Fair Trade? Think Again

by Ian Meredith
Posted on 1st March 2011

Do we trust every label we see? 'Fat free', 'Healthy', 'Suitable for children'. Do we simply believe what they say without thinking for ourselves, 'Is this true?' Or even thinking, 'Is this masking some other truth?' Just because a film has been rated PG8 by the British Board of Film Classification, does that mean I will automatically assume it's OK for the standards I hold for my children?

[Let me caveat this article right from the start by saying I want to be deliberately controversial and provoke a conversation. By 'swinging the pendulum' of debate so to speak, I hope to make us think again.]

The Fairtrade Foundation birthed something of an ethical revolution in consumer behaviour in the UK. Raising awareness, making alternative purchasing choices available, holding companies accountable, and making us think. But is it still true to its own heart to make a real difference in trade, or has it succumbed to the very marketing and market dominance it set out to challenge? The Fairtrade Foundation has come a long way from humble beginnings more than twenty years ago, but in celebrating its success have we blindly chosen to trust it completely and believe in a label? Or even worse, believe in something hoping it is what we want it to be? Is it time for us to think again?

The rise of consumer labelling, no matter which one, has removed the need for individual responsibility and conscious decision-making. Do we need to be better informed about reality rather than appearance? Dare I mention 'whitewashed walls'?

I work in the coffee industry for a direct trade company working with farms and smallholders who cannot, and even if allowed, would choose not to, work with organisations like the Fairtrade Foundation. The reality on the ground is simply not what is projected in the UK. I want us to take a fresh look at how we make consumer decisions, to think for ourselves, and then take responsibility for our own, informed, opinions.
I go back to the original questions at the head of this article - by what standards do we judge these claims?

The Fairtrade Foundation is in many, but not all, circumstances doing something better than trade otherwise would do without their intervention or monitoring. However, is better fair? Is better good enough?
Many true supporters of 'fair-trade' as a concept, as a heart value, have long been concerned that as soon as large companies got hold of 'Fairtrade' the brand, the label, they would seek to fulfil its requirements only to exploit its marketing potential. Fulfilling its requirements without adopting its ethics. In Christian parlance this is the age-old 'letter of the law' instead of the 'heart of the law'.

I believe trade is an issue of justice and a part of mission

Didn't Jesus tell us to love the Lord our God and to love our neighbour as ourself? Well doesn't this cover all our interactions with all our neighbours, even the ones we trade with thousands of miles away? I believe trade is an issue of justice and a part of mission. And not to simply 'appear to love our neighbour'!

A well-researched speaker and practitioner on the issues of trade opened a speech with these words:

"I think Fairtrade is fantastic. It is fantastic at making rich Europeans think that they are good. It is fantastic at making money for European companies. Is it fantastic for the farmers in the third world?"
(Dr Peter Griffiths speaking at the European Coffee Symposium in Vienna in 2009)

I may not personally be as harsh on the Fairtrade Foundation as others; I may be a lot harder than some; and its not to say that these organisations don't do what they claim, but do you know whether they do or not? Do we ask questions? Do we take responsibility or is it easier to feel good about buying items with a label and not have to think about it? Do we buy these products because it just make us feel good?

The Institute of Economic Affairs published some research in 2010 entitled 'Fair Trade Without The Froth' demonstrating:

  • Fair Trade is not a long-term development strategy and the model is not appropriate for all producers.
  • Fair Trade promoters have never demonstrated how much of the additional price actually reaches producers. Even analysts sympathetic to the movement have suggested that only 25% of the premium reaches producers
  • Fair Trade doesn't benefit the poorest producers due to heavy administration requirements and fees involved in becoming a certified producer.
  • Fair Trade's demand of exclusivity from schools etc. can damage other social labelling initiatives such as the Rainforest Alliance. Other such labelling initiatives often provide environmental and social benefits in a more direct way.

Please don't misunderstand me. I buy Fairtrade products and love the heart value of where the organisation started. I certainly credit them with an ethical revolution in thinking in the UK. However, I've also worked with the farmers neglected and ripped off by the system that the Fairtrade Foundation supports. I've also seen the benefits of direct trade when it's done within a long-term relationship, upholding ethical values, and seeking justice for all involved. Fairtrade the brand has been presented as the only choice. It has been presented and supported by churches (with a good heart) as a Christian idea. Not only are neither of these true, they are misleading and potentially harmful to producers, and to our own walk of integrity where we can think for ourselves and take ownership of our decisions as thought-through and considered.

And not only are some of these alternatives more transparent, they are more often than not putting more money in the farmer's pockets - the very people who do the hard work to produce the cup of coffee we enjoy. Isn't that the heart of the matter that we want to achieve?

This is a short article and I can't begin to do justice to the full discussion here, or even expand on the very real stories that I have experienced. But let me sum-up by reiterating that despite the tone of the article I'm not anti-Fairtrade per se. For me fair trade is a heart value, not a brand. But even the incredibly successful money-making brand of Fairtrade (cleverly disguised by its .org.uk website) contributes to the concept and the belief of fair trade, it just doesn't carry exclusive rights to monopolise our thoughts and ideas so that we cannot dream and build for even better, and even fairer, trade. Should we think again? Lets start the conversation.


Ian Meredith is Head Bean at Ethical Addictions Coffee, a direct source coffee company working with farms at origin for sustainable excellent coffee and good working conditions for farmers. For more info, see eacoffee.co.uk