The ubiquity of fairtrade products in our shops today makes them an easy option whose choice will make a real difference to people in the regions of the world where many crops exotic to Britain are grown. By ensuring that workers are paid a fair wage, fairtrade schemes have a direct positive impact on the lives of millions (1.24 million people are currently involved in fairtrade production worldwide and their families and communities also benefit). But they also encourage environmentally beneficial practices on plantations and farms that can bring about longer-term benefits for people through the improvement and protection of their local environments. In this Environment Week Making the Change special, we explore some of the benefits of fairtrade farming, and how we in the UK can make a big difference to the world through our support of fairtrade, by focussing on five big fairtrade products.
Fruit and Vegetables
The product that people most commonly call to mind of when they think ‘fairtrade’ must be the banana. Currently, one third of bananas sold in the UK are fairtrade, which means that the pickers get paid a decent wage, they and their families’ health and education is supported by their employer. This is in marked contrast to conditions on conventional plantations, where the ever-falling price of bananas in the West has meant that workers are often paid less than £1 per day, too little to live on, and are often subjected to dangerous pesticides that can cause respiratory problems, skin infections, depression and cancer. Fairtrade’s advantages can also be extended to growers of other fruits, including pineapples, satsumas and mangos, all of which can be bought fair trade. If we choose to buy these, we can encourage employers in the growing regions to improve working conditions in order to become fair trade accredited and increase their custom. Vegetables such as French beans and corn are also grown fair trade, and represent a big improvement on other vegetable supplies we might have from abroad, though it is less energy-intensive to eat what’s in season and grown locally if possible.
Although fairtrade cotton is not necessarily organic, it is often associated with environmental benefits. To protect the health of workers and their communities fairtrade accredited growing must be done according to strict controls on chemical use, pesticides, soil erosion and water pollution and producers are encouraged to manage waste as effectively as possible. Since conventional cotton production involves such a high degree of environmental destruction, it is to be lamented that only a tiny fraction of current UK clothes are fair trade. But by choosing to buy those that are, we can encourage much-needed change.
Fairtrade chocolate has gone from strength to strength over recent years. From Cadbury to Kit Kat, there are a huge range of delicious fairtrade chocolates available, leaving little excuse for avoiding it. The fairtrade cocoa is usually grown on small family farms, in which working conditions are safe, child labour is prohibited, the environment is protected and women’s rights are respected. Kuapa Kokoo is a 60 000-strong cocoa-producing cooperative in Ghana that supplies most fairtrade chocolatiers in the UK in a way that is beneficial rather than harmful to its workers.
An arena that many are not aware hosts a fairtrade contingent is that of the so-called ‘beauty products’. But fairtrade cocoa butter, olive oil, honey and shea butter (made from nuts) can all be fashioned into environmentally sustainable, non-toxic shampoos, soaps, body washes, oils and lotions. Many high-street pharmacists already stock these, and by choosing them over alternatives based on synthetic chemicals we can reduce the impact on our environment – and our skin – of luxury and everyday cosmetics alike.
Mining can be an extremely dangerous and unpleasant activity, and have huge costs to the environment in terms of habitat destruction and chemical pollution. But schemes to establish a fairtrade supply of gold mean that there is a way of guaranteeing that the ring on your finger has been sourced in as ethical a manner as possible. Mining is done on a small scale, and the miners receive a good wage, financial security and help to improve their local communities through environmental protection, education and healthcare projects. Protective gear must be worn, chemicals must be used carefully, and a minimum price is guaranteed for the gold the miners find. All of this is a huge improvement on the conditions traditionally associated with mining in parts of the world where environmental and health regulations are lacking.
Local Action, Global Change
Not everything we buy has a ‘fair trade’ option, and nor would we want it to: in a sustainable world, all of our food that can be grown in the UK climate should be grown here, and eaten in season, if we are to have as little a negative impact on our environment as possible. But when it comes to eating exotic goods and clothing ourselves with cotton, importation is the only way to go. Thus, we must make sure that the things we buy that are grown or made abroad come without a history of exploitation and degradation of workers attached. Fairtrade products aren’t necessarily more expensive than those not regulated by the Fair Trade Foundation. But when in some cases they are, the difference in price can surely never amount to the costs – environmental and economic – of continuing to subject workers on plantations, mines and farms to unendurable conditions and allowing short-sighted, polluting practices to destroy their environments.
Look out for the Fairtrade logo, and for more information on fairtrade products, visit www.fairtrade.org.uk