrade but doesn’t yet have the mark then look for membership of an organisation such as BAFTS or an international accreditation – it may be that the organisation is still working towards formal UK certification or that they just can’t afford it.   If the retailers can tell you about the people who have produced what you are buying, then that human connection exists.

Patrick the Kenyan tea farmer told us that a penny in the UK is practically worthless and just left on the street if dropped. However if everyone paid just a penny more for their box of tea bags the difference to the farmers would be collosal. By far the biggest power that we have as individuals is in how we spend our money and what we choose to do makes a BIG difference. So when you shop think about the people who made or grew what you are buying, look at ALL the labels – not just the price tag – and take a step to change the world.

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