An exchange on Twitter with the free thinking and autonomous @untwining (Lisa Amphlett) who authors the excellent blog All About The Voluntary recently led to a decision that one of us would blog about Fair Trade.
This being the start of Fairtrade Fortnight, Lisa pointed me to a must-read piece in yesterday’s Telegraph by Philip Booth who makes a powerful argument that Fair Trade is neither fair, nor good for trade. Booth points out that ‘researchers sympathetic to fair trade have suggested that only 25 per cent of the extra price paid by consumers finds its way back to producers’. He also points out that:
Fair trade is supposed to bring better working conditions to poor producers, together with higher prices and better social infrastructure. Questions have been asked about whether monitoring in the supply chain is sufficiently robust, and examples of unsatisfactory practice have been found. Furthermore, there are costs for producers. Poor farmers have to pay considerable sums to join up and often have to organise their businesses in particular ways: it is not suitable for all producers, especially in the poorest countries.
This is a consequence of Fair Trade’s structure that seems to be swept under the carpet or simply unknown to people who want to feel they are doing something ethical and playing a part in tackling poverty by choosing to buy products labelled as Fair Trade. Booth’s piece also highlights an anti-competitive element of Fair Trade as he explains:
Fairtrade schools and parishes have to commit themselves to selling Fairtrade products. This is unfortunate for producers – who may be as poor – for other schemes, such as the Rainforest Alliance or Bird Friendly, that are designed to protect the environment. And, of course, if we transfer our allegiance to a fair trade producer from a non-fair trade producer in a poor country, what happens to the farmer who loses his customer base?
It appears that despite these justifiable concerns, the government is pressing ahead with a supposedly ethical Fair Trade policy at the expense of taxpayers who have no way of holding politicians to account for it. The plan is to introduce a requirement to purchase a minimum of 50% Fair Trade tea and coffee, and it will apply to central Government departments, prisons and the armed forces under Government Buying Standards. This was confirmed in a written answer from DEFRA in Parliament yesterday… (click to enlarge)
What really stands out here is that last paragraph, where there is a clear recognition that the policy will result in increased costs to the taxpayer and that the decision has been taken without prior evidence of equivalent costs having been submitted by the Fairtrade Foundation. Convinced by the righteousness of the policy government is pressing ahead regardless. The public is entitled to evidence based policy making which is not happening.
It should be a matter of concern to everyone that government is engaging in gesture politics at taxpayer expense to follow a supposedly ethical policy, that research shows has the capacity to harm people in poorer countries, by selecting produce generated within a system over which there are question marks that do not appear to have been critically evaluated.
Perhaps it is time for voters whose parish, borough or city councils have imposed a Fair Trade procurement policy to challenge their authority for evidence of the benefits to producers in poorer countries of Fair Trade – rather than anecdotes – and write to their MPs asking for the same to justify the additional cost being passed on to us.