Is Fairtrade, the most important ethical standard, under threat?

Is Fairtrade, the most important ethical standard, under threat?

Posted By James Bates-Prince

The UK’s second-largest supermarket chain, Sainsbury’s, have shocked the ethically conscious community after pulling support for the Fairtrade Foundation. The groceries giant is the largest retailer of Fairtrade, the world’s most prominent ethical stamp that sets standards to the benefit of over 1.65 million farmers across 74 countries.

Sainsbury’s has decided that it is better able to distribute the profits of its tea range, launching its own rival label: “Fairly Traded”. The similarities in name are blindingly obvious. The practical differences to over 200,000 Malawian, Rwandan and Kenyan farmers are frustratingly obscure.

Fairtrade is a global organisation that unites workers, businesses and consumers to create a range of agreed minimum standards, from wages to employment rights to environmental guarantees. The foundation is 50% owned by farmers, and power is divested to regional bodies and communities to invest in business or community projects. This empowering system is funding by the Fairtrade premium, an amount of money calculated over and above the minimum pricing scheme.

Sainsbury’s are hoping to bring ethics in-house, without external scrutiny. They will save on the small license fee cost that the Fairtrade label entails. The power will be shifted and centralised, withdrawn from the producers and controlled from London.

“We believe it will strip us of rights and benefits attained over the years under the Fairtrade system.”

Fairtrade is not a perfect organisation. Profit made by farmers is still dwarfed by that garnered at other stages of refinement and production, and market forces still leave some growers short changed. But the foundation has a 25-year record of improvement and growth. They have earned the trust of the public, and more importantly, the trust of the farmers.

In an open letter to Sainbury’s, tea farmers, workers and producer members of Fairtrade Africa have reacted with dismay. The members are said to feel “extremely concerned about the power and control that Sainsbury’s seeks to exert over us, which actually feels reminiscent of colonial rule”.

Co-op and Waitrose have recently retrenched their commitment to the organisation in response, while Cadbury’s and Tesco are other firms to have shifted support away from Fairtrade. The landscape in third-party labelling is in flux, at a time that it needs to be front of mind. Tied to this saga is the future of durability based labelling, and any paradigm shift must only be towards oversight. We are clear that the future of the earth depends on sustainable growth and consumption.

While the “Fairly Traded” scheme is still a trial, it is important that consumers take an early and strong stand. Sainsbury’s has done an awful lot in the past to build and promote Fairtrade, and we believe it can and will reconsider this disenfranchising decision. A petition on change.org already has over 90,000 signatures. Your voice can help get the message through.

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