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Beyond Fairtrade

Beyond Fairtrade

Tuesday March 1

In Fairtrade Fortnight, Julian Crowe argues that fairtrade is still important but more must be done

The compelling argument for Fairtrade remains the same as it has been since the 1980s: by buying a Fairtrade certified product you ensure that the producer is guaranteed a fair and stable price, and you contribute to the Fairtrade premium to finance projects that benefit the producer’s community.

Over the years, however, things have changed.

Critics are questioning the relevance of Fairtrade, arguing that rapid industrialisation, driven by the globalised free market, has raised hundreds of millions out of grinding poverty, whereas the Fairtrade system benefits fewer than two million food producers. Although rapid industrialisation is typically based on low wages and poor conditions, apologists for the free market claim that it will correct itself. When large corporations recognise that they must cultivate a mutually beneficial relationship with their producers in order to secure a stable supply of goods, they will develop their own ethical trading schemes. Then, it is said, we shall see that the power of self-interest to improve the world is greater than that of  altruism.

But the free market, even when guided by enlightened self-interest, remains amoral, dominated by the powerful. Corporations, when they change their calculation of self-interest, are liable to redefine their standard of fairness and arbitrarily degrade the conditions under which they trade with their primary producers. Objective standards of fairness are needed, monitored and certified by an independent body, ensuring that producers are fairly rewarded, and that the production process benefits the community and environment.

Even though no more than 1.9 million farmers and workers (2019 figure) are involved in Fairtrade, for each one of them, and for their families and communities, the benefits of Fairtrade are tangible and objectively measured. But they are only protected so long as consumers continue to buy Fairtrade goods. Unless we keep making the argument for Fairtrade and expand the demand for Fairtrade goods, the producers will be forced to sell at variable prices on the open market rather than at the guaranteed Fairtrade price.

The argument for Fairtrade risks being drowned out by the other ethical issues now confronting the consumer. Fairtrade certification has always required strict environmental standards, but now it might seem that the interlinked crises of climate change, biodiversity loss and food insecurity overwhelm the call for trade justice.

The World Food Programme says 811 million people are now living with hunger, while 45 million are on the edge of famine. According to the World Resources Institute report Creating a Sustainable Food Future (2019), to solve the current hunger crisis, feed the projected increase in world population and satisfy the demand for a higher standard of living, a 56% rise in food production will be needed by 2050. Food production is threatened by climate change, while at the same time many current agricultural practices contribute to the greenhouse gas emissions that cause climate change, and compete with carbon reduction schemes for scarce land and water.

Only the most idealistic believe it is possible to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions to zero, and so the term ‘net-zero’ is used, meaning that continuing carbon emissions are offset by removing equal amounts from the atmosphere. This permits industrialised countries to emit greenhouse gases, offsetting them by large-scale planting of trees, reducing the land available for food production. Wealthy northern countries, with their two centuries of industrial activity, are largely responsible for climate change, which bears most heavily on the poor, whether through desertification of agricultural land or the inundation of small islands. Now they are dictating the methods, location and pace of reforestation, depriving the poor of food-growing land and perpetuating the original injustice of climate change.

The 1.9 million farmers who participate in the Fairtrade system need us to buy their goods at the Fairtrade price, but it is clear that Fairtrade is not enough. Climate change too must be tackled fairly, respecting the rights of everyone, and without deepening the related crisis of food scarcity.

Julian Crowe is a member of St Andrews Fairtrade Town Campaign.

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