Taking the Biscuit: Is Fairtrade working?

The third session of the Africa from Exploitation to Resistance Conference was on the fairness of Fairtrade and addressed its impact on poverty since going mainstream, looking beyond the controversial decision to certify Nestlé’s products.

As a purchaser of Fairtrade products, I would like to think that that’s what the products are – fair, on the producer. However, the extent to which this is true is controversial and consistently argued over. ‘Fair trade’ is a notion that has been around for about 40 years, though it wasn’t until the late 1980’s that the Fairtrade Labelling Organisation (FLO) was launched, and last year, the Fair Trade Foundation reached its fifteenth birthday. 10 years ago, 20% of the people surveyed in the UK recognised the Fairtrade logo. Now, this number has risen to 74%, with the number of Fairtrade products increasing from 80 to 4,500.

Deborah Doane, the director of WDM, is also on the board of the Fair Trade Foundation. She describes herself as a ‘friendly critic of fairtrade’ and brought up the issue of the many free riders who are riding off the backs of the pioneers of Fairtrade, expanding the volume of this market while investing less, thus creating a race to the bottom rather than the top.  Supermarkets, for example, are able to create their own basic branded foodstuffs and brand them with the Fairtrade logo before putting on offers like ‘2 for 1’. The smaller companies just don’t have the power to compete with such marketing. As a result, the big companies monopolise commodities and the focus on Fairtrade products is on its consumers, not its producers.

Doane suggests a two-prong approach to improving Fair Trade: firstly, moving Africa up the value chain and out of its position as a ‘store room continent’, secondly, creating a southern production for the South. The need for the second prong approach was echoed by Firoze Manji, the editor in chief of Pambazuka News, who stated that Fairtrade is corporatising a system which ties farmers to producing for the North. While I see Manji’s point, I think he’s missed something: Look at Divine chocolate, for example, whose cocoa beans are from Ghana. They are only able to access the cocoa since the market was liberalised, which came as a result of the structural adjustment program the country adhered to, set out by the World Bank and IMF. Thus, while farmers are indeed producing for the North, getting a fair price for their produce while being shareholders in the company is certainly better than producing cocoa for a sub-prime price.

Manji also stated that the smaller companies inevitably need to get into bed with the larger corporations to survive. Although it is true that the smaller companies may struggle to swim through a market full of sharks, it doesn’t mean that they will automatically stay on its back to stay alive. It just means they have to work harder at maintaining pace. He concluded his talk with the question ‘Does fair trade mean fair skin?’ Ouch.

On the opposing team to Manji (not to suggest that this was any sort of match, but these two speakers certainly didn’t see eye-to-eye) was Sophie Tranchell, managing director of Divine, who began by saying that ‘events like this nourish the soul’. Divine was the first ever Fairtrade chocolate bar to be aimed at a mass market and was launched in the UK in 1998. 45% of the company is owned by cocoa farmers, meaning they have a direct influence over how the company is run, as well as having a share in the profits. As a side note, Divine has also been selected as Glastonbury’s official chocolate bar, so it can be bought at all nine of the on-site supermarkets this weekend. That’s not an advert, by the way; it’s a glimpse of a world shrugging off the big companies and embracing Fairtrade. Tranchell also concluded her talk with a question I think is key; ‘Big business brings volume but does it bring development?’

So remember, the next time you’re browsing chocolate, your choice may not only undertake a political act, it may help the producers receive a fairer price.

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