Fairtrade is all about improving conditions for the people at the bottom of the commodity chain. This means the farmers and workers in developing countries who allow us to have tea, coffee, bananas, gold, flowers, cotton and many other commodities we often take for granted. For every jar of coffee or bunch of bananas we consume, there is often a field of workers in inadequate conditions enabling us to have this. This is why Fairtrade aims to place more focus on these people, ensuring they benefit fairly from their hard work.
Food security refers to ‘reliable access to a sufficient quantity of affordable, nutritious food,’ something that many farmers in underdeveloped and developing countries lack. Through the use of Fairtrade, food security for the workers, their families and communities is supposed to increase, but this is not always the case.
Making the rich richer?
The question that always looms close to Fairtrade, is who is really benefiting? The first option is the intended group of workers and farmers. The second, and more controversial option, is the big corporations, the supermarkets, the plantation owners. It is claimed that for these groups, Fairtrade is merely a tool of marketing and deception. Given the money hungry Western world, it is not hard to see why this has become a fierce belief of many. Fairtrade produce is stocked in Tesco, Sainsbury’s, M&S, Waitrose and many more. The Fairtrade logo allows supermarkets to have a higher moral and ethical standing in their industry, and gives them control of the profits made under the guise of helping the poor. For example, Johannessen et al analysed Fairtrade coffee produced in Guatemala and Nicaragua. Their findings demonstrated that as Fairtrade is a part of the conventional market in which the supply chain is controlled by multinational corporations, majority of the economic revenue from the coffee goes to the consumer countries. This is despite the emphasis which the consumer countries place on the producer benefits, which it turns out is only a small part of the picture. More specifically, research from non-profit organisation TransFair shows that, on average, from a 3.5oz Fairtrade chocolate bar costing $3.49, cocoa farmers receive only 3 cents. How can this be justified as fair for the farmers?
Disadvantages of Fairtrade
Not only do consumer countries reap the benefits of Fairtrade, the farmers in developing countries are disadvantaged because of it. Fairtrade intentions have been diluted the further down the supply chain you go, and farmers are often kept locked in poverty rather than alleviated from it.
Firstly, the notion of ‘Fairtrade absolutism’ comes to mind meaning Fairtrade cannot help all farmers. This refers to only a small proportion of farmers in developing countries being a part of Fairtrade schemes. Many of the poorest communities in rural areas will never encounter the types of of plantations that work with Fairtrade, instead they may face worse poverty, thus lower food security, as consumers buy produce with the Fairtrade logo over their non Fairtrade branded produce.
Secondly, although the labor standards of Fairtrade are clearly aimed at protecting exploited children, this does not always prevent it from happening. Often the children of the employed workers at plantations still work in fair trade certified farms as they are not classified as contracted workers, resulting in them being informally part of the plantations. However, it must be acknowledged that there has been very little reported about forced child labor at fair trade farms which is definitely an improvement from other plantations in developing countries.
Thirdly, often is the case that there is a market oversupply of certain fair trade products. Food surplus is already a very real issue regarding excess food and by attempting to deal with the problems in developing countries, Fairtrade is instead contributing to this issue. This is particularly the case with coffee. Coffee is one of the most sought after fair trade products, with sales constantly increasing. However, it has been claimed that coffee prices worldwide have been diminished due to the overabundance of coffee.
This graph shows the high levels of coffee production correlate to lower prices, and therefore lower incomes, for the growers. This tends to be due to the increasing levels of supply which are not met with equally high levels of demand, hence causing market oversupply and food surplus.
The Fairtrade logo can be somewhat misleading for many consumers. For example, market giant Nestlé, the world’s largest food and drink brand, uses the fair trade logo on their highly popular product Kit Kat. Thus many make the assumption that Nestlé is a fair trade company. However, this is not true as less than 3% of Nestlé’s cocoa purchases is incorporated into the chocolate bar Kit Kat.
Controversy relating to Nestlé comes as they have been accused of using child labor in the production of majority of their cocoa produce, which is not Fairtrade. This is ethically unsound and raises questions as to whether Fairtrade should be associated at all with a brand which violates their ethical standards, and whether the ties with such a distinguished brand is a higher priority than their morals.
For Future Fairness
Fairtrade itself acknowledges that they have many improvements and further changes to make to truly fulfil their aims of being fairer to the farmers and workers. Their own research has made it evident that they need to ‘deliver deeper impact for farmers and workers’. They claim this will be through dealing with the disproportions of power within the supply chain, empowering women, extending more core work to farm workers etc. Cynics will say that this is simply a way of the Fairtrade brand attempting to promote themselves as the chances of these improvements happening in the foreseeable future are slim, due to the power and influence that Western corporations have on Fairtrade.
Fairtrade have clearly bitten off more than they can chew.