The Failure of Fairtrade
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?