21 July, 2014

A Trip Down Ethical Memory Lane

by Harriet Lamb, Chief Executive at Fairtrade International

We all remember with horror the great-aunts who exclaimed: ‘My how you have grown’. Fast forward several decades and we find ourselves parroting the same words when we bump into children we haven’t seen for a while. Their families, with them every day, haven’t noticed and swing round to look at their kids afresh…

Harriet LambIt was like this when the good people of Ebury Publishing asked me to update my book ‘Fighting the Banana Wars and other Fairtrade battles’. I reassured them that there were just a few facts and figures that needed changing. The book was originally written in 2008 and, to my mind, the bones of the story were all there. We just needed to bring the summaries of Fairtrade’s impact up to date.  

In fact altering the figures was the easy part: sales were $3,000 million in 2008 and $6.52 billion now. When the book was first published 569 producer organisations in 57 countries were part of Fairtrade; today we work with 1,129 groups in 70 countries. Fairtrade has launched in the Indian market. Fairtrade gold is a reality.

But updating the book was a nightmare. When the proof reader got her hands on my notes, she was tearing her hair out. Hardly a page was untouched. Whole sections were completely rewritten. I had wanted to go further still because so much of our thinking has developed over the years.

In this trip down an ethical memory lane, I was reminded how much had been achieved in the past six years. Some names remain the same: the Kagera Cooperative Union in Tanzania was the first Fairtrade certified coffee co-op in Africa. It continues to innovate, now part-owning an instant coffee factory. Sainsbury’s still leads the retailer pack while Divine Chocolate, Tropical Wholefoods and more keep breaking new ground.

But since the book was written we have started working with some of the world’s biggest brands, with Maltesers, Kit Kat and many others carrying the FAIRTRADE Mark. Fairtrade International has become half-owned and run by producers through their networks in Africa, Asia and Latin America. And there have been negatives too: products and farmers’ projects that failed; producer groups that went under because of extreme weather or insufficient sales.

Companies have been taken over: always a reminder of how tough it is to put fairness into the cut-throat business of global trade.  The first product to carry the FAIRTRADE Mark was Green and Black’s Maya Gold, launched by deep-green pioneers Craig Sams and Jo Fairley. The company expanded, was taken over by Cadbury’s, went 100% Fairtrade, became part of Kraft and now of Mondelez. So we work with constant change, which adds to the challenge of reshaping Fairtrade for the future.

Over the years our grassroots social movement helped put sustainability in trade on the map. Chocolate and coffee companies that in 2008 were still denying the problem of child labour, or pushing sustainability to the HR or PR departments have now made serious commitments to producers.  

We know that we have to keep pushing the boundaries of justice in trade. Fairtrade alone cannot drive the necessary scale of change for workers in tea and banana plantations. We have worked to calculate living wages in different countries in conjunction with other schemes. We need a united effort.

We are painfully aware that we have made few inroads into helping seasonal agricultural workers on smallholder farms – highlighted in a recent SOAS report. We’re struggling to find the best ways forward: when Fairtrade tea smallholders have less than half a hectare to grow crops to feed their family, they need new solutions to enable them to pay decent wages. In fact the longer we work within world trade and its complexities, the more we uncover which needs attention.

Strangely the task in hand almost seemed easier when we were the tiniest minnow battling to swim upstream, mocked by all. Today, Fairtrade’s success in becoming a household name has added a weight of unrealistic expectation that is almost harder to bear.

Whenever we make progress we hit our next chapter of challenges. We’re currently shaping our next strategy, for 2016-2020. Send me your ideas about the next steps for Fairtrade to @harrietlambFT

Fairtrade is not the magic cure-all for poverty; but farmers have a pride in knowing that clean water wells, the classroom for their children, the roadway giving easier access to the port, were paid for through their efforts to produce quality products.  In 2012, 89% of Fairtrade premiums were spent on building businesses and on services such as improving crop productivity or quality. Empowerment through trade runs through Fairtrade, however we write the next chapter. Except I’ve learnt my lesson - this will definitely need a whole new book!

Fighting the Banana Wars and Other Fairtrade Battles, Rider Books, Ebury Press, £8.99

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