In celebration of Fairtrade Fortnight I wanted to broach quite a big question and one that I’ve considered at length: ‘how fair is Fairtrade’? I will also be throwing into the melting pot a question on how relevant Fairtrade is, has it lost it’s shine?
I want to start this blog by stating that I am, without a doubt, a supporter of Fairtrade and all its principles. To some, the idea of fair trade may present an oxymoron: how can trading, the exchange of cash for goods, be fair? You only have turn on the news on any given day to appreciate how trade contributes to the widening gap between the world’s richest and the world’s most desperate. However, the foundations of paying a fair wage for a fair day’s work to alleviate poverty and create a sustainable supply chain and infrastructure in growing and manufacturing communities is an ethos that we can all buy into. However I do want to shine a light to the current position that the foundation and Fairtrade as a category finds itself in.
The Grocer magazine recently published its category report on Fairtrade demonstrating how tough 2015 was for the total market showing a decline in both volume (12.5%) and value (3.3%). However Fairtrade is diversifying rapidly with more and more products carrying the mark. We’re all used to seeing bananas, coffee and sugar but juices, biscuits and preserves are now much more common place in mainstream retail. So why is this? Well, for a start suppliers are waking up to the benefits of having a public CSR programme that can be fulfilled by marks such as the Soil Association, Rainforest Alliance and Fairtrade. Another reason is that shoppers are much more tuned into the concept of value for money. The economy is on the rise again but we are still very value savvy, this is very different from being price savvy. Shoppers now have a little more money to spend but they want to make sure that what they’re spending is worth it. An ethical mark adds value to a product ticking a box for both the consumer and the manufacturer.
Great, so let’s all just buy Fairtrade, right? Well, yes and no. I’d like to take you back to a point that I raised in a previous blog around Mondelez, Nestle and the Fairtrade Foundation: a marriage of inconvenience. It’s great that huge manufacturers are supporting Fairtrade. It’s even better that this has encouraged Mars and Ferrero to follow suit by committing to source 100% of their cocoa sustainably. Brilliant! However, in my opinion, awarding the mark to Mondelez and Nestle was about one thing: cash for the Foundation. According to The Grocer just 21% of Mondelez’s cocoa was Fairtrade last year – the other 89% was laced with the tears of the starving and destitute. I’m not going to get on my soapbox about the ethics of these two businesses right now, I can bore you with my views on that over a cider one night instead, however could this be one of the reasons for the decline in fortune for the Fairtrade category. It hasn’t been mainstream for many years and the core shopper is a conscientious early-adopter who is well versed on the current affairs and issues. Therefore decisions like this would actively drive them out of the category and leave behind the ambivalent masses. So where have these shoppers gone?
More and more manufacturers are favouring ethical sourcing over the foundation and they set their own standards. There are also green shoots with organisations such as Fair for Life touting the sustainability message with a new certification process. Are these core shoppers flying a new flag? There is also a trend amongst artisanal manufacturers for disintermediation with bean to bar, bean to cup and field to fork being prominent trends which gives full traceability removing the need for a certification.
So what’s the moral here then? Well the good news is that we still have an ethical conscience in the UK – it still matters. The worrying news is that Fairtrade may have lost it’s shine. That’s not to say that we can’t conjure up some Fairtrade Brasso and scrub aware the murkiness until we’re happy to see our reflection in it again. If you’re a core shopper then I’m preaching to the converted and I say ‘well done’ to you. If you’re getting frustrated by being herded around by the ambivalent masses then I would urge you to seek out something new, go and see the fantastic range that Traidcraft has to offer and support their plight for social justice.
There are still lots of fantastic Fairtrade producers, retailers and shoppers out there so, in the words of a wired all-nighter from Northern England in the late 1970s, keep the faith!