Fairtrade – fact or fiction?


The UK is the biggest current market for fair-trade products, from coffee to cotton and over the last few decades has become increasingly popular with nearly 5000 products now carrying the label.

But as an ethical consumer it is important not only to consider your purchases, but also to research the criteria and processes involved in certifications such as these.

Fair-trade is a brilliant concept, for the grower, a good minimum price, as well as additional financial supplements for community development projects such as health clinics and schools. For the consumer, the opportunity to contribute to a better standard of living for the growers and their communities. A great concept undoubtedly, but does it work in practice?

One of my ilks with fair-trade is that each grower must join a cooperative which must then complete a series of forms and jump through a series of bureaucratic ‘hoops’, before they can achieve the certification that guarantees said fair price. There are also costs involved in certification of schemes such as fair-trade, rainforest alliance etc.
Fair trade is usually aimed at producers in the developing world who’s living and working conditions are traditionally poorer than those in the developed world (or at least that is what their marketing strategy would have you believe). Herein lies the problem, if fair-trade is aimed at the disadvantaged and the less educated, is it realistic to expect them to have the skills necessary to put together a successful cooperative and complete the application is a manner satisfactory to achieve certification?

Please do not think I am being patronising to growers but I have enough trouble myself with bureaucratic processes, form filling etc. I once tried to apply for a new passport and driving license simultaneously and it was not much fun. More guidance should be provided to help individuals and cooperatives achieve certification.

Fair-trade sceptics also infer that fair-trade may not be as altruistic as it is marketed to be. Is it really for the benefit of producers, or is it just another marketing strategy to lure naïve, well-meaning consumers to pay more for products? It is a question worth asking.

Fair-trade products sold by large conglomerates and supermarkets still have the inherent problem of long and convoluted supply chains (as discussed in previous articles). Therefore it is vastly preferable for the consumer and the producer to reduce the number of links in the chain. Buying fair-trade products is a good start, but buying fair-trade products directly is much better. By cutting the supply chain, you can get much more information about the product and there is more money left over to go to the growers. The internet is a valuable resource for buying directly from producers, but buying locally from farmers markets is also great.

Critics also propose that the ‘fair minimum price’ for products does not adequately fluctuate with the open market price of the product which will do so, depending upon season, demand, supply etc. So when the free price is low, the fair-trade growers benefit, but when it is high, they would do better selling on the open market.

The extent of fair-trade certification benefit also depends upon the product. Products which have a history or corruption, or poor working conditions such as gold, will benefit for the certification more than say, coffee. Certified gold mines will attract a high level of ethical consumer driven demand as their product is ‘clean’, legitimate.

So whether fair-trade is fair or not is unclear, it is dependant upon circumstance, product, market price and other influencing factors. Choosing to buy products ethically and considering the people at the source is one of the core values of ethical consumerism. But information is critical, in some circumstances private certification schemes may be more appropriate. Either way, buying as directly as possible is always best.

Thanks for reading,



Supermarkets, sourcing & social responsibility


I went into Morrison’s the other day, not my usual supermarket but as I was passing I popped in. As I browsed at the fish counter I could not see any that were MSC Certified, so I asked the chap manning the counter. He looked at me blankly when I mentioned the acronym, so I explained about how the Marine Stewardship Council give certification to sustainable fisheries, he still did not seem to know what I was talking about and wandered off to ask another employee. Result, I walked out fishless.

This is typical supermarket behaviour, it’s not the first time people don’t seem to know (or frankly, care) about sustainability or ethical criteria. But it’s not really the employee’s fault, it’s just the supermarket culture – sell as much as we can, as cheaply as we can, as fast as we can (and make a big fat profit while we’re at it). If you start asking questions, nobody knows the answers.

Supermarkets often make uncovering how products were farmed/made/produced very difficult, they are not transparent. How would one find out which farm a chicken came from? All the information on the packet entails is which country it is from and if you’re lucky a county. Ask an employee they don’t know, ask them how you would find out? They don’t know that either. Supermarket supply chains are typically long, complex and convoluted, making it very difficult to obtain and collate the facts about where the products come from, how and where they are processed etc.

Supermarkets seem to be lacking any sense of social or environmental responsibility, their sourcing methods are dubious and their end product often unhealthy and unsustainable. This has been highlighted recently in Huge Fernley-Whittingstall’s ‘Fish fight’ program on channel 4 which has drawn attention to Tesco and their persistence in selling unsustainable tuna. Food waste from supermarkets is just another example of a disrespectful culture, we all read how Tesco wasted over 35,000 tonnes of food in six months last year. Little regard is shown for the health of their consumers, the fair treatment of their suppliers or the environment.

The lack of legislation does not help. There is no legal restriction on the amount of fat, sugar or salt which can be added to food sold in supermarkets for example, no wonder we have an obesity epidemic in the UK. Even health conscious consumers can be fooled, for example, Old El Paso fajita spice mix contains a shocking 59% sugar. Sobering in the extreme.

Supermarkets have become so ingrained in the consumer’s psyche in the UK that we can easily forget that there are other options. I went to my local farmers market this week and every single question I asked was answered politely and enthusiastically. Buying directly from growers ensures they get a fair price for their products, and they are happy to speak to you, discuss the product with you and seem grateful for your interest allowing you to be much better informed about what you are eating.

I am committing to spending less time at the supermarket and more in local shops and farmers markets. No to mention the produce is more often than not cheaper, fresher and of better quality than that found in your local supermarket.
Go ahead, go direct, I promise you won’t regret it.

Further reading