A heap of Britain’s most relied-upon products – I’m talking that morning coffee, the cure-all cups of tea that we lean on for everyday crises and celebrations, and the king of all things sweet, chocolate – could never be produced from scratch here on this isle. We rely on far-flung countries to farm and ship this precious cargo – countries that happen to be developing ones, where poverty is often rife and extreme.
Think that having this trade automatically lifts the economy in these producing regions? Not so. The Fairtrade Foundation calculates that, while the chocolate industry in the UK is worth £4 billion, the average farmer in Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana (where the lion’s share of the world’s cocoa comes from) makes less than 75p a day. (This income easily undercuts the boundary of extreme poverty, by the way, which is placed at around £1.40 a day.)
The Fairtrade Foundation – which carries probably the most recognisable ethical mark in the UK – was established in 1992 to nurture a fairer marketplace for small-scale growers and workers in developing countries. This not-for-profit organisation assesses and certifies fairly traded products while also promoting the cause and supporting producers.
(If you are wondering, ‘Fairtrade’ refers to the foundation and its certification, while ‘fair trade’ is used to describe any practices that support developing-country producers and are based on ethically sound principles. Comprende?)
Our local patch has its very own campaign group supporting fair trade values: Bristol Fair Trade Network CIC. Independent of the Fairtrade Foundation but working closely with it, this local organisation aims to raise awareness of the issues affecting workers and farmers in developing countries, and champion all fairly traded products and certifications (including the Fairtrade Mark) across our region.
“At Bristol Fair Trade, we want people to choose products that guarantee farmers a minimum price for their crops, award a premium to develop better farming methods or facilities for their communities, and empower farmers through cooperativisation, access to training and more,” says Danni Rochman from the network. “In the UK, the Fairtrade Mark is the most widely available and recognisable route to this, but there are other schemes, such as Fair Wild, certifying wild plant collectors, Fair for Life that looks at complex supply chains, and even Fairmined that certifies small-scale and artisanal precious metal mining organisations.”
Bristol’s local fair trade organisation was formally established in 2005 when the patch became a Fairtrade City. Wondering what, exactly, that title entails? Well, the regions that carry that title have each made a commitment to fair trade products and systems, and are part of a network called Fair Trade Towns International, which counts almost 2,000 global communities among its number. All towns and cities with this status have to achieve five core goals, including support for fair trade from the local council and the business community.
Other requirements include fair trade products being used by local organisations (think schools and workplaces) and sold in outlets such as shops and restaurants throughout the area. So, you’ll find fair trade food and drink all over our patch, on the shelves in local stores and as ingredients in products that are made here.
The market for ethically traded goods is at a high right now. This is likely not only down to the work of fair trade-focused groups and campaigns, but also our growing engagement with production systems and their effect of the planet, thinks Danni.
“I’ve seen a big shift in the way people engage with fair trade,” she says. “I think, initially, most interest came from long-time supporters and those of us that had learned at school that fair trade gives farmers a better deal. Increasingly, though, interest is growing amongst those who are interested in how alternative systems like fair trade can address the climate emergency, trade injustice and inequality.
“People are recognising that it’s one of several ways of undermining the control of big corporates in global trade.”
Kevin Hodder is buying manager at ethical grocery store group Better Food, which sells all kinds of fair trade food and drink, from sugar and bananas to spices and wine. He agrees with Danni about consumers’ shopping decisions being more politically inspired, but also notes the struggle of knowing what to look out for when trying to shop ethically.
“The certification has a long history of standing up for the rights of small-scale farmers in a world that favours big industry. How things are produced and how the people that produce them are treated are questions we should be asking about everything we spend our money on. The Fairtrade Mark was one of the first ethical certifications to give shoppers the autonomy to use their spending power to support what they believe in, and they inspired a movement when they did that.
“However, there are a lot of competing claims on what it means to be ethical, especially in food and drink. Fairtrade is having to shout louder and louder to be heard above the noise. That’s why we’re so keen to represent fair trade certifications alongside organic.”
Coffee beans rep one of the biggest product markets within the Fairtrade Foundation; they’re what half of all its farmers produce. Local roasters like Bristol’s Wogan Coffee are big supporters of the certification, which the coffee farming industry really benefits from, says James Wogan.
“Of course, coffee is one of the most traded commodities in the world,” notes James, “so there’s such a massive scope for an organisation to oversee fair play and a fair wage. It’s also, regrettably, an industry which can be prone to corruption, intimidation and even slavery. [Fair trade systems] are in a uniquely powerful role to try and stamp out these injustices.”
And by creating a fairer environment for farmers and workers, fair trade has also seen the quality of the product flourish, explains James.
“We hear constantly about the positive effects that fair trade coffee purchasing creates: one thing that’s really incredible is the difference in quality that it creates over time. With a better price for their products, farmers are able to invest far more in their future crops, meaning the taste just keeps improving. A really good example of this is our Fairtrade and organic Honduran, from the San Pedro de Copan region. Every single year it just tastes better and better!”
The South West Fair Trade Business Awards are designed to shine the light on local businesses and organisations who are supporting fair trade systems and therefore helping to improve the conditions for thousands of workers in developing countries, as well as create conversations and buzz around the subject of fair trade and its importance to industries across the spectrum. This year’s award ceremony is being held in May at the Tobacco Factory’s new Spielman Theatre and entries – drumroll please – have just opened. Categories cover everything from Best Fair Trade Caterer to Best Product and Best Retailer.
Hosting the event is Bristolian TV bod, baker and Crumbs Awards judge, Briony May.
“I’m thrilled to be a part of these awards,” she tells us. “In the world we’re living in today, it’s more important than ever to take extra care over the products that we buy. If we’re purchasing fair trade then we’re doing our bit, however small, to help farmers and workers around the world.”
In the meantime, if your interest in fair trade has been piqued, then keep an eye out for local goings-on over Fairtrade Fortnight (24 February until 8 March). During these two weeks, organisations, businesses and individuals join efforts to tell the stories behind many of our staple food and drink ingredients, bringing our attention to the people that make them and the exploitative conditions they’re threatened with.
Better Food will be taking part in the campaign again this year, says Kevin.
“We always get involved – it’s a great time to shout about our support of Fairtrade. We’ll be raising awareness of the lead campaign from Fairtrade Foundation, She Deserves, as well as making sure we have plenty of enticing offers on Fairtrade products – hopefully with the result of encouraging a few more people to give Fairtrade a go!”
A shopping basket packed with sound ethics and great-value deals to boot? Sounds like a winner to us.