Is Fairtrade still fair?

| 1st February 2009
In the News
Concerns arise over 'Fairwashing' and the need for increased vigilence from the Fairtrade Labelling Organisation in order to acheive trade justice.

Just one week after coffee giant Starbucks announced that 100 per cent of its espresso coffee would be Fairtrade certified, the founder of an Indian Fairtrade cooperative said publicly that the growth of Fairtrade certifi cation has ‘diluted’ the marque’s commitment to trade justice.

In a speech to a conference hosted by Cooperatives UK, Tomy Mathews, founder of Fair Trade Alliance of Kerala and a proponent of organic farming in India, said that whilst the desire to expand Fairtrade was legitimate it needed to be done in a way that put a central emphasis on trade justice and nurtured the smallholder farmers who were most at risk of fallout from the global economic downturn.

Mathews warned that the need to supply larger volumes of commodities such as coffee and tea meant that plantations, as opposed to individual farmers, were now receiving Fairtrade status. In some cases, he said, awarding plantations the Fairtrade certifi cate could simply be requiring owners to implement working conditions which may already be enforced under national law.

‘The FLO [Fairtrade Labelling Organisation] inspection regime has to be much more vigilant over welfare of plantation workers,’ he said. ‘It should stretch the legal minimums for working conditions to a level where benefi ts really come to the workers.’
His warning was supported by Kathini Maloba, General Secretary of the Kenya Women Workers’ Organisation. Maloba said that some plantation owners who received Fairtrade certifi cation seemed more keen to aspire to the publicised successes of the scheme – such as building local clinics or buying ambulances – rather than simply passing on the fi nancial premium to workers in their wages. Because workers were frequently migrants, she argued, they often failed to see any benefi ts from the community projects on which the premiums were spent.

Mathews also said that consumers should beware of ‘Fairwashing’ – the use of Fairtrade certifi cation by as a marketing or PR tool.

He advised consumers to look beyond Fairtrade products to Fairtrade businesses, where all of their stock was procured in accordance with the guidelines – a principal he calls ‘Fairtrade Plus’. But he also acknowledge that Fairtrade was only one weapon in the fi ght for fairness in global commodity trade.

‘The larger battle for trade justice cannot be won with shopping bag politics,’ he said. ‘Changing the world one tea-cup at a time is not enough. We should feel good about drinking it, but to assume that it will help in the larger battle for trade justice is way off the mark.’


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