Free trade is killing people. We can help change that by joining campaigns to end subsidies and bring some common sense to tariffs, and while they’re on the go we can use the current system against itself. If companies pay workers a pittance we can assume they care about money. We can take ours elsewhere. Here’s where the elsewhere is:
Fairtrade. It’s a wacky old concept. Pay producers enough to cover the cost of production, pay workers enough for them to buy food and clothes and to send their children to school, and make clothes and textiles without sweatshops or child labour. It’s crazy. Go too far down that route you might find yourself in a world where poverty’s done with and humans look out for each other.
The Fairtrade Labelling Organisation is an international body that monitors the sector and awards Fairtrade status to products meeting their criteria. The UK member is the Fairtrade Foundation, and if their logo isn’t on a product made in a developing country you know it’s not been made right. Their trading standards agree a minimum price that “covers the cost of sustainable production” and a premium to be invested in “social, environmental or economic development projects”.
This is a good thing. And it’s easy to play our part because all we need to do is buy the stuff. It’s an example of how our small, individual efforts can add up to a big-ass change in the way the world works. According to the Foundation, sales of Fairtrade goods in 2009 hit almost £800 million. That’s tangible. That’s not misty-eyed, let’s-put-on-a-show optimism. That’s £800 million that didn’t go to companies that exploit workers. They’ll be watching Fairtrade, and they’ll be aware of why our £800 million isn’t going their way. They’ll see how the sector’s growing and they’ll want to get involved because they care about money. And it’s growing fast.
In 1994, there was one chocolate bar, one coffee and one tea certified Fairtrade. These were in the days of specialist companies; yer Traidcrafts, yer Divines, yer Clippers. By 2001, sales had crept up to £30 million but then the big guys followed the money. In 2002, Co-op supermarkets made all its own-brand chocolate Fairtrade. In 2005, Nestlé launched its own Fairtrade coffee. Nestlé. Fairtrade. Nestlé. That’s some result. In 2006, Ben & Jerry’s launched their first Fairtrade ice cream. In 2008, Tate & Lyle (them of the subsidies scandal) announced their retail sugar would go Fairtrade. In 2009, Cadbury announced Dairy Milk would be Fairtrade certified, as would Starbucks’ espresso coffees. That, along with raised consumer consciousness, put us in the days of £800 million. Fairtrade works.
A common complaint is that Fairtrade stuff is too expensive compared to the old-fashioned exploited-worker stuff. Aside from completely missing the point, it’s often not true. At the time of writing, and looking at the website of a leading supermarket that may or may not rhyme with Mesco, a bunch of Fairtrade bananas costs £1.37. A bunch of non-Fairtrade, or ‘evil’, bananas costs £1.10. So if we complain about Fairtrade bananas being too expensive we’d be talking about a difference of 27p. Buy some bananas every week and help no one; buy some Fairtrade bananas every week and help some of the world’s poorest people, and show other companies that you don’t agree with their methods of doing business. That self-righteousness will cost you just 27p a week. That’s a bargain.
Let’s see how this makes a difference. Fair Comment, the Fairtrade Foundation’s quarterly magazine, tells us of Ghana’s Kuapa Kokoo group, a cooperative that owns part of the Day Chocolate Company. Member Adwua Addae is quoted: “Before I joined Kuapa I wasn’t able to look after the children as well as I can now and I couldn’t afford to pay for school fees. Now I can afford school fees and my children are happy and much more confident. I expect to see my children benefiting from a high level of education.” Anyone who buys Divine chocolate helps make this happen. Ain’t we powerful, gang? Ain’t we mighty?
Fairtrade makes a difference. Until the tariffs are fixed, until debt repayment is cancelled, until subsidies are stopped, Fairtrade is the best version of capitalism we have. Every time we buy Fairtrade and every time we don’t, we’re making a decision, making a difference and sending a message. We need to choose which difference to make: we can make someone poorer or pay them enough to live on. And we need to choose which message to send: we can tell the world we’re happy to exploit the poor or tell its corporations it’s time to change the way they do business.
Free trade is killing people. Let’s not do that any more.