The great Fairtrade debate

Fairtrade mark

It’s a sticky issue fair trade.  This was made abundantly clear to me when I tried to raise money for the Fairtrade Foundation by asking people to sponsor me for the British 10K in London.

I got three kinds of responses: some sponsored me with no query, others said ” I don’t do fair trade because fair trade instant coffee is horrible” (pardon? did I say I was asking you to buy instant coffee?) but the thing that worried me the most, were those who pointed out to me that fair trade isn’t always very… fair trade.

To be honest, I was a bit put out by this – but I owe those people an apology – and I am sorry, for judging them and being naive myself.

It turns out that sometimes they are right. The Guardian article on tea in Assam, opened my eyes and broke my heart, so I decided to write to as many companies as I could think of to see how much they knew about their own fair trade products.

I also wrote to the Fairtrade Foundation, so see what they could tell me (see below).

Some companies didn’t bother replying to me, some passed the buck straight back to the Fairtrade Foundation, and others have made a real and committed effort. you can see their responses, and the response I got from the Fairtrade Foundation here:  fairtrade company responses

The Fairtrade Foundation are making every effort in a difficult climate, to truly make a difference in people’s lives. Further to the response they gave me, it is also worth reading recent articles by them such as this one: The real cost of cheap tea.

And as they point out, at the heart of the issue, is what we, the customer, are willing to pay.

Justice in trade requires sacrifice on our part, because if something is cheap to buy, someone has had to pay for it. It is unlikely to be the company selling the product to us, so if we don’t pay, the producer or workers do.  And in these times of austerity, justice is suffering – for example, as consumers we are buying less Cafe Direct tea and coffee, so Sainsbury’s are selling less. this is what Cafe Direct had to say about it on Twitter:

Hi all, thank you so much for your support of our tea campaign recently. Unfortunately Karen is right about supply & demand, and although we got almost 1000 responses, Sainsbury’s has decided not to reverse their decision on tea. As they point out, they are still working with us on expanding the range so we`ll keep you posted. However, if you are members of any FT groups then we’d love to link up to do something with our tea. If you send us your email addresses we can chat about it further? Emily (at Cafédirect)

Note, this is Cafe Direct – a company who deals directly with small producers who are also the workers – the highest quality of fair trade you can get (as compared to fair trade bought from larger producers who then employ lots of workers).

So it comes down to this. No, fair trade is not perfect, but there are a lot of dedicated people out there trying to better the lives of the people who supply us with our goods. I believe we have a responsibility to buy products with the best possible justice pedigree we can afford.  We also need to take a long hard look at how we define what we can afford.  While we may not be able to afford all our clothes to be fair trade (second hand is a good plan B),  we won’t starve without tea coffee and chocolate, so surely if our budget genuinely is that tight (and it is for many) we could just buy less, but buy fair trade.

Finally, a smattering of companies who gave me jolly good replies:



Union Coffee

Happy fair trade shopping….

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