24 December, 2013

2014: a year to create change

by Michael Gidney, Chief Executive at the Fairtrade Foundation

Michael Gidney, Chief Executive at the Fairtrade Foundation, reflects on the progress made so far and the challenges we face in the campaign to make all trade fair.

Michael GidneyAt our staff meeting last week we welcomed Chief Adam Tampuri, who is a Ghanaian cashew nut farmer as well as the Chair of Fairtrade Africa and a Trustee of the Fairtrade Foundation.  He talked about the pace of change in our movement, how producers now co-own the global Fairtrade system, how African Fairtrade is strengthening - with nearly 400 producer organisations now involved (a tenfold increase in the last ten years) and how we are together tackling poverty.

The more things change, the more they don’t always stay the same. That’s true of trade in the UK too.  The campaign to make trade fair will take many years but two things happened during the course of 2013 which could bring lasting change to the way some of the UK’s most important consumer goods are traded.

The first was the horsemeat scandal in the spring, when it became clear that the poorly regulated and unchecked meat business is under pressure from fierce competition and is highly vulnerable to exploitation. The shock waves this sent around the food retail sector were enormous and even those companies that were not affected understood that something significant had changed in the contract between retailers and their customers. Steps were taken to monitor the supply chain better and promises were made to improve testing and to work more collaboratively with suppliers.

Some of these will be more easily tackled than others, but perhaps the hardest problem to fix, and the one that was growing even before ‘horsegate’, is the damage it did to public confidence in where food comes from and how it is made amid growing consumer scepticism about claims made by food brands and retailers.  The efforts made by sector leaders in the immediate aftermath of the scandal –  adverts in the national press, CEO media interviews, letters to customers and shareholders – show how seriously the retailers took this. In the intervening months the talk is all about transparency and accountability and ‘horsegate’ has given this a new urgency. This is encouraging, provided they walk the talk. These principles have long been cornerstones of Fairtrade; without them trade will not be sustainable.

The second was the awful scandal of the Rana Plaza factory collapse in Bangladesh last April, in which more than 1,100 textile workers died. The sheer size of the disaster was horrifying, as was the light it shone on the extraordinarily harsh conditions in which so many people in poverty are forced to work. But what felt most significant in the UK was the scale of public reaction.  Public comments were coloured with an impotent rage that was new – not knowing who made your clothes and whether your favourite clothing brand was involved became a huge sources of concern.  That anger has not gone. There are plans for the first Fashion Revolution Day to mark the anniversary of the tragedy that will involve more than 100,000 people around the world.

But the more things change, the more too many things stay the same.  As 2013 draws to a close we are reminded that many challenges still remain in the campaign to make trade fair.  This month the World Trade Organisation Ministerial failed yet again to put an end to the outrageous hypocrisy and double-standards in the global cotton trade, where rich countries continue to distort world markets in their favour, at the expense of millions of smallholders across the global South, especially in west Africa. 

The way trade policy is set continues to work against the interests of poor producers. Earlier this year the European Union voted on a set of reforms to the sugar trade which will protect domestic beet production at the expense of cane producers across the global South.  In both these cases – in cotton and sugar – the farmers who will suffer are among the poorest producers in the world. So much for the global commitment to sustainable development.

Thankfully there is much that can be done and we do not have to wait for politicians.  The Fairtrade movement continues to grow – this year we saw the UK’s 1,000th Fairtrade School (well done St Maxentius Primary School in Bolton!) and there are now more than 9,000 Fairtrade groups across the country.  What drives this incredible movement is a belief in the power of the individual to bring about change and turn trade into a weapon to fight poverty..  To quote that most celebrated champion of individual action Nelson Mandela: ‘Overcoming poverty is not a task of charity; it is an act of justice. Like slavery and apartheid, poverty is not natural. It is man-made and it can be overcome and eradicated by the actions of human beings.’

Let’s take a leaf from this book and, together with the farmers and workers in the global Fairtrade movement, let’s be the change we want to see in the world in 2014.

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