Not-so-Fair Trade

For all the hype about Fairtrade, there is something fundamentally unfair in its execution.

This March we find ourselves in Fairtrade Fortnight, that two week period when we are invited to reflect on our purchasing choices and to pay a little extra for our coffee, safe in the knowledge that the premium will go to help coffee producers in some far away country.

The UK is one of the biggest Fairtrade markets in the world, with around 4,500 Fairtrade certified products on sale and total annual sales of £1.57 billion in 2012. Worldwide there are over 1,200 Fairtrade certified producer organisations in 74 countries.

But for all the hype about Fairtrade, there is something fundamentally unfair in its execution. Leaving aside the question about whether Fairtrade actually succeeds in raising living standards for the world’s poorest farmers, we should question the right of Western consumers to dictate those living standards in the first place. As I stand at the supermarket shelf this week holding a jar of Fairtrade coffee in my right hand and its ‘conventional’ non-Fairtrade equivalent in my left, I am reminded of those gladiatorial scenes at the colosseum as an expectant crowd looks towards the Emperor and waits to discover the fate of the battle-wounded fighter below. Will I choose ‘thumbs up’ for the Fairtrade Kenyan ground beans, or ‘thumbs down’ and instead pocket the saving?

There are over 1.5 million farmers and workers in Fairtrade certified producer organisations worldwide, but there are around 600 million farms worldwide. So what about the rights of those farmers making the cheaper coffee? Or the rights of those forced to work on land that they don’t have any control over because it was taken in a land grab to form a plantation? Or those who have been encouraged to rely on costly seeds and agrochemicals? There seems little hope for an optional price increase to address these fundamental wrongs.

Fairness isn’t something delivered through the purchasing choices of the powerful, it is achieved when we all agree to reject a system which thrives on the perpetuation of poverty, inequality and injustice. Fairness isn’t a choice; it’s a fundamental human right.

Hands of Coffee Worker Holding Beans

Getty Images

This Fairtrade Fortnight, perhaps rather than taking the annual opportunity to indulge ourselves in a narcissistic call to save the world by paying an extra 50p for our coffee, we should instead feel insulted by a system which forces us into such arbitrary choices rather than requiring true fairness at its core.

The point is not that we should reject Fairtrade, but rather that we should demand it universally, without prejudice, and without an alternative. The first step towards this must be better regulation of our food system to banish the worst of the exploitative practices. The Make Fruit Fair campaign, for example, calls for better regulation at the European level of international trade in tropical fruits.

Similarly, the Tenant Farmers Association (TFA) and others have called for an increase in the powers of the Groceries Code Adjudicator, the UK body responsible for overseeing the relationship between supermarkets and their suppliers. Currently the Adjudicator only has the power to investigate supermarkets on the basis of a complaint, rather than a more proactive compliance inspection. The TFA is calling for powers for the Adjudicator to consider impacts all the way through supply chains and to ensure greater price transparency by publishing information about the profit margins of producers, processors and retailers.

These measures can help to move us towards a more universal system of institutionalised fairness, rather than a part-fairness lottery. But the story doesn’t end there. Ultimately it is the corporate grip over food production by large-scale agribusiness which puts profit before people and creates the conditions and incentives for prices to be forced down in the first place. Only by challenging this can we properly regain control of our food system and protect farmers.

In doing so we should look to the principles of food sovereignty, a system of food production which understands that food is first and foremost a basic human right, rather than a commodity for profit. Food sovereignty calls for genuine agrarian reform to ensure that farmers have control over the land that they work. It calls for sustainable agricultural practices which respect and preserve natural resources. It supports small-holder farmers over big agribusiness as the necessary mechanism for achieving these objectives, and it says that farmers should have democratic control over the agricultural policies which affect them.

Such a system might finally deliver true fair trade and finally relieve us of the burden of Kingmaker as we browse the shelves and fill our basket.

Ben O'Hanlon

Ben has an MA in International Relations and Development studies from the University of East Anglia in the UK, where he explored power relations in the international garment industry. He has worked on a pioneering Security Sector Reform project in Lebanon, which has been successful in adopting a community model of policing as an alternative method of addressing the country's security challenges. He has also researched working conditions on banana and pineapple plantations in Ghana, and is a founding trustee of a charity which supports the advancement of better end of life care provision in the country. Based in London, Ben currently works for a human rights charity which challenges poverty and injustice by forming global partnerships and calling for systemic change.
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