The halo effect of Fairtrade has lasted many years, despite periodic critics popping up wanting to complain either that it distorts markets or that it doesn’t distort them enough.
Development is a complex business and there is always a risk that Fairtrade is seen to overclaim what it can achieve as a way to tackle poverty. There is only so much you can pack into a label, or that you can unpack as a tool to address the deep inequalities of world trade. The research field on Fairtrade has grown over recent years, and played a helpful role in improving practice and standards from what its findings have been.
I remember sitting down with a colleague from Oxfam in 1991 in Brixton around the launch of the Fairtrade Mark and trying to write up standards for fair trade products. We were starting from scratch and it was extraordinarily amateur – but it was an attempt to do something no one else had done, which is to put a frame of assurance around what consumers could do to help.
Over the years, the standards have improved dramatically. They are more international, less bureaucratic. They are led and shaped by Fairtrade producers. The constructive challenge from academics and trade unions has helped to sharpen them up.
The latest research is out from the School of African and Oriental Studies and while it is useful, methodical work focused on two countries in Africa, the shame is that the findings are being used to attack Fairtrade rather than help it improve.
The news coverage – Fairtrade goods ‘not helping the poor’ – completely misses the point, at least on my reading. The research was focused on workers employed in the production of commodities. What it set largely aside was that Fairtrade started with a focus on producers – small farmers organised democratically in co-operatives, rather than those who came into harvest and labour on a paid basis. Of the two, the informal workers are no doubt poorer than farmers and there has been debate and improvements over time in terms of integrating their needs within the model – so that there is reflection of this in standards today. But this is not to say that smallholder farmers themselves are not poor.
The strength of Fairtrade is that it gives a voice to those farmers. Of course, how they choose to share the gains is something that is up for scrutiny. But a London-based university should be wary of criticising their choices if it overlooks the fact that it is exactly this power – to make choices in a democratic way – that Fairtrade offers producers and which they do not get in the mainstream supply chain.
Fairtrade is good for marginal producers. All the research bears this out. It is not necessarily good for everyone involved in the long chain from farm to fork. That is a good reason to innovate and improve, but not to overthrow the model.
I was part of the team that created the Fairtrade Mark and I have always said on fair trade and poverty that just because you can’t do everything, doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t do something.