Is the FairTrade Foundation settling for 2nd best?

Friday, 16th March 2007 at 9:00 UTC Leave a comment

Back in FairTrade fortnight, I saw a window display in Marks & Spencer’s* declaring that FairTrade products were on sale. Its nice to see the FairTrade logo is popping up in lots of places that it didn’t a few years ago. But have we got to a point where FairTrade, as a brand, is failing to seek new challenges for itself? Is the FT Foundation, which ‘owns’ the brand, and the right to stamp it on the products it chooses, allowing it to become so mainstream as to lack any radical edge?

When I first encountered FairTrade, it was radical. Almost no one knew what the symbol meant. There were only a handful of shops that described themselves as such. Products with the logo were to be revered. Most ‘fairly traded’ products hadn’t even been given the stamp of approval. You could almost feel the sense of joy the product brought to the people who made it. OK, that might have just been my addiction to Maya Gold making me feel that!

Now the logo appears on hundreds of products. This isn’t a problem in itself; obviously its something to celebrate. However, what started out as a radical venture has become so mainstream that to even suggest debating the amount that of good that FairTrade does in Africa is getting risky. When I first bought FairTrade, there was a distinct sense of two-fingers to Nestle and Mars, and all the other multinationals that we no let into our kitchen cupboards.

Don’t get me wrong, I understand that FairTrade isn’t anti-capitalist. It was certainly reasonably anti-globalisation when it started, but that’s mostly dead any gone. Ironically, its the products which are described as ‘fairly traded’ (i.e. without the logo) that are often most radical: the olive oil from Palestine and the Coffee from Zapatista’s, both of which are direct products of a social struggles. These niche products don’t need, and for various reasons can’t get, the official accreditation in order to sell, despite, or perhaps because of their connection to struggles.

The problem is that there seem to be two competing aspirations for FairTrade. One is to stamp as many products as possible, while maintaining a bare minimum standard of justice. This encourages multinationals to smarten up on their act, and to deal with farmers cooperatives that wouldn’t otherwise get FairTrade.

The other aspiration, one I feel ever stronger, is to use FairTrade as a weapon against multinationals. They hold so much power in this world, why should we allow them to feel good about themselves? Just because Nestle makes FairTrade products doesn’t mean it isn’t still the same bullying, killing Nestle that wants to rip off companies.

This goes back to the time old debate of the FairTrade movement: certify products or certify companies? If you certify companies, most of the multinationals will never think to become certified. Why should they? Why shouldn’t new companies, armed with a specific vision for creating a just world, i.e. TraidCraft, get all the credit for being ethical. FairTrade can do a lot more, and expanding the volume of sales is only one part of this, transforming entire markets by replacing traditional profit-driven companies with new, ethics-focused ones would be one way to go.

Then there’s the other problem. FairTrade T-Shirt? Was it made with organic cotton, picked by workers paid a fair wage, woven and then cut and sewn in factories with high safety standards, truly liveable wages, and then transported to the UK by the most environmentally friendly route possible? Its fine to say that a T-Shirt is made with FairTrade or even FT/Organic cotton, but other people may well have been exploited on route. I’m always curious for reports on employment standards in the shipping industry, by the way.

FairTrade is a great logo for declaring that primary workers (i.e. those working in primary industries, like farming) have received their dues. Food and drink is the biggest area of FairTrade sales, providing justice for thousands across Africa and Latin America. But in Asia, there’s no FairTrade equivalent for those who must slave away in sweatshops producing consumer goods; computer parts, toasters, the non-hippy clothes that non-FairTrade-buyers wear. For these people, there’s little consolation yet. For most, the logo stands to achieve very little.

To me, it isn’t that FairTrade is completely failing, or that it is a negative influence, though others may argue this. To me it’s hard to see how FairTrade will improve in the next few years. Yes, sales will increase. Yes, people will become more aware of it. But will new levels of justice be reached for those who have FairTrade deals, who still find life that is far less than perfect?

I’d suggest that something needs to be done to ensure that justice doesn’t stop at convincing people that FairTrade is good. It must go on to convince people that small enterprises and ethics-focused importers are the way forwards. We must be careful not to ignore the plight of workers in this country, or indeed anywhere that isn’t a farm or a small workshop creating FairTrade trinkets. There must be room for conveying the importance of a world without the multinationals who created these problems, and so many more, in the first place. We shouldn’t settle for half-justice simply in order to boost the popularity of otherwise evil corporations.

* I am aware of the outstanding ethical issue of M&S and it’s relationship with Israel, but have deliberately chosen not to refer to it in this article.

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Entry filed under: Africa, Economics, FairTrade, NGO.

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