Beth Hanson interviews Joanna Milis from the Fairtrade Foundation to give us more

The Fairtrade icon is a familiar symbol of assurance that challenges the exploitative status quo of global trade. It is an independent certification system that allows producers and farmers to make a decent profit on their products and lifts them out of poverty. Often farmers are unable to control the purchasing process and are paid a very low price for their goods. This then reflects in all aspects of their lives and the decisions they are forced to make as to whether they can afford to feed their families or educate their children.

The Fairtrade system is made up of two components. The first is the Fairtrade Minimum Price, which is calculated as the minimum cost of sustainable production of a product. While the minimum price varies by product and country of origin, it will always be enough to cover costs and entitle the farmers to a reasonable standard of living. The minimum price is slightly higher for organic items to cover the differing production costs and the increased value of the product.

The second component of the system is the Fairtrade Premium. This is a bit of extra money on top of the price of the minimum that is paid by companies to producer groups for community developments. This premium ultimately works for the betterment of the society and the investment project is chosen by the producers based on what they believe will help them. For example, tea farms in Tamil Nadu in India have been included in the Fairtrade system for around 25 years and are seeing the long-term benefits of this investment. They have a school which is funded with the Fairtrade premium money and the region benefits from improved education, bursary funds and scholarships. Women working on the tea farms have little to no education but now have children that are graduating from university.

This social and economic sustainability triggers environmental stability as well. Fairtrade standards can help farmers think long-term about the health of their soils and can help reduce the acute desperation to produce as much as possible, as quickly as possible. Many Fairtrade farmers choose to move away from chemical pesticides and access training through the foundation to move towards organic structures. A lot of the solutions to sustainable food production are well known, but the best practise is only feasible to those who have a safety net. Poverty can fill every corner of your mind and make it impossible to consider other things like protecting the planet or sustainability of practise. Fairtrade can lift that burden and enable producers to take a structured approach to improving their production methods and overall product.

Fairtrade farmers are also experiencing specific challenges related to climate change. The seasons are becoming less predictable which leads to sporadic rainfall and failed crop yields. Many products are limited to within a certain range that they can grow. For example, tea is very specific, and we would find it very difficult to cultivate tea in our British climate. Fairtrade farms are often rain-fed and aren’t irrigated, and it is becoming difficult to know when to expect the rains in these countries. Extreme events may batter the plants and rain that should have fallen over four months comes overnight and creates flash floods which destroy infrastructure and wash away roads. Additionally, hot and damp conditions create the perfect breeding ground for a fungal disease called black pod which is a blight on cocoa farms which spreads rapidly and destroys crops. This combination of factors can devastate farmers who are already suffering.

Another upcoming challenge is Brexit. At the moment, trade deals with other countries do not exist and it is unknown what the impact will be on producers and their trade. It is worrying as the biggest problem producers can face is lack of market access. These farmers and workers are unwaged and only earn from what they can sell their product for. This means if they cannot sell the product, they will not receive the benefit of the Fairtrade certification. Campaigning is the only way to remind those in government that new trade deals need to consider that people’s livelihoods in the global south depend on access to the UK market. If tariffs and quotas are imposed, it will dramatically harm the quality of life for farmers who rely on selling their products in the UK. Brexit policy makers must realise that it is not just about what is best for the UK.

While 80 per cent of people surveyed support Fairtrade and think it is important that farmers aren’t exploited, there is a tangible divide between what they advocate for and what they purchase. Some people are passionate about helping keep farmers out of poverty and will make concerted efforts to buy products that best align with their values. When confronted with the option, many people would genuinely like to buy Fairtrade, but are limited by what is available and visible to them when they go shopping. The Fairtrade Foundation’s work not only aids the start of the process and the certification of the farms, it also drives growth of the market for Fairtrade products in the UK and connects companies with Fairtrade producers that they can strike meaningful, long-term contracts with.

It is important to note that Fairtrade does not necessarily end up as a premium on prices the consumer pays. Retail pricing is very detached from the production process and bears very little relationship with what goes to farmers. Chocolate, for example, is a £4 billion industry in the UK, though a lot of cocoa farmers in West Africa live well below the poverty line. Fairtrade products range from budget-friendly chocolate and coffee in supermarkets, to artisanal and luxury items. There is enough variety to fit any student budget. It is crucial to remember that non-Fairtrade items are “dirt cheap” because the famers pay the price in human misery.

Awareness is crucial to the Fairtrade foundation’s mission; while Fairtrade standards are numerous and extensive, there is a simplicity to the concept. We have access to a trusted mark that promises to improve lives of producers that have faced exploitation, starvation, instability and more. As a movement and a system, Fairtrade is having an undeniable impact and changing lives. The UK based foundation certifies products from the gold in a wedding ring, to tomatoes on a weekly shop and the vodka for your night out. We as consumers can be a part of this and buy Fairtrade when possible. We just need to remind ourselves that we possess the power to lobby governments and brands for sustainably ethically sourced produce.

If you would like to know more about the Fairtrade Foundation go to www.fairtrade.org.uk

Photo: Hajime Nakano  From: https://www.flickr.com/photos/jetalone/1630265282

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