A trip to the supermarket can be a treacherous affair. We are bombarded with branding and whacked over the head with weasel words as we hunt for bargains on our weekly shop. We know what we should be wary of: the dreaded E numbers, hidden sugars, battery-farm eggs, unnecessary packaging. All the while trying to buy local and seasonal. And what about organic? It’s understandable that buying Fairtrade might fall further down the list of priorities.
In fact, even as Fairtrade launched their Fairtrade Fortnight last week, the news emerged that sales of Fairtrade products had slipped for the first time, by four per cent last year. This is no great surprise, really: the grocery market as a whole has contracted, and shoppers have switched from supermarkets like the Co-Op and Sainsbury’s to cut-price retailers such as Lidl and Aldi. Although the German giants do stock some Fairtrade products, they offer far fewer than their more expensive competitors.
Fairtrade is now in its 20th year, and its little blue-green logo has become quite common on our products. Coffee, chocolate, bananas, sugar - and even flowers and beauty products - can be certified Fairtrade. Your bananas are quite probably Fairtrade - one in three of all bananas sold in the UK is. And if you enjoy a regular Starbucks indulgence, then you’re supping Fairtrade coffee; it is one of the largest purchasers of Fairtrade in the world.
But why buy Fairtrade? And what does the higher price you inevitably pay actually secure? Well, at its heart, Fairtrade supports better prices, worker conditions and fair terms of trade for farmers all over the world. Fairtrade maintains that farmers are often the most marginalised groups of people in society, and wants to help them support themselves and achieve their potential. The reason the end product is more expensive is to directly keep the price high at source, as well as including a Fairtrade Premium, an additional sum of money that goes into a communal fund for workers and farmers to use to improve their social, economic and environmental conditions.
Kiran Tawadey is the founder of Hampstead Tea, a London-based company with a focus on organic, biodynamic and Fairtrade practices. She was inspired to launch an organic tea range when she first heard of the Makaibari Tea Estate in Darjeeling, which grew and hand picked tea in total harmony with the natural ecological system. She set up Hampstead Tea, and helped Makaibari become the world’s first Demeter-certified biodynamic tea estate.
The workers are just as important to Tawadey as the sustainability. For every kilogram of tea purchased under the Fairtrade programme, a proportion goes directly to the farming communities to fund social development projects. The premium you pay on your morning cuppa has made electricity, education initiatives, and medical care facilities a part of village life.
“I think it’s important for the consumer to stand up and say ‘I don’t mind paying another few pence once I know it’s going direct to the tea garden’," says Tawadey. "With Hampstead Tea, everything is ploughed back into the land. Some of the things they do on the estate is so wonderful - they don’t cut the trees down for fuel because they have a biogen unit, and run the machinery on cow manure. The environment they live and work in is so conducive to real life.”
markets in the UK have welcomed Fairtrade with open arms over the years. Marks and Spencer was the first major retailer to switch all of its roast and ground coffee, and green and black tea, to Fairtrade. One hundred per cent of all bananas stocked in Waitrose, Sainsbury's and the Co-Op are Fairtrade. But supermarket price wars can often fly in the face of Fairtrade efforts. The average price of a banana has fallen to 11p from 18p a decade ago, meaning small farmers get far less for their crops. On large farms, the push for higher yields can often lead to unsafe working conditions with workers being exposed to dangerous pesticides, as well as longer hours and low pay. But buying Fairtrade bananas in the UK means that producers are guaranteed a minimum price, get an extra premium to invest in their community and have improved workplace conditions and protection.
Another factor affecting Fairtrade’s fortunes is perhaps our own admirable efforts to eat healthier. As the sugar backlash gains pace and more people turn to artificial sweeteners, sales have declined, affecting prices for farmers. Now, with an impending EU reform that will lift the cap on sugar beet, sugar cane farmers are facing a real crisis. Fairtrade is calling for the EU to support sugar cane farmers to increase their productivity, find new markets or diversify.
Fairtrade is not without its critics. Some say it patronises farmers and business people, who do not need conditions imposed on them to secure their own future, as well as excluding some small but high-quality food distributors. Fairtrade, however, insists that its ethos is about trade, not aid, and actually affords small farmers with greater freedoms with its minimum pricing and training schemes.
Fairtrade may have taken a knock as the grocery market contracts, but it is by no means on the way out. More than 4,500 products are Fairtrade-certified. The UK is one of the world’s leading Fairtrade markets, with sales of £1.57bn in 2012. And last month, Mars announced that it would commit to sourcing all cocoa for Mars Bars sold in the UK and Ireland from Fairtrade certified sources by autumn 2015. “Business appetite to collaborate with Fairtrade remains incredibly strong,” says Michael Gidney, chief executive of the Fairtrade Foundation. “To have Mars leading the way with the first commitment to our Fairtrade Cocoa Sourcing Program, on such an iconic brand, is fantastic news both here in the UK and on the ground with cocoa cooperatives in Côte d’Ivoire.”
The move means that four of the UK’s top chocolate brands - including Cadbury, Green & Blacks and Divine - are now directly working with Fairtrade certification - meaning it’s not such a guilty pleasure as you may have thought. Roll on Easter…
Fairtrade Fortnight runs until 8 March http://fortnight.fairtrade.org.uk/