Fair trade: success story for the poor

Posted: 9 February 2007

Fair trade has emerged from nowhere to become a success story of our time. From chocolate, coffee and bananas to clothes and crafts, it has now become a mainstream way for people to buy knowing they are helping some of the world's poorest people. Here John Madeley and Miles Litvinoff, who have written a new guidebook on the subject, bring the story up to date.

In 1994 a bar of Green & Black's chocolate was the first UK retail product to receive the Fairtrade mark. Now 13 years later 2,000 retail and catering products on sale in the UK carry the mark. And there are plenty of other fair trade goods besides - clothes and crafts products from dedicated fair trade organisations. Fair trade sales in the UK are currently increasing by about 40 per cent every year.

What's most important about this success story is that some of the world's poorest people are benefiting. Amid the gloom of bad news, fair trade shows that there are effective ways for the poor to gain from international trade and for trade to genuinely support sustainable development, rather than undermine it as so often happens.

Huge range

Fair trade is a way for shoppers to tackle poverty every time we shop. With fair trade, producers in developing countries receive a decent return - a fair and stable price or wage for their products. And in many cases they get extra money - the `social premium' built into the price of Fairtrade-certified produce- to invest in their business or community.

The range of fair trade products is huge. Handicrafts, coffee and chocolate came first. A wide range of foodstuffs followed. Today coffee and bananas are the biggest sellers. In addition, fair trade clothes, shoes, furniture, carpets, footballs, wine and beer, herbs and spices, baby foods, and fruit juice are all available - and all are great quality.

Fairtrade products. Photo: The Fairtrade Foundation, 2003
Fairtrade products. Photo: The Fairtrade Foundation, 2003
Fairtrade products© Fairtrade Foundation
Many fair trade products carry the Fairtrade mark of Bonn-based Fairtrade Labelling Organisations (FLO) International. This mark is given to products that meet internationally agreed fair trade standards. FLO is the umbrella organisation of initiatives in 21 countries across Europe, Japan, North America, Mexico, Australia and New Zealand. The Fairtrade Foundation is its UK member.

Fair trade products also come from organisations like Traidcraft and People Tree that belong to the International Fair Trade Association (IFAT). This is a network of 270 fair trade organisations in more than 60 countries, from every continent, which adhere to fair trade principles. Each IFAT member is certified as a bona fide fair trade organisation.

There are other initiatives that are close to fair trade in spirit, such as Rugmark carpets and community-based tourism.

Lasting benefits

The need for fair trade is clear. The mainstream international trade system is failing the poor. Over the last two decades, under the onslaught of structural adjustment and liberalised trading regimes, the gap between rich and poor countries, and within countries, has grown ever wider. With a few exceptions, the most vulnerable people and countries - especially in Africa - have seen their living standards stagnate or fall.

The Doha Development Round of world trade negotiations, launched in 2001, is moribund. Wealthy countries, notably the European Union and the United States, have refused to reform their own trade regimes enough to allow the international trade system to change in ways that would benefit the poor.

The poor cannot eat promises but need real, lasting benefits today. The fair trade system is providing these benefits in the form of a viable alternative to the mainstream trading system. Currently an estimated 5 million people - farmers, plantation and craft workers, and their families - are better off because of fair trade.

The benefits are very tangible: better access to education including new schools and scholarships, new clinics and health services, improved water and sanitation systems, better housing, local environmental management, new roads, workplace democracy, community development, women's empowerment, agricultural improvements, reduced pesticide use, micro-credit schemes, income diversification, and a host of others.

Yet, impressive as these benefits are, and dramatic as the growth of fair trade has been, it still represents only a small fraction of world trade. Most producers of fair trade coffee, for example, still have to sell a lot of their crop on non-fair-trade terms.

Fair trade has huge potential. It can influence and change the world trade system and help poor people and communities work their way out of poverty. But for this to happen, it needs to keep on growing. The more fair trade goods we buy, the more people can sell under the fairer system.

Popular guide It was to raise awareness of fair trade - and to increase its reach - that we came together to write a book called 50 Reasons to Buy Fair Trade.

Our aim was to write a popular guide for general readers that shows convincingly how and why fair trade works and why as many people as possible should support it. We set out to show what it means, in human terms, when we say that fair trade benefits children, women and men in developing countries.

We have featured the words spoken by people who work in the fair trade system as much as possible in the book. Small-scale farmers, plantation workers, craft producers and their families describe in their own words the difference that fair trade makes to their lives and their communities. Many of them are still poor by Northern standards, but all are clear that fair trade means a better life.

Nicaraguan coffee grower Blanca Rosa Molina says that the fair trade system "makes the difference between whether my family eats or does not eat".

Cecilia Mwambebule, who grows tea in Tanzania, says that with fair trade "we have been able to do many things ...our schools are very important. Now we have tables and chairs, and real floors and windows to keep the wind and dust out."

For Dominican banana farmer Amos Wiltshire, fair trade "has made a huge difference to the families, the farmers concerned and to the economy as a whole....Fairtrade is a shining light."

And Shailesh Patel, a fair trade cotton project manager in India, says: "Fair trade saves farmers' lives. It prevents suicides." Whether it's fair trade mangos from Burkina Faso, clothes from India or wine from Chile, there are many connections between buying fair trade and helping low-income people all over the world.

Reaching further The role of transnational corporations in fair trade is controversial. Some transnationals talk about ethical trade. But fair trade goes further. Ethical trade means companies trying to ensure that workers or farmers in developing countries have decent working conditions.

Fair trade reaches further than ethical trade because it guarantees fair terms of trade and fair prices, supports and encourages workplace democracy and co-operatives, enables people to take more control over their own lives and embodies in so many ways the best principles of people-centred development.

Fair trade alone will not solve all the world's poverty, although its growth could make a significant contribution for very many people. There is a need for justice in the mainstream trading system. But there are growing doubts as to whether the mainstream system - dominated by corporations whose overwhelming concern is to make profits for their shareholders - can change enough to help the poor and end the twin scandals of poverty and injustice.

By contrast, the verdict on fair trade is loud and clear. Shah Abdus Salam, executive director of the non-governmental organisation Development Wheel in Bangladesh puts it this way: "Only Fair Trade can ensure better and sustainable livelihoods for the marginalised artisans in the world."

Harriet Lamb, director of the UK's Fairtrade Foundation, says the first ten years of the Fairtrade Mark proved that consumer choice, "once derided as trivial, individualistic and apolitical, can wield positive power". We end the book by looking at how fair trade could be rolled out on a much larger scale. There is enormous potential for more manufactured products from developing countries to be fair traded. We ask whether even products such as computers could be fair traded when they are made up of components from many countries There are big challenges here that need tackling. But the principles are sound. Paying people a decent wage for their day's work and ensuring they can participate in the life of their community should not be too much to ask of any commercial enterprise.

Buying fair trade products is a way of taking practical action to bring about a better, more decent and more sustainable world. It can help make poverty history. It needs your help.

50 Reasons To Buy Fair Trade, by Miles Litvinoff and John Madeley, was published on February 26, 2007, by Pluto Press (www.plutobooks.com) at £7.99 (paperback).