19 February, 2018

Why we should buy more Fairtrade products

Shopping trolley full of Fairtrade products
by Justin Avern

For every banana to every coffee bean that is sold on Fairtrade terms, a bit more money goes to the community.

If you cast your mind back to the 2012 London Olympics you may remember the approach of British cycling’s winning strategy, that of “marginal gains”. This approach boiled down to looking at all elements of cycling and the cyclist and seeing if there were slight improvements that could be made at all stages - from the obvious things like the bike (and its magic, rounder wheels), to less obvious things such as the pillow the competitor took away with them and how they washed their hands (washing hands properly is according to surgeons a key way we can make avoiding some illnesses a bit more likely). 

So why is that relevant to Fairtrade?

One of the questions we’re sometimes asked at Fairtrade is why it doesn’t pay more for farmers. Surely that would sort the problem straight away. A valid question but one that is balanced between doing the right thing and getting people to buy products. In the UK Fairtrade is blessed by many supporters who go out of their way to purchase fairtrade products, and of whom we and the farmers and workers who make up the system are appreciative. 

The reason this blog starts talking about marginal gains is because there is a similar premise behind Fairtrade and sales. When a farmer or co-operative becomes fairtrade certified it is sadly not a magic pill that instantly cures all ills. There may already be existing problems that have built up over many years, such as debt accrued in order to buy fertilisers, or insecticides, or food to recover from a bad harvest. It can take time and hard work to sort these out.

Often it’s assumed that increased productivity will immediately improve the lot of the farmer. Because, why not? Grow more, sell more, earn more - job done. However the reality is that this is not always the case, as all that will occur is a glut of produce on the market and lower prices – the farmer may work harder, and get the same income as they got before. So the only winner would be companies. And we were set up to work with the market on behalf of farmers. Through Fairtrade the farmer may get relatively instant benefits by adhering to the standards, such as improved safety gear, training etc, arguably the biggest impact is tied purely to how much the farmer and workers can sell on Fairtrade terms. 

Maternity hospital supported by Fairtrade Premium

The more sales, the more premium to invest in the community, the more produce is protected by the Fairtrade Minimum Price which guarantees the farm will at least get the cost of production in times of global price crash, and more money comes to the co-operative group that can be spent on projects to benefit the wider community, be it investments in vital infrastructure, improving roads, or a maternity hospital, purchasing an ambulance, or environmental projects, such as reforesting. So, for every banana to every coffee bean that is sold on Fairtrade terms, a bit more premium goes to the co-operative, meaning an improvement somewhere in their community.

The challenge is of course how much the producer group can sell on Fairtrade terms. The system only works if there is a market for their Fairtrade produce, prompting traders and buyers in country to insist on Fairtrade production methods. A farmer may be growing 100% of their crops to Fairtrade standards, but they may not be able to sell 100% on Fairtrade terms. So the buyer may get high quality grade Fairtrade produce without Fairtrade prices, and so the farmer and their workers don’t get the premium. So, the more Fairtrade products we add to our weekly shop, the more our choice directly supports the farmer, and sends a message that Fairtrade is required, and more than that, desired. Fairtrade grew out of people power, and like the crops our farmers grow, it needs hard work and support to prosper.

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