Monday, 28 February 2011

How fair is Fairtrade? - A Response

The Guardian recently ran an article about the Fairtrade ethics of our three main high street coffee shops: Starbucks; Nero; and Costa. It highlighted that whilst they might use Fairtrade coffee beans, they have still been guilty of underpaying their own coffee shop workers. I am a firm supporter of the Fairtrade brand, and wherever possible I always buy the Fairtrade option, but I have felt for a long while that the ethic of fair trade should extend to cover the whole process from production to sale.

This would then include, a fair wage for every worker who is part of that process - including the shop worker selling the Fairtrade sugar in the UK. It would also include the end product being sold on at a fair price. There are couple of clothing brands that I really love, particularly because they have a really good ethical framework embedded in the DNA of their business. But one area of their business models that really annoys me is the final price of their goods. Howies is one of these brands - great clothes, brilliant quality, sound ethics, but prohibitively expensive! I understand that if you pay more for your cotton, and you choose to have your garments made in "friendly" factories, then these extra costs do have to be passed on to the consumer. But how Howies can justify selling their jeans for at least £70 a pair, and still feel they are upholding their ethics is beyond me. It relegates these kind of ethical choices to only being a privilege of the rich.
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  1. But don't you think there's a difference between someone earning $2/day and someone earning £5.70/hour? Don't get me wrong, I find it appaling that Starbucks pay so little to their workers. But I still think the farmer getting a fair price and a school for the village is more important. Costa is far less ethical than Starbucks on that basis, surely? Even the poorest here have access to very basic education. The poor in coffe producing countries often can't afford for their children to learn to read. I mean, it is a different league and I wonder whether the Guardian writer actually thought before he wrote!

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  3. What I, and I believe the Guardian journalist are trying to say, is that the term "fair" is relative to the economies and labour markets of the the particular country in question. A "fair" wage is completely relative to the price of food, the price of housing, the price of fuel, education, transport, etc. A "fair" wage should allow someone to be able to live and meet their basic needs. This figure is clearly going to be different in different countries.

    Also, the article and my response were hopefully provoking people to consider a more holistic way of viewing fair trade. It is easy for a company like Nestle to use the Fairtrade branding on their KitKat bars even though their poor human rights record has been well documented. And it is easy for a company to shout about the good they are doing in the developing world, even though their business model is perpetuating un-fair trade in this country. I just want people to consider the whole of the ethical journey, from production to sale, and then make a decision as to whether it sits well with their conscience.

  4. Surely Fairtrade should be a philosophy and not just a label. Either a company believes in being fair or doesn't. Wouldn't it be great to see a brand that genuinely wants the best for everyone involved and doesn't just use the fairtrade label to tap into the socially conscious consumer market. I've found it really difficult trying to get young people interested in fairtrade when prices are prohibitive. Until that changes, it will remain a concern of those who can afford it and until working for a company that sells fairtrade products means working for a company with a holistic fair philosophy it makes it difficult to shout about it.

    The fact that fairtrade exists though is great isn't it! And that it's really getting recognised by big brands.