How Fair is Fair Trade?

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by Anna Fenton, Deputy Head of News

Fair Trade Fortnight runs in the Unions from Monday 23rd February to Friday 5th March, hoping to raise the profile of Fairtrade products, as well as discussing the issues facing Fairtrade in the future. The conditions and wages of many producers in the developing world are often unfair and as a result, millions live in poverty. The point of Fairtrade is that it is meant to guarantee a fair price for workers, helping improve conditions and alleviate exploitation. Fairtrade is an expanding enterprise; it grew by 40% in the last year to a value of £200m, with a range of over 1500 items. Although it began as a niche business, it has increasingly begun to break into the mainstream. In 2002, the Co-op changed all its own-brand coffee and chocolate to Fairtrade. Instead of charging the consumers to cover all the extra costs, Co-op absorbed some of that cost, making it initially less profitable for them as a company, choosing ethics over profit. Since the success of the Co-op, other supermarkets have followed suit.

The accelerated expansion of the Fairtrade industry has had some down points. There is concern in some groups that, after years of saying that Fairtrade was bad for the industry, the dubious food giant Nestle has been granted Fairtrade status. The company is already subject to an international boycott for selling powdered baby milk in developing countries. This seems to be another example of ‘greenwashing’, disingenuously giving a large company a more ethical image by manipulating marketing. Greenwashing takes many forms, including using vague terms, making claims with no proof, hidden trade offs, disguising irrelevant information as relevant, or presenting their product as the lesser of two evils.

This seems to be indicative of a major problem facing the Fairtrade industry; whether they can expand and achieve their idealistic goals and good name without compromising them with deals with large, controversial businesses.

Don Marquis once said ‘When a man tells you that he got rich through hard work, ask him: ‘Whose?’. The issue of the proportion of profit that actually makes it to the workers wages is a contentious one when it comes to Fairtrade. Supermarkets are not sufficiently open about the pricing of the pricing of Fairtrade items. Surely for Fairtrade to be truly fair, the whole premium should go back to the producer, but perhaps this is too idealistic. The Fairtrade foundation is hosting a debate on this very issue, called: ‘Can your shopping basket change the world?’ at the Royal College of Physicians on March 4th from 7-9.

There are many other exciting opportunities, talks and meetings taking place in Edinburgh over the next fortnight. To find out full details of what’s going on, check out the EUSA website:

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