Deconstructing unfair trade systems and tackling racism and neocolonialism in contemporary trade

As the news of the brutal murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Aubrey unfolded, we at the Foundation watched in horror alongside the rest of the world. And as the Black Lives Matter movement gained momentum, we wanted to show our support.

The Foundation does not condone racism in any form: interpersonal, institutional, or structural, in our UK office, or overseas in producer organisations. The Foundation strives to be a safe and inclusive work environment for all members of staff, but there’s always room to do better. And at the Foundation, individuals are reflecting, listening, and learning, and colleagues are supporting each other with this education.

As people are forced to reflect on the systems that subjugate black people here in the West, we must also reflect on how many of the products we buy are intrinsically linked to Britain’s colonial past and are still produced by black labour in the Global South today. Fairtrade’s mission is to improve the trading terms for these farmers and workers, but our long-term aim is to not be in business. We hope that one day we will no longer be needed but unfortunately, we are a long way off yet.

Global inequality

As consumers, we must ask ourselves what lurks behind the foam on our cappuccino, or the branding on the wrapper of a chocolate bar, or the plentiful, cheap supply of bananas to snack on whilst working from home. Sadly, for too many non-Fairtrade farmers, it is a life of back-breaking physical labour with very little financial reward.

Disempowerment, poverty, and enslavement rule supreme over the lives of many farmers and their families who grow the crops that become the valuable, globally-traded commodities we enjoy. Take the banana farmer who has never been offered a contract for the sale of his bananas; or the coffee farmer prevented from roasting or processing her coffee cherries by the existing unfair terms of trade; or the cocoa farming community with no power to negotiate price, often receiving only a tiny fraction of the cost of the chocolate bar their cocoa creates. In Ghana and Côte D’Ivoire, which account for 60 percent of the world’s cocoa production, a typical cocoa farmer lives on around 75p day (with women sometimes earning as low as 23p). That is well below the World Bank’s extreme poverty line of $1.90 (about £1.40) per day. This is an unacceptable reality.

To scrutinise the supply chains that bring us so many of our daily foods and drink from abroad (the UK receives 10-15 percent of its food imports from developing countries) is to also confront an uncomfortable, hidden part of the past. Follow the chain down from shop shelves, to the importers, the exporters, the global commodity trading floors, the huge trading companies, the traders, the local buyers, and what you will likely find is an exploited farmer. In many cases, you will then find the unpleasant underbelly of international trade systems that were established in colonial times.

slavery and contemporary oppression

Fairtrade acknowledges the intrinsic link between the slave trade and the contemporary oppression of black people in the Global South. Slavery was abolished in the British colonies in 1833 and in the United States in 1865, but the ongoing effects of European colonialism and the instability it caused continues to afflict black farmers and producers in Africa, Latin American, and the Caribbean. Modern slavery and child labour – two symptoms of extreme poverty – also remain massive issues throughout these regions and Fairtrade is committed to fighting the root causes and preventing abuse and exploitation.

Back in the UK, 62 miles up the coast from Liverpool sits Lancaster: the fourth largest slave trading port in the 18th century, which is today also a Fairtrade city. These two parts of Lancaster’s history sit as counterpoints to each other, recent pride far outweighed by the suffering and pain of the 29,000 slaves taken to the New World on Lancaster slave ships. If you want to walk around the city, you can pick up a visitor map showing the slave trade landmarks and the cafes and shops selling Fairtrade products containing Fairtrade sugar and cotton: two of the most iconic 18th century goods traded so immorally. The irony is not lost on us.

So, why is it then that when I went into a major supermarket recently there were only three bars of chocolate (amongst many) that carried the Fairtrade Mark? Frankly, this is not good enough and more commodities need to be sold on Fairtrade terms and more people need to commit to buying Fairtrade if the world is serious about lifting black farmers and producers out of poverty. To put this in perspective, if you proudly participated in #blackouttuesday but have no qualms about female cocoa farmers earning less than 23p a day, you’ve entirely missed the point.

enacting global systemic change

Fairtrade is built around the power of the consumer to effect change and around the campaigner to lobby and educate. I don’t know about you, but it seems to me a no brainer to take this moment to reinvigorate a commitment to being a Fairtrade supporter, and an activist consumer. But what does this mean practically? That you should donate every non-Fairtrade product in your cupboard and run out at top speed to buy a Fairtrade replacement? Not quite. We’re simply asking for consumers to be more mindful of the impact their purchase has and how it often comes hand-in-hand with exploitation, and how every purchase can make a difference.

Buying Fairtrade is impactful and important and we would ask that you join us in that approach, but only trade justice will go anywhere near deconstructing the unfair trade system and tackling racism and neocolonialism in contemporary trade. Steps that need taking to achieve trade justice include gender equality in global trade, full transparency in supply chains, funding for climate change adaptation, and living incomes for all farmers and producers.

You might be wondering how Fairtrade can make trade justice a reality. Well, we can’t. Not by ourselves. Everyone involved in the global value chain has a role to play to make living incomes for farmers possible. The Fairtrade system is 50 percent owned by producer networks but it also aims to tackle neocolonialism by empowering producers with the Fairtrade Premium. Farmers, workers, and their communities can spend the Premium as they see fit on projects and investments of their choice. Which is exactly how a fair trading system should work. This really is what makes the Fairtrade model the best and most unique system. But much more needs to be done and we know we need to keep pushing further to make sure we are really learning and leading the change we want to see.

Find out more about the Fairtrade Premium

So, in these extraordinary times when we are all talking about doing things differently, of building back better, when awareness of our own vulnerability in the times of COVID-19 should make us more inclined towards fairness and compassion, we ask you to join us on a journey in the fight for enacting global systemic change. To bring racist trade systems to an end once and for all.

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