It's A Fair Cup

Merrick, 24th February 2005ce

No matter who we are, we are all consumers. We all buy products. We all have a choice in what we buy.

Ethical consumerism isn’t going to solve the problems of injustice and overconsumption. But it puts the issues on the agenda, it provides a solid and purposeful step in the right direction. And immediately, directly, it frees people from poverty, disease and slavery. If you wouldn’t tolerate such conditions for your friends and family then you shouldn’t tolerate them for anyone else’s. This is not about us being generous or charitable. It is about us being just.

Coffee has been the big star of the birth of the fair trade movement. But isn’t it still a cash crop? Grown instead of real food, shipped around the world courtesy of unsustainable resources?

Absolutely. Anyone who only consumes their own home grown food has a really good point there.

Those of us who still buy things - especially imported cash-crop products - must recognise there are very obviously different degrees of impact made by the different methods of production. Every thing we buy endorses the product’s producer and their methods.

In the cases of coffee and cocoa, fair trade does encourage farmers to provide for themselves alongside what they grow to sell. It is common for coffee and cocoa to be grown in the same area as each other, along with crops such as avocado, pineapple, papaya and bananas. The vast monocultures of exclusively cash-crop production come with larger scale producers, particularly ‘full-sun’ plantations (of which more later).

Currently many farmers and agricultural workers rely on the whims of someone like the Man From Del Monte, and if he gets a better offer elsewhere then the farmer are left with unsaleable crop, and it is they who bear the costs. Even when the crop is bought, the money goes to the farm owner. The workers are employed by the day, paid as little as can be got away with and laid off out of season. Accordingly, they commonly bring their children along as extra workers as soon as they are physically capable. Many of the West African cocoa plantations that supply the likes of Cadbury’s are literally slave plantations. Workers getting no more than basic food and shelter and being subjected to horrific violence if they try to leave.

This is what supermarkets mean in those adverts that say they scour the world for ‘the best deals’. The cheapest brand of a product is almost invariably the one which is the most inhumane, the most environmentally destructive, and one which strengthens corporate power against small community producers. Fair Trade actively supports small-scale production, environmental sensitivity.

It guarantees prices to the coffee growers, giving them security and allowing them to plan ahead. They can afford to embark on decent housing or education projects that may take years. Outside of fair trade, no such guarantees exist. Once a farmer, or indeed a whole region, becomes committed to growing a crop, the buyers can push the price down.

Whilst we know that western aid to poorer nations is exceeded by debt repayments, it’s less recognised that those debts, in turn, can be dwarfed by contrived drops in commodity prices. Coffee today fetches 35p a kilo, barely one-eighth of the price it got ten years ago. As Oxfam’s Penny Fowler says, ‘the slumping price of coffee has cost Ethiopia more than it gained from debt relief’. The minimum price guaranteed to farmers by Fair Trade is nearly five times higher, £1.73 a kilo, with guarantees to always pay above the general market price should it ever climb that high again.

Beyond the simple financial facts, fair trade does something more radical. The reason such high prices are paid to the farmers yet the end product is on our supermarket shelves at comparable prices to non fair trade is simple; they cut out the middle man. Non-Fair Trade coffee has dozens, even hundreds of owners between the farmer and the consumer. With fair trade it’s less than ten.

The middlemen between the farmers and us – international corporations and traders, supermarkets – do not exist to provide us with cheap food. They exist to maximise their profit, the gap between what they pay the producer and what they charge us.

Fair trade works by dealing with farmers who are organised into co-operatives and collectives. They democratically federate their power as producers. This can be as liberating as the guaranteed income. It demolishes the old models of work where a rich owner takes the profit from the hard work and risk of the worker. It gives the producers a say in how they are organised as workers and by insisting on compassionate and co-operative principles, it pushes these ideas into other areas of the lives of those involved, from the farmer to the consumer.

With some products, the benefits stretch way beyond human economics. Coffee and cocoa are not ordinary crops. They are primarily grown in tropical forest areas, places that are environmentally crucial. Both the coffee and cocoa plants are grown in shade conditions, among larger trees that provide a canopy above. Not only does this provide the right shading, but the trees also support the insects that pollinate the crops and prey on the pests. Leaf fall from the trees gives nutrients to the soil. The principles are essentially the same as organic farming. It’s a sustainable and biodiverse system that readily lends itself to fully organic production.

But the push from the major coffee and cocoa companies for simpler production with greater yields has led to a new method. Known as ‘full-sun’, it looks like any other monoculture - large open fields with neat rows of one type of plant, just like a tea plantation or a field of wheat.

This method means huge areas of tropical forest are cleared of trees, taking with them the life the forest ecosystem supported. A study done in Mexico and Colombia found shade- coffee areas are home to twenty times the number of bird species found in full-sun.

As the plants do not naturally grow in open sunlight, and the insects that eat their pests are no longer present, full-sun production is only possible using phenomenal quantities of pesticides and fertilisers. This poisons the soil, it gets into the food chain for what surrounding wildlife remains, and it poisons the workers as well, who are working under negligible health and safety considerations. Much of the hefty chemical cocktail is still in the end products that we consume.

Beyond that, the raw materials for the agrichemicals are oil and gas. The use of these fossils as raw materials for food is, by definition, finite. They will become prohibitively expensive within a couple of decades. Farmers from poorer nations will be the first hit and the worst hit by the rise in prices. By then in many places the soil will be seriously damaged from chemical farming, and even if that were not the case the complicated forest ecosystem won’t regenerate until there are fully mature trees again. The livelihoods of the full-sun farmers will disappear.

Put simply, small-scale organic farming of various complementary crops is the only sustainable way to produce food. It is how food is found in the wild, it is how pretty much all farming has been done certainly until several centuries ago, and arguably until the advent of intensive agrichemicals two generations ago.

With many items, especially coffee and chocolate, organic principles and the fair trade ethic go hand in hand. If it’s organic, it’s likely to have been produced in a way akin to Fair Trade. If it’s Fair Trade, it’s likely to have been produced in a way akin to organic.

Organic coffee and cocoa can only have been grown in shade conditions; full-sun is simply impossible without non-organic chemicals. If it is fair-trade, it is bought from small-scale collectives of farmers who are almost certainly too poor to afford the chemicals, even if they didn’t have health or environmental qualms about them. Their new money form the Fair Trade premium is spent on clean water, quality housing and education rather than chemical industrialisation of farming.

As the fair-trade movement flourishes so established conventional producers are climbing aboard the bandwagon and labelling products as ‘fairly traded’ or something craftily similar. ‘Fair’ is, after all, a subjective term, and whilst some of this does mark genuine improvement, bear in mind these are the same corporations who’ve been so cruel and destructive – and knowingly so – over the years. It’s good that fair trade’s become so popular that it’s made them take notice, but they will spend the minimum necessary to attract the fair-trade market. Rather like Shell and BP’s cuddly greenwash about commitment to sustainable energy, it’s largely hoary old PR nonsense with a pretty new logo.

Unlike the pioneer fair traders, corporations like Nestle and Starbucks aren’t ever acting out of conscience, only from profit-maximising greed. Large scale operations with minimum overheads are their modus operandi. They still sell far more non-fair trade, which in itself shows how much of their fair trade is done for ethical reasons. The profits Nestle make on fair trade will be invested in pushing their non-fair trade stuff, when it’s not pushing killer baby milk powder in poorer countries. Stick with the real fair trade brands. If it’s from the same companies who produce non-fair trade, don’t trust it.

For foods, the Fairtrade logo is the best guide that it is what it claims. Other things - textiles, crafts, clothing etc - aren't covered by the Fairtrade logo. In the UK, membership of the British Association for Fair Trade Shops is a pretty good marker, and in textiles internationally the RugMark is a guarantee against child labour for hand-woven rugs, though it seems to be taking a while to become widely established.

We should certainly be encouraging local production, small scale production, diversity of varieties, sustainability. Fair trade opens up these opportunities. It gives the producer a fair deal, gives the buyer a clearer conscience, and gives the finger to the big-business hordes who think all we care about is money. When you exercise your wallet, exercise your conscience.