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Would you be bothered if your cuppa was made with slave labour?

Major brands and coffee chains have led the way, but few Irish supermarkets actively support Fairtrade.

Dunstan Burke

ONE DAY IN 1985, two guys came up with a wonderful idea. Fairtrade, as we know it now, has come a long way since its foundations were laid out by Dutch economist Nico Roozen and missionary Frans van der Hoff.

Until then, you could find packets of fairly traded coffee in a few select world shops or maybe from the boot of a nun’s car after Sunday service. If you were lucky the brew might even turn out to be drinkable.

One of the great ideas of the Fairtrade Fathers was that if ethical trade was to have any global impact it needed to move out of this niche market and get into ordinary shops. Greater availability would increase sales and have more much-needed impact on small farmers of the developing world.

Nico and Frans also introduced the principles of a fair minimum price (that means that the farmer can make a living out of it!) and a premium on top of it for social projects. In exchange, the buyer would be guaranteed a product complying with higher social, economic and environmental standards.

Many people buy Fairtrade without even noticing

Fairtrade sales have been growing year after year ever since in almost all of the developed countries, including Ireland. Fairtrade products can be seen everywhere, in corner shops and discounters, and from high end health food stores to Dublin’s Moore Street market.

Several well-known coffee chains serve Fairtrade coffee only and many cafés and restaurants offer Fairtrade hot drinks. Many people even buy Fairtrade without noticing it, since some of our most popular chocolate bars are now Fairtrade. Millions of euros are being invested by Fairtrade farmers in building schools or drilling wells in Latin America, Africa and Asia thanks to purchases by Irish shoppers.

Buying Fairtrade doesn’t break the bank, and is often no more expensive than its conventional equivalent of same quality. It is also very easy as, unlike other initiatives you might support, it doesn’t require you to set up a direct debit. Most Fairtrade foods are of high quality, and comply with high environmental standards.

Fairtrade still only represents a small fraction of commodities 

Alas, Fairtrade still represents only a small fraction of the imported tropical commodities. Currently about 8% of bananas sold in Ireland are Fairtrade certified. The average in developed countries is even lower at hardly 3%.

So why has 30 year-old Fairtrade not grown much bigger already? Is it that most shoppers just look for the product that is the cheapest, regardless of any other trait? Could it be that they are not bothered that their cocoa was harvested by slave labourers or that the cotton they wear was picked by children?

On the contrary, research shows that Irish consumers are increasingly concerned by the conditions under which their commodities are produced. In January Oxfam published a report based on Credit Suisse data showing that in 2016 the richest 1% of the world’s population will own as much as the rest of the people on the planet. So while it is true that accordingly to neo-liberal theory many poor countries have been seeing their GDP growing regularly, this growth is mostly benefiting a small minority, and not the poorest farmers and workers.

Few Irish supermarkets actively support Fairtrade

The benefits that Fairtrade brings to the least fortunate farmers and workers depend on high volumes of sales in the richer parts of the world. Activists and charities have helped spread the Fairtrade word. Major brands and coffee chains have led the way. But until key player supermarket chains embrace Fairtrade, sales will be at risk of stagnation, making Fairtrade’s impact less tangible. With little evidence of impact the whole edifice could crumble down.

Few Irish supermarkets actively support Fairtrade. In contrast, several British supermarket chains offer only Fairtrade bananas. As a consequence, more than a third of the bananas across the water are Fairtrade. For the same reasons, half of the banana market in Switzerland is now Fairtrade!

It is about time for Irish retailers to follow suit and acknowledge the need for more ethical practices, starting with the conversion of whole product categories to Fairtrade.

The current volume of global sales of Fairtrade products only starts to address the issue. At present Fairtrade impacts the lives of just a few millions of some of the most disadvantaged people in the world. With the involvement of everyone from small farmers and workers to giant supermarket chains the fate of tens of millions more can be changed. If Fairtrade succeeds on grand-scale then it will have demonstrated that a better world trade system is possible, and, with the backing of supermarket chains, within reach.

Fairtrade Fortnight 2015 will take place from 23rd February – 8th March, and will be celebrated with a series of nationwide events. Fairtrade Ireland will take over The Culture Box in Temple Bar, Dublin, and have planned a programme of events that will include educational talks, tasting workshops, coffee labs and film screenings.
www.fairtrade.ie / facebook.com/FairtradeIreland /@Fairtrade_ie

Dunstan Burke is certification manager at Fairtrade Ireland.

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