Fairtrade has the perfect brand name – it tells people that this brand is about being fair and implies that anything else is unfair. And Fairtrade is a great certification system. Yes, I know, they don’t like to be called a certification system. But they are. And an excellent one. Maybe even the best global certification system dealing with poverty. I can’t think of a single other certification system that tries to deal with poverty more effectively than Fairtrade. And they have, by far, the most recognizeable logo amongst ethical certification systems.
But, unfortunately, that doesn’t mean much in a world of such low standards. Bloody hell, everyone raves about ISO 14001 and all that ‘guarantees’ is that you do have an environmental management system. Mmm, not what your environmental impact is or whether it is good or bad. I like Fairtrade and always buy their brands when I can (affordability and availability rules apply), but I think they can do so much better.
I have 5 issues. Five issues they should focus on to truly make Fairtrade fair. Just 5 little things that really annoy me beyond what is good for me.
Firstly, Fairtrade focuses almost exclusively on small farmers who are organized in cooperatives and associations. Unfortunately, this excludes small framers who are not organized in this way. Most small farmers are not organized in this way – at least not where I come from – Africa. And the problem is that the poorest of the poor farmers are not organized in cooperatives. So, Fairtrade actually doesn’t work with the poorest of the poor – more like the “middle class” of the poor. To really affect change for the poorest of the poor, Fairtrade does not have a choice but to include ALL farmers in their system. Including those not organized in cooperatives. I know that it makes it more expensive, but it also makes it more fair.
Secondly, Fairtrade really needs to jack up on their environmental criteria. They have always had a half hearted attempt at sustainability. But what it came down to was poverty – but not a systematic way of addressing this. Only paying the price and not looking into making it better for the farmer in a sustainable way. Fairtrade needs to strengthen on the environmental side of sustainability – but also strengthen the labor rights aspect. This will ensure that Fairtrade is truly fair for everyone involved – farmer, environment, worker, Oxfam and consumer. I know that they have strengtened these areas, but there are huge gaps that still needs to be filled. They do work with the farmers to make them more sustainable, but they lag behind say a Rainforest Alliance when it comes to this.
Thirdly, Fairtrade should be a bit more clear about what the farmer actually gets paid and stop false advertising. They don’t need to do this as they are already better than almost all other systems. No need to lie or hide the truth – it will only come back to bite you. Really, the farmer does NOT get $1.25 per pound of coffee. Not even close. It varies from cooperative to cooperative – and what the cooperative decides the farmer should get. In some cases the farmer will receive as little as 70 cents/pound. The rest is distributed to other parts of the cooperative. Nothing wrong with that. But don’t try to spin it to make it sound as if the farmer receives $1.25/pound. They don’t – and never have.
Fourthly, if you really want more companies to take up Fairtrade then say so, be consistent and ensure your business model can handle it. Not everyone within Fairtrade agrees that large businesses should become part of Fairtrade. But don’t tell them your system is the best if you don’t want them to join. A classic example was when Oxfam asked Nestle (and others) to start buying Fairtrade. And when Nestle agreed? Well, certain Fairtrade bodies refused to sell to Nestle. Lesson? Be careful what you ask for, you might get it.
Finally, stop charging farmers such a ridiculous amount of money to qualify for certification. In many cases the yearly fee is way more than what the average income in the poorest of the poor countries – and well over $1 a day. The financial commitment that cooperatives must make to become Fairtrade suppliers is ridiculous. Not everyone believes that suppliers should carry the burden of compliance or certification – neither Starbucks or Nestle charges their suppliers – and they shouldn’t, and neither should you. And Oxfam and others generally ask for the company to pay in any case for any certification – just ask Nike or Levi’s – so way is Fairtrade different? All Fairtrade suppliers pay to become certified. The financial commitment by producers to be certified can vary from over $5,000.00 dollars for initial certification – and that does not guarantee certification, only assessment. Annual fees are over $500, and then another few cents per pound certified as well. I wonder how much the farmer actually gets in the end of the day? I know they benefit from Fairtrade, but they could benefit more if they didn’t have to pay Fairtrade for certification.
Another extra one thrown in. Remember that it is only the commodity that is certified Fairtrade. The coffee bean. Not the making, grinding, roasting, container, wages in manufacturing or anything else that is certified. Only the raw material – the coffee bean. Same with cotton. Not the manufacturing – only the cotton. One can make a general assumption that buyers of the Fairtrade commodity will also be good employers and manufacturers, but these parts are not certified – only implied and assumed.
Okay, I have one more problem. Not every country has a Fairtrade organization. Even when a Fairtrade organization is present, a purveyor of Fairtrade goods will have to negotiate with each Fairtrade organization in each country to be able to sell in that specific country alone. There are 19 national Fairtrade organizations – covering mostly Europe and North America. If someone wants to sell in each country – they have to negotiate with 19 different organizations to enable them to sell in each of those countries. And no guarentee that they will allow you to sell in each country – just ask Nestle. Yes for the UK, no for Italy. Furthermore, what if you want to sell in every part of the world – and in most cases there isn’t any Fairtrade presence at all. This makes it extremely problematic to sell a Fairtrade certified product in countries where there are no Fairtrade offices to negotiate with. Supporting Fairtrade would be much easier if there was a single co-ordinating body through which each buyer, or any other large multinational for that matter, could drive all its Fairtrade needs. Hum, something like a cooperative…
But the aim was not to slam Fairtrade. I worked with them and in support of them for many years. It is not a perfect system. And I don’t expect it to be perfect. But imagine if we get it to push on a bit and work at 80% of potential – not 50% of potential. Now that would be closer to being fair to all those who need it most – the farmer in Africa and elsewhere. Come on Fairtrade, try to be a bit more fair.