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Thursday, December 8, 2016
Do you have a problem with Fair Trade?
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¬†Westminster Justice and Peace Commission is busy persuading parishes to commit to Fair Trade, and it seemed that during Fair Trade Fortnight at the beginning of Lent, we were pushing at an open door. We got a lot of press coverage. Waitrose and Sainsburys will shortly be selling only Fair Trade bananas, and both will serve Fair Trade coffee in their coffee shops, while the Coop stocks only Fair Trade tea and coffee. It has become a popular movement. And yet there are serious obstacles in the eyes of many, as the Commission has found when talking to priests and people in the diocese. Price is, not surprisingly, a barrier. When a Somerfield basic packet of 80 teabags costs 40p and the Fair Trade version retails at £1.89, one hesitates. On a tight budget, there is little choice. Yet those who can afford it generally do not buy the cheapest tea, and the gap between well-known brands and Fair Trade may be only 10p or 20p. Given that the difference will go to the producers, lifting them out of poverty, the moral imperative is clear. "I don't like the taste of Fair Trade tea/coffee/wine/chocolate" is another objection, perhaps more valid when Fair Trade started 16 years ago, but with thirty or forty types of coffee now carrying the blue, green and black label, likewise several types of tea, this is no longer an excuse. Locating Fair Trade goods can be harder. In my own branch, the Fair Trade cocoa was not with the other drinking chocolates, but tucked away with the cakes, while the Fair Trade roses wilted in a corner, hidden by the bargain bouquets. Cost and taste, certainly, were the main objections voiced by a few shoppers at Sainsburys in Harringay, North London. Here the Justice and Peace group from nearby St Thomas More Church spent a day running a Fair Trade stall in the entrance to mark Fair Trade Fortnight. They gave away more than 900 leaflets which called on shoppers to "Change today, choose Fair Trade". There are other wider arguments against Fair Trade, however, one being that the label is sometimes given to organisations which are not adhering to Fair Trade standards. The Financial Times last September reported that some coffee growers in Peru were paying less than a minimum wage to their temporary workers, raising questions about the workings of the FLO (the Fairtrade Labelling Organisation). The Fair Trade Foundation responded that some growers earned less than a minimum wage themselves, and that their (the FTF) policy was to work to develop these communities, rather than punish poor employers for offering temporary work. The Fairtrade Labelling Organisation comprises over twenty organisations worldwide, and goods are sold in 18 countries, and according to the Tablet is benefiting around five million people in 58 different countries. How wonderful that a trading organisation only 16 years old can begin to lift the lives of so many, and can act as a developing agent, as well as a commercial buyer. Another objection is that free trade is a better mechanism for produce. It is no accident that Fair Trade has engaged with so many countries which produce between them only a handful of products, such as tea, coffee, bananas, cocoa, or cotton, where poor country is pitted against poor country, and where international trading cartels, such as the International Coffee Association, control world prices, to the advantage of transnational companies (Starbucks has bought, for instance, the patent for the best coffee in Ethiopia, depriving it of $13 million). Surely, the argument goes, it would be better for the banana or coffee farmer to diversify, and face up to the temporary hardship. If we have too much coffee, tea and so on, they should stop producing it. And on one level, Fair Trade goes against market forces, where demand should determine supply. But the consumer is the key element in making Fair Trade work. We in the developed nations need to say to our supermarkets that low price is not our only concern, and that we do not want cheap food at any price, but are willing to pay workers a living wage. Secondly, economies with only one or two cash crops cannot easily change. Anyone who has seen African or Asian farmers operating on tiny margins, and knows the expense of investment (coffee trees take seven years to bear fruit), will understand the impossibility of changing easily. The price of coffee has fallen so low for Papua New Guinean farmers that some plantations now lie unharvested, with no money to diversify. St Lucian banana farmers (some of whom sell to the Sainsburys Fair Trade market) are now trying to break into the hotel supplying trade: not an easy task, when the big hotels fly their fresh produce - US grown tomatoes, lettuces, cucumbers - daily from Miami. Community tourism in St Lucia is now trying to help farmers work together with the hotels to match the needs of one with the other. Fair Trade offers a "social premium" to the farmers or workers, who decide cooperatively how to use it for the benefit of the community. Thus it can become easier for producers not to rely on one commodity alone. The three aspects of world poverty discussed at the G8 2005 summit in Edinburgh were Aid, Debt and Trade. It was generally agreed that the poor countries' trade lobbies were the least successful. Through organisations like Fair Trade, we can commit to working to change this. Our purchasing power really counts, and supermarkets are sensitive to our opinions. The Fair Trade slogan: "Change Today, Choose Fair Trade" reminds us that we have a choice. Going into a supermarket, we have a choice of over ten thousand items. Choosing the Fair Trade product whenever possible means we are opting for a better livelihood for small farmers and low paid workers. As Christians, do we have any other choice?
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