Back in July, in one of its ‘Long Read’ pieces, The Guardian asked ‘Is fair trade finished?’ It’s a fair question (pun intended) as Fairtrade International will be marking 25 years of the familiar Fairtrade ‘mark’ in October this year. The blue and green logo is ubiquitous in our supermarkets on everything from chocolate and coffee, to flowers and cotton pads, and has become visual shorthand for easy, ethical shopping without having to think too hard about it. Fairtrade sets social, economic and environmental standards for both companies and farmers and workers. For farmers, the standards include protection of workers’ rights and the environment; for companies it includes the payment of the Fairtrade Minimum Price plus additional Fairtrade Premium to invest in business or community projects of the community’s choice.

The long read: Is fair trade finished?

The Fairtrade Foundation is a UK-based, non-profit organisation and registered charity. It is a member of Fairtrade International, formerly known as FLO – Fairtrade Labelling Organisations International. Fairtrade Foundation license the use of the mark in the UK and Fairtrade standards exist for the following products: 

But what about products that aren’t certified?

Fairtrade relates largely to crops grown in the global south, so understandably home-grown produce is never going to hit the mark in that respect. As conscious consumers think about climate change and environmental impacts, is it in some sense ‘better’ to buy Fairtrade roses from Kenya or tulips from the UK? And what about products made using some Fairtrade ingredients, but which don’t get the mark because they are not 100% Fairtrade certifiable? There has been some disgruntlement amongst campaigners about the treatment of stalwart fair trade organisation Traidcraft UK over a labelling issue and use of the mark.

The Fairtrade Foundation has recognised the dilemma and is trying to deal with it through the introduction of various programmes. Rather than focusing on all the ingredients in a final product, highlighting specific commodities mean companies can still highlight their Fairtrade credentials. Somewhat more controversially, they have also starting working directly in Fairtrade Partnerships, where companies are developing their own sustainability schemes. The most prominent of these is the Cocoa Life partnership between Fairtrade and the Cadbury brand under Mondelez. 

Commodity specific programmes

Fairtrade or Fair Trade?

At this stage, it’s worth pointing out the difference between ‘Fairtrade’ and ‘fair trade’ – and it’s not just a question of spelling and semantics. If Fairtrade is based on commodities, then the World Fair Trade Organisation (WFTO) defines fair trade as ‘a trading relationship, based on dialogue, transparency and respect, that seeks greater equity in international trade.’ So, in essence, fair trade deals with production and manufacturing processes and there are other organisations offering certification, usually based on WFTO principles. In the UK, BAFTS (British Association of Fair Trade Shops and Suppliers) is a great example of this. A network dedicated to promoting fair trade, it provides a structure of accountability to its members, based on peer-to-peer assessment. 

Realistically, the casual shopper doesn’t actively consider the difference between fair trade and Fairtrade when picking up their groceries, so it would seem the two approaches are mutually beneficial. The Fairtrade mark certainly has high recognition among UK shoppers. But this distinction leaves a grey area open to manipulation by big business. The Co-op, Waitrose and Sainsburys are some of the biggest corporate supporters but as the Guardian article points out, in 2017 Sainsbury’s announced its own-brand teas would no longer be Fairtrade certified and instead it was piloting its own ethical certification, ‘Fairly Traded’. There were fears this would lead to an abandonment of more products but the negative publicity Sainsbury’s attracted seems to have halted any further extension of the new approach. But critics of Fairtrade may question how different is Sainsbury’s ‘Fairly Traded’ from the Mondelez Cocoa Life approach it supports. 

These are not the only businesses moving away from independent certification. Not to directly accuse anyone of green-washing, but it’s undeniable that corporate culture is taking heed of the evolving sustainability concerns of consumers and using it to sell products and services. There is marketing capital to be gained from telling your own ethical story, in your own terms – more so than relying on an individual logo on the side of packaging. Fairtrade also has to compete with the Rainforest Alliance frog, which is the standard for Tesco and Morrisons bananas rather than the mark. 

And the next 25 years?

So, in the run up to the 25thAnniversary, where does this leave Fairtrade? The Fairtrade Foundation’s response to The Guardian article was perceived as somewhat tepid by campaigners. Whether Fairtrade, fair trade or fairly traded, the efforts to make life better for farmers and workers in the global South are attempting to engage with complicated economics and big business. It is a complex and nuanced system, not easily explained or, it would seem, easily changed.

The Guardian article has been a catalyst for discussion in Fairtrade groups, and perhaps it is a way to redefine the argument and link in more effectively with the broader environmental concerns. In the final analysis, the omnipresence of the Fairtrade mark in our supermarkets cannot be underestimated but it is not enough – and the Fairtrade Foundation recognise that they cannot work in isolation. The ethical shopper who is much more engaged with diverse and wide-ranging sustainability arguments will seek to make more nuanced decisions – and even then still not be sure that they are doing the right thing – but looking for the mark is a good start. But for the time-pushed and budget-constrained, they can make quick choices and still feel they are doing the right thing when buying their tea and coffee, chocolate and bananas – and on balance, a lot of people making small changes can be more effective than a few people making big ones. 

Check out the Fairtrade Foundation website or if you’re interested in this subject

blog written by Alison Gray, FoodSync