Fairtrade is big business. 70% of the UK population recognizes the Fairtrade Mark, and in 2007, £430M was spent here on products that have it. Despite this, few people know where the Fairtrade Mark comes from and what it really means. The Fairtrade Foundation was established by a group of charities, including Oxfam, CAFOD, and Christian Aid, and licenses use of the Mark within the UK using international standards set by Fairtrade Labelling Organisations International. Although the Foundation is a secular organization, it’s fair to say that Christian activists have played a central role in its development. What they have accomplished is a striking example of what can happen when faith is put into action in the world, but their work, and ours, is by no means finished yet.
The Fairtrade Mark
The Fairtrade Mark is simply about living standards for third world farmers who grow export crops. One of the biggest problems these farmers face is fluctuating prices on the world market – by the time they harvest what they have sown, it can be virtually worthless. The Fairtrade Foundation sets minimum prices that have to be paid for crops at the point of export in order for a product to be certified as Fairtrade. In addition to the minimum price, buyers have to pay a set social premium for the growers to spend on social and environmental issues affecting their communities. For instance, for Arabica coffee, the price is currently $1.25 per pound, with a social premium of $0.10 per pound, and an additional $0.20 per pound for organic production. In addition to price, the Foundation imposes labour standards that vary depending on the type of producer organization; for instance, cooperatives of farmers must be democratic and transparent, and must not discriminate against members based on race, religion, gender, politics, and ethnic or social origin. The Fairtrade Mark is the only independent UK assessment for how farmers are treated. Apart from it, anyone can say their product is “fair trade”. Some of the companies that use this wording have even higher standards, but for others, the claim is just eyewash designed to confuse us.
In 2008, the vestry made the three commitments that are required to register as a Fairtrade congregation: to use Fairtrade tea and coffee whenever these are served, to “move forward” on using other Fairtrade products, and to promote the Fairtrade Mark, especially during Fairtrade Fortnight in February. Our registration really just continues the Fairtrade promotion that has been a feature of life at Christ Church for some time now, and invites us to consider what more we can do to help. One way of doing this is to look at what the Foundation itself wants to achieve over the next five years, as well as to consider whether we have any goals of our own.
Fairtrade Foundation Goals – Growth and a mass movement
Despite the success of the Fairtrade Mark, there is still room for growth – 60% of UK shoppers have never bought a Fairtrade product, and there are many crops for which the Foundation has yet to set a price and premium. The Foundation has three targets for growth. The first is to reach majority sales for three strong products – probably tea, coffee, and bananas – and 10% market share for six more. The second is to find a way of scaling up their procedures so that they can assess more products. The third is to expand into more complex products and new sectors, like seafood, where the conditions are very different than for coffee. The Foundation’s overall aim is to quadruple sales by 2012, and to increase the percentage of the UK population that recognizes the Fairtrade Mark to 75%.
Sales are the easy part of the Foundation’s goals to think about – understanding what else they want requires us to think about all the things the Fairtrade Mark fails to achieve. The Foundation has deliberately set the bar for the Mark low and made the rules simple in order to ensure that supermarkets make use of it. Apart from the social premium, the Fairtrade Mark doesn’t guarantee that farmers will be paid more than the going rate or even that they will find a buyer. It also says nothing about where crops are processed into the things we actually buy, even though for many Fairtrade items, this is where the value really lies. Without the involvement of supermarkets, the Foundation would reach so few shoppers it wouldn’t have much impact, but if the Foundation were to make their conditions difficult to meet, the supermarkets would just take Fairtrade products off their shelves. What the Foundation really wants next is a mass movement in which consumers understand the impact of their choices and demand higher and higher standards.
As individual Christians, we can help by making the sophisticated choices that the Foundation seeks. We should continue to buy products that have the Mark, but where we can, we should also make even better choices. Some of the companies with higher standards – CafeDirect and Traidcraft, for instance – will already be familiar from our Fairtrade stall. CafeDirect reinvests an average of 60% of their profits in their supplier businesses. Traidcraft commits themselves to purchasing a crop ahead of time and helps to build up producer capacity. They also process what they can in the third world – for their own instant coffee, this means that roughly 40% of the retail cost goes to the third world producer, at least if you buy the coffee mail order from them. For CafeDirect instant, which meets a high ethical standard but is processed in Europe because of limited capacity, this is 17.5%. For non-Fairtrade instant, they estimate that it is 5-7%. By releasing these figures in new “social accounts”, Traidcraft is both exploring how to express what really matters and trying to create a society in which consumers and shareholders demand this kind of information from other vendors.
In addition to these old and well-known Fairtrade sources, there are many other little companies, old and new, created out of genuine concern about third world poverty. Many of them operate in sectors that are not covered by the Fairtrade Mark or are too small to afford accreditation, which typically costs at least £2000. They are sometimes very inventive in the approach they take to building ethical businesses. This makes them doubly important because the Fairtrade Foundation is watching them to see what works and what doesn’t, so that they will know what to do themselves in the future. These businesses are risky for the people involved and they need our support – attracting advocates in their early days can really make a difference. Buying from places like the One World Shop is a good way of supporting some of them. Not only does the One World Shop stock their goods, it also uses income from its general sales to support small producers directly. Buying from the shop at St John’s requires us to go literally what is almost exactly the extra mile. Our own stall has a restricted range of their goods, but we can think of the box for St. Catherine’s as a convenient way of doubling its sales – for most of the things we can buy there, they probably need some too!
Our task as a congregation
The Fairtrade Foundation is relying not just on individual Christians to buy ethically, but also on congregations to help them create their mass movement. Part of this work is prayer, using Fairtrade products in-house, and making sure that church members themselves understand the underlying issues by including them in sermons, activities, and Sunday school lessons. Another part is outreach, for instance, to people passing by and to the groups that use the hall and church centre. The Fairtrade Mark has been very successful so far, but we can’t rely on its growth continuing without an effort. The real test will come if market conditions make Fairtrade products more expensive than ordinary ones. Then we may have serious work to do on making people remember where their priorities should lie. We currently request all users of our buildings to use Fairtrade products in their catering, since this is a very practical way of introducing them to new people. Our youth group has done a survey of the Fairtrade products available in the local neighbourhood, and our Sunday school recently made a large Fairtrade poster and prepared an all-age service promoting fair trade. We intend to continue our involvement with this movement in the coming years alongside our other interests in social justice.