Fairtrade: How fair is it?

TODAY, in London, like in most parts of Britain, if you want to top up on polyphenolic antioxidants or simply add some Vitamin C in your body, fair-trade products such as fresh coffee and fresh banana are some of the products widely available on the market to cater for your needs. 

TODAY, in London, like in most parts of Britain, if you want to top up on polyphenolic antioxidants or simply add some Vitamin C in your body, fair-trade products such as fresh coffee and fresh banana are some of the products widely available on the market to cater for your needs. 

In fact, the UK is the world’s largest fair-trade market, with more products and more awareness of Fairtrade than anywhere else. Indeed, Fairtrade sales in 2012 were in excess of £1.53 billion, and with forecasts indicating a steady increase.


So, what is the Fairtrade movement about, and has the movement achieved its main objectives over the last two decades? 


According to the Fairtrade Foundation, Fairtrade is a concept primarily about better prices, decent working conditions, local sustainability, and fair terms of trade for farmers and workers in the developing world. 


The fair-trade standards requires companies to pay sustainable prices (never to fall lower than the market price) in order to address some of the injustices of conventional trade, which traditionally discriminates against the poorest, weakest producers from predominantly poor countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America.  

When a company’s product such as coffee, sugar or banana has been awarded a Fairtrade mark, it means that that specific product meets the international Fairtrade standards, and it also shows that the product has been certified to offer a better deal to the farmers and workers in developing countries involved in producing it. 

In essence, when compared to similar unmarked products on the market, a fair-trade-marked product has a premium price attached to it, which makes it relatively more expensive. 

This premium price is an additional sum of money paid on top of the fair-trade minimum price that farmers and workers invest in social, environmental and economic developmental projects to improve their businesses and their communities. 

Farmers and workers themselves decide how that premium is spent.

Additionally, over the years, the number of groups of farmers and workers who have benefited from UK Fairtrade has increased to include farmers from over 60 countries across Africa, Asia, the Caribbean and Latin America. 

Equally, country reports such as the Fairtrade in Malawi report indicates that certified sugar farmers and their communities have experienced tangible and significant economic, social, and organisational benefits from Fairtrade. 

Indeed, according to Malawi Fairtrade Network Chairperson, Doreen Chanje, Fairtrade has “gradually enabled farmers’ standards of living to improve with a higher proportion of certified farmers now able to pay school fees for their children, ensure household food security, increase their assets and experience more stability in incomes”. 

Likewise, the number of fair-trade certified producer organisations supplying the UK market rose by 56 percent from 428 in 2008 to 669 at the end of 2012. Also, as of 2012, 40 percent of the retail sugar market, 30 percent of banana market and 28 percent of coffee market are all Fairtrade. 

UK public support is also unprecedented, with more and more people buying into the fair-trade market. In fact, according to the 2012/13 Fairtrade Annual Review, estimated retail sales value of fair-trade products rose from £712 ,million in 2008 to £1.53 billion in 2012, which represented a 215 percent increase.

But, is it really fair? 

Not so much, if you are to note down some of the shortcomings highlighted in a 2014 report commissioned by the UK government and produced by the School of Oriental and African Studies. 

The Fairtrade, Employment and Poverty Reduction in Ethiopia and Uganda (FTEPR) project which lasted for four years set out to establish how global trade in agricultural commodities affects the lives of farmers and workers in rural Africa, especially through wage employment. 

According to Professor Christopher Cramer, one of the reports’ authors, the research team were not surprised to learn that people, who depend for their survival on access to manual agricultural wage employment, are much poorer than others in the same area. 

Similarly, the report indicates that Fairtrade standards are far too concerned with the incomes of producers than they are with the wages of the workers themselves. 

In essence, the report alleges that workers wages in Ethiopia and Uganda (two of the assessed countries) are typically lower and that in general terms, conditions for workers in Fairtrade organisations are worse compared to those in other organisations. 

In terms of community projects supported by the Fairtrade premium, the report claims that in Uganda, for instance, a Fairtrade-supported school had turned away some poor children because they owed money in school fees. 

Such findings defeat the sole purpose of what Fairtrade standards represent. In an ideal world, a Fairtrade-supported school should be able to support children from poor families so that they can have access to education much like children of farmers from organisations with no affiliation to Fairtrade.

On balance, the report suggests that for Fairtrade to truly serve its purpose, standards should focus more on whether average wage rates among such workers are at least as good as, if not higher than, those of very similar workers employed in other organisations. 

In the same way, conditions of workers should be improved to reflect the premium paid by consumers who seek to ensure that every farmer who is part of the Fairtrade movement benefits from the increasing market share of Fairtrade products. 

Otherwise, if standards do not improve, followed and monitored vigorously, the movement which has covered two decades will diminish into another band-aid type of movement.

The writer is a UK Parliamentary Intern and holds a Master of Science in Public Service Policy.

Twitter: @Jsabex

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