‘ We thought this fair trade would help us escape the practices of companies like Nestlé. How can it be that they are now a fair trade company, buying a tiny amount, while their practices on the whole remain as exploitative as ever?’
Problem 1: TNCs
Merling Preza, general manager of a coffee farmers’ co-op in Nicaragua, feels threatened by Nestlé’s tokenistic approach to fair trade. ‘I don’t want to criticize but there are other elements more profound in our fair trade system than in the existing system. For example, the social programmes and services to our communities, investment in farmers, democracy. This is all important to tackle poverty, but it is expensive.’
Is Nestlé helping?
But has Nestlé really recognized the values of fair trade? Commercial considerations seem to have been the real driver here, according to Hilary Parsons at Nestlé UK: ’We researched the market and we found that there are consumers out there who are very interested in development issues... and they would be attracted into this market by the strength of the Nescafé brand
Problem 2: Accreditation
A second, related challenge is that the labelling and accreditation organizations are coming under increasing scrutiny from critics who claim their standards are not ‘fair’ enough. In March 2006, a BBC programme speculated that the higher price consumers were paying for fair trade products was not all going to the producers but being pocketed by supermarkets.3 Then on 8 September the Financial Times reported from Peru that non-certified coffee produced by labourers paid less than the minimum wage was being sold as fair trade, and that the Fairtrade Foundation ‘misleads consumers about its ability to monitor production practices’.4
Problem 3: The Environment
A third issue that has been widely ignored but needs tackling head on is a concern that the movement is not taking the environment seriously enough. ‘There’s a big issue with carbon footprints,’ admits Sophi Tranchell, Director of The Day Chocolate Company. ‘It doesn’t make sense to import fair trade goods that we can grow ourselves. Buy fair trade tropical crops, and buy everything else local,’ she adds. With climate change looming we should not be flying-in fair trade roses from Kenya for Valentine’s Day and importing fair trade apples from South Africa when they are in season down the road
Fair trade is far from perfect. But it can be a potent force for change and this debate is happening because it has demonstrated it can flourish, against all odds. We cannot let our radical vision of a completely different way of doing business be watered down by opportunistic transnationals. The fair trade mark should be regarded as a ‘badge of honour’ not just a brand of food that demonstrates you are paying a little more to desperate farmers. It is now our responsibility to ensure fair trade does not lose its soul.