Reflecting on Fairtrade, as a Fairtrade Town and at the 10th anniversary as a Fair Trade Nation

In the ten years since Scotland became a Fair Trade Nation, and the eighteen years since St Andrews became a Fairtrade town, Fairtrade and related issues have risen up the general news agenda, bringing not only increased support, but also increased scrutiny and criticism. In the St Andrews group our understanding has

St Andrews Fairtrade Group members holding a sign that says Choose Fairtrade, Change Lives.
Fairtrade in St Andrews. Credit: University of St Andrews

been helped by having one of our members who is actively involved with a social enterprise, True Origin (was Just Trading Scotland), that imports and sells a wide range of Fairtrade and other fairly traded products.

The Fairtrade Mark
Fairtrade Mark. Credit: Fairtrade

The Fairtrade logo, and the simple principle of paying a fair price, make an easily communicable message, and at the outset some of us naively thought that the whole point of the movement was to promote the sale of Fairtrade labelled products. The testimony of Fairtrade producers regularly reinforced this perception, while also leaving us lost in admiration for the farmers’ industry, determination and ingenuity in the face of both natural and social obstacles. This aim is still of fundamental importance, not least because food-producers, having invested in gaining Fairtrade certification, need to sell as much as possible of their product at the full Fairtrade price, rather than the open market price.

One of the main achievements of the St Andrews Fairtrade Town Group has been to engage with the organizers of the Open, British Golf’s major tournament, and persuade them to use Fairtrade products in their catering. But this success also highlights a glaring problem: it is easier to promote Fairtrade products in affluent communities than in more deprived areas. It shouldn’t have come as a surprise that Fairtrade principles can never become integral to the food supply industry until our own extreme social inequalities are done away with.

Another dilemma that is hard to ignore is the food-miles problem. Should we buy British sugar, or Fairtrade sugar from the Caribbean or Indian Ocean? Should our

Two Malawian sugar cane farmers with plants
Kasinthula sugarcane farmers. Credit: Nduzani Zaya.

green vegetables be transported by road from the EU, or by air from East Africa? Choosing Fairtrade over non-Fairtrade rice isn’t a difficult decision, but if we are looking for carbohydrates should we take them in the form of local potatoes or Fairtrade rice shipped from India or Malawi? As for cut flowers, many of us have concluded in recent years that even when grown close at hand they represent a poor use of land and water; the argument against buying flowers air-freighted from afar is even more compelling. But the Fairtrade cut-flower industries in East Africa, Sri Lanka and Ecuador employ as many as 73,000 people, 41% of the workers employed in Fairtrade farms.

A frequent complaint is that the Fairtrade movement has created a bureaucratic industry that is profitable for professionals from the global North engaged in the standards and certification process. Large and complex institutions such as Fairtrade require a bureaucracy to administer them, but we need to guard against the vices inherent in bureaucratic systems. Such systems are top-down and hierarchical, and reinforce existing power structures. The Fairtrade bureaucracy is accused of using its standards to impose a liberal agenda that prioritises climate change, biodiversity and gender equality, which might be at variance with the producer communities’ traditional values and immediate local priorities. The Fairtrade standard’s provisions for empowering the producer communities, as well as the testimony from producers themselves, suggest that the movement is aware of these dangers, but everything depends on how the standards are applied and monitored. Any form of certification is only as good as the certifiers, and if they approach the job as a box-ticking exercise, malpractice and abuse of power can flourish. While Fairtrade certification claims to avoid this danger, there have been allegations of child labour and sexual exploitation within Fairtrade supply chains.

We sometimes encounter the feeling, among ourselves, as well as among those opposed to Fairtrade, that in the midst of global food shortages and ecological disaster there’s no time to worry about fairness. It is true that the current crises complicate the issue of trade justice, as they complicate every aspect of modern life, but far from being irrelevant, the Fairtrade standard contains a recipe for progress in the struggle against hunger and climate change, since its criteria include requirements for sustainable production and responsible use of land and water. At the same time, the Fairtrade premium pays for improvements in

Malawian school
Mantchombe Primary School. Credit: Nduzani Zaya

farming methods and better educational opportunities, both essential if smallholder farmers are to make their contribution to global food production and raise their own families out of poverty.

As the critical spotlight is turned on the Fairtrade movement, and we move beyond our initial enthusiasm, we hope we are gaining insight into how the Fairtrade ideal relates to other issues. It emerges from this scrutiny as a more complex and ambivalent idea, but as more important than ever.

Julian Crowe

St Andrews Fairtrade Group