Fairtrade: Fair enough?

Fairtrade: A good idea or just bananas?

I am sure that many of you will recognise yourselves to be bargain hunters. Our student house jokes that you can recognise what is on special offer at Tesco’s by looking at the contents of our fridge. A more astute student will recognise that to save money you have to look at the price per 100g; this guarantees the best value for money. But do you actually think about where your products have been sourced from? Too many of us blindly buy our products without thinking of who produced them or how much they were paid. Should we feel a responsibility to make sure that these workers get a fair deal?

This question is much older than you may think. This very debate is the first to arise in Plato’s republic: Cephalus believes that one who is better off has a moral obligation to treat others justly, whereas Thrasymachus argues that justice is a convention imposed on us by society, and that it does not benefit the individual to adhere to it. The rich should take advantage over the weak if they can. Rawls’ agrees with Cephalus, his ‘difference principle’ argues that everyone has an equal intrinsic worth, and that we have a moral duty to help our fellow human beings. What the Fairtrade movement is trying to explain is that man is not just another machine; we should treat Fairtrade products as a relationship rather than a commodity, however limited your student budget may be!

It is important to differentiate the Fairtrade logo from the Fairtrade products we can buy here in Britain though. If you see a Fairtrade logo on bar of chocolate, it means that first of all, a cocoa Producer has become ‘Fairtrade accredited’ by complying to Fairtrade minimum social, economic and environmental requirements, along with the requirement of encouraging continuous improvement to develop farmers’ organisations or the situation of estate workers. At this point a Fairtrade registered licensee: a company like Traidcraft will offer to employ the cocoa harvesters at a fixed rate of income and use the cocoa to make a chocolate bar, which would then be sold in the UK. The Fairtrade logo therefore is not a brand, but an assurance that the original farmers have been given a good salary for their work. The company buys the raw ingredients and refines them into a finished product which it then sells on the market. So whereas the Fairtrade organisation is non-profit, the Fairtrade registered companies most certainly are interested in making money! They may offer higher salaries to workers and put a certain amount of money towards local projects, which generally amounts to 12–20% of the cost of the finished product. The other 80–90% provides profits to the Fairtrade registered company.

For those who were wondering how a bar of chocolate could be Fairtrade when not all the ingredients are Fairtrade, you are asking yourselves a good question. Products can only be considered Fairtrade if 50% of their dry weight is Fairtrade. The fact that it isn’t value based can lead to some ‘Fairtrade’ products where only a very little proportion of the cost is Fairtrade, such as the Fairtrade cosmetics. A little misleading, no? If cosmetics is not exactly the first product that springs to mind when you think of the Fairtrade logo, then you are not alone. It encompasses many an unexpected product such as a variety of wines, beers, clothes and even footballs!

Whilst Fairtrade accredited producers do get better working conditions, especially as part of the Fairtrade companies’ pay goes directly towards the development of local projects, the conversion is not necessarily an obvious choice for farmers or producers. The process of becoming Fairtrade accredited costs a lot of money and time, and once you are Fairtrade accredited, it does not necessarily mean that a company will use your production. There are currently more Fairtrade accredited producers than there is a market for Fairtrade products. The world just needs to consume more Fairtrade products! This is where the importance of raising awareness of the Fairtrade logo comes in.

There are also those who find fault with the Fairtrade way – if we want to increase the development of a country, we should aim not just to increase the pay level for a farmer’s work, but we should also encourage manufacturing companies to set up as well. This would allow developing countries to produce a finished product, which would have a much higher value, and employ more people. The producers are still just as dependent on Fairtrade registered companies to buy their product. If they disappear, the producers will not be able to sell whether Fairtrade accredited or not.

Another consideration to take into account is the ‘air miles’, which weighs ever heavier upon our collective consciousnesses with the rise of global warming. Should one really buy products from half-way around the world as supposed to buying food a little closer home? The question of whether you would rather help developing countries or reduce global warming does not hold an easy answer.

The ideal would be for countries in which there are Fairtrade accredited producers to buy their own products and therefore provide employment without relying on the unreliable demand from big companies, and this would have the added benefit of keeping the air miles low.

In a nutshell (Fairtrade, of course!), the main goal of the Fairtrade certification is to make you aware that when you buy a banana or a chocolate bar in Tesco’s, it is at the end of a great process that has involved the work of many people who work at their jobs like anyone else, and deserve to be treated well. At the end of this article, you can be a Cephalus or a Thrasymachus, but at least you have made the choice.

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