The Failure of Fairtrade

Sunday, 14th March 2010 at 9:00 UTC 5 comments

Fairtrade could either be said to be reaching the heights of success, or the depths of defeat. Much as its great to see the mainstream take up of Fairtrade, many of the earliest intentions of those involved in the Fairtrade movement have been so completely lost that questions have to be asked about the usefulness of pursuing the Fairtrade project in its current shape any further.

We had a debate at York University during Fairtrade Fortnight. I say we, as I actually suggested the original format idea, and then did almost nothing about it. It became a debate between a member of the board at Fairtrade Foundation, the chair of York Fairtrade forum, a representative of the SWP and the chair of Ultra-Libertarian Freedom Society.

It made for a wide open discussion of the strengths and weaknesses as seen from the left and right ends of the spectrum. Sadly, with the Freedom Soc rep saying the most outrageous things, it was hard to really pull the debate onto the stronger leftist critiques of Fairtrade.

I asked a couple of rather passionate if not entirely brilliantly worded questions. They were an attempt to drag the debate onto some of the biggest problems threatening the Fairtrade project at the moment, namely the imposition of the Supermarket model, whereby Fairtrade is now mediated through one of the biggest causes of the problem it sought to solve, and the adoption of the brand by companies that are gaining more money and good will from using it than they are losing their own profits.

Another problem was brought to my attention last night. It used to be that Fairtrade bananas were guaranteed to come from worker-owned small holdings. It turns out that the UK labelling organisation, the Fairtrade Foundation, is also accrediting plantation bananas. This brings into question whether these can really be described as fairly traded bananas in the first place, as the original motivation for bringing bananas inside the fairtrade labelling setup was an attempt to get new markets for small holders, who were not only being squeezed by the markets but by the banana barons who have seized the means of production from the workers and employed them as wage slaves. In essence we have two very different definitions of Fairtrade going on.

One of the motivating factors of the original Fairtrade movement was bringing the worker closer to the consumer, cutting out the rich who sought to act as gateways, guardians and overlords of our food supply and their work. There was always a slight anomaly when it came to smiling farmers on the backs of food packets, as they were often representatives of coops, one amongst a number of co-owners, the rest being left invisible but not diminished. But what they weren’t were the photogenic choices of bosses, used to promote a product they have little control over, to the benefit of a removed and still invisible land owner.

If Fairtrade being available in supermarkets, easily identifiable to shoppers by a simple criteria (the presence of a logo, someone else having done the hard work with the full criteria list) was meant to make ethics easy for the consumer, then what has actually happened is that the labelling scheme the concept of fairly traded goods work for the supermarkets.

How this could be made to work any differently is a subject that needs debating; right now the Foundation refuses to supply speakers to meetings to discuss the ideas around Fairtrade unless its to attract people from the political centre and right, or the totally apathetic. As the small huddle on the left side of Fairtrade gets bigger and louder, I wonder whether this will change.

But why does it matter that Fairtrade should be kept out of supermarkets? Well, there are several reasons, but one is a simply issue of rewarding the longest serving and most dedicated Fairtrade supporters. In the current economic climate, many of the members of the British Association of Fairtrade Shops (BAFTS) are facing closure. These are often run on very tight margins by people who have put their entire financial stability on the line for the movement, not just quitting other jobs, but taking on the rent of a shop as well. Many are already forced to rely on volunteers, essentially qualifying them as economically unviable.

When I first read leaflets explaining the Fairtrade concept, I was excited to see that an alternative to the economics of supermarkets was being proposed. I can think up a dozen futures for Fairtrade, but none of them are represented by the Fairtrade Foundations current direction. If there’s a time and place to discuss the future of a movement, this is it. What do you think?


Entry filed under: Activism, Development, Economics, FairTrade, Marketing, Sustainability.

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5 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Froth  |  Sunday, 14th March 2010 at 17:14 UTC

    To be honest, I don’t think it’s a bad thing to distinguish between Fair Trade and Small Trade. Fairtrade means something very simple: the people who grew this food got paid enough to live on. That’s it. The intentions of the people who started the movement may have been more complex, but what the Fairtrade logo communicates now is that the third party you are buying the food from paid the people who grew it some money.
    I think Small Trade is an immensely important thing, and something we need to start doing as a society. We need to get away from the convenience of monopolies and do the much harder and more grown-up thing of knowing what we’re eating, and where it came from, and whether the person who grew it was paid enough to keep growing it next year. But that’s a different question to Fairtrade, which is based on somebody telling you that the grower was paid, because they’re too far away or too anonymous for you to know otherwise.
    Fairtrade is only necessary in a world of Big Trade. What Fairtrade does is make a tiny section of mass-importation – the money given to the growers – slightly more visible. In a world of Small Trade, we wouldn’t need that, because we’d buy our apples from the farmer down the valley, and our bananas from Mrs Jones the grocer, who imports them by the crate straight from the grower.

  • 2. Lizzie  |  Sunday, 14th March 2010 at 19:47 UTC

    I’d second the above. I prefer to buy fair trade because I know the grower was paid enough to live on. I also prefer to buy from people like the greengrocers and the butchers down the road, co-operatives and BAFTS shops because I know the person or organisation getting the product to me knows and cares about where the product comes from.

    How to transform the way our food is sourced is a different question to whether to support fair trade. Giving up on fair trade because it has become diluted is like buying battery eggs because not all free range egg farmers meet your standards.

  • 3. Steve th  |  Monday, 22nd March 2010 at 10:24 UTC

    There may be a legit point on fair trade standards being relaxed but most of blog seems to take an overly negative approach. If fair trade matters and changes lives then it co operating with the mainstream – supermarkets and multi nationals makes sense.
    Would be interesting to see criteria used for large plantations and debate in detail.
    Campaigns for local shopping, and against supermarkets are something seperate, and need to be. You can hate the supermarkets and multi nats as much as you like but thats still how the mainstream shop, thats where fair trade needs to be now.
    One of the early criticisms of f t was that it was small scale selling to smug middle class types,
    Rather than something that would change the mainstream. Now its starting to change things, and your moaning seemingly wanting to go back to good old days when fair trade coffee tasted shit, cost a fortune and only place to buy it was from an old lady at the back of church. Personaly i like being able to nip into somerfield ( part of the co op) after work and buy fair trade coffee. ( Own label not an elite product selling at a premium to small minority) and nice bottle of organic fair trade wine ( sourced by trade craft last i checked. Pioneers of f t and themselves a worker co op). All a Damn site better than it was ten year back.

  • 4. Corey James Soper  |  Tuesday, 23rd March 2010 at 19:29 UTC

    Fairtrade is ‘a capitalist alternative to capitalism’.

    Essentially, the costs of producing Fairtrade goods will always be higher than producing the normal good; wages will be lower, production costs much lower, and thus the price will be much lower, appealing to a mass market. Fairtrade goods will become a capitalism commodity where the ‘strange and arcane conditions that govern worth’, to quote Marx, will be a badge of being a good little concerned Middle Class Leftist/Liberal. You’re buying into a good reputation, which is essentially a fasion statement.
    However, the average worker (and thus average human being) can’t afford it except on an occasional basis so it has no power to challenge the existing monopolistic forces, unless you supply state subsidaries (in which case I pay through tax) or volunteer work/charity.

    Essentially, it becomes like worker co-op or social democracy; a mediator within capitalism.

  • 5. Environmentalism is destroying the planet « Graham’s Grumbles  |  Wednesday, 24th March 2010 at 18:31 UTC

    […] he also highlights the Image Transfer process. Much like Supermarkets absorbing the good karma of FairTrade for their own much less praiseworthy ends, big corporations with a vested interest in inaction on […]


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