When we think of Fairtrade, the first thing that often comes to mind is a farmer, producer, or artisan being paid a fair price for their product. But Fairtrade covers more than that. The organisation aims to ensure that workers have a decent living standard. And also that the greater community benefits from the unique goods they produce.
Many sustainability schemes and initiatives focus their attention on the workers and producers. Fairtrade also runs supply chain interventions aimed at creating quality trading relationships.
Here, we take a look at what influence Fairtrade’s global initiatives can have. Plus what can happen when a product or good is unfairly traded.
What Is Fairtrade?
Fairtrade the organisation, and the notion of fair trade as a system, advocate for better trading between the so-called developing nations and the developed world.
Better trading in this context means fairer, and more sustainable trading. It means a system that seeks greater equality in international trade agreements. Also fairer supply chain management and the promotion of sustainable development through greater transparency and standards. The rights of workers and producers in marginalised nations become a priority.
Global Supply Chain Management and Sustainability
To understand the aim of Fairtrade, we must consider the initial grass-roots movement as part of the anti-colonial struggle.
Colonialism as a ‘project’ involved the control of the Global South by the Global North. This control was exerted via both forceful and non-forceful means. It created a system of oppression, institutionalised racism, and exploitation. A sizeable element of this was the “trade” of goods from the South to the increasingly demanding North.
Formal colonialism has ended. But the specter of it lingers on in the continued exploitation of the South by, among others, multinational corporations. Key thinkers in this field agree that colonialism as a project is ongoing, it’s just the means that have changed. Economic relations between producer and purchaser often remain far from equal or fair.
It’s no secret that large corporations aim to keep their global supply chains as low cost and profitable as possible. Low production costs in the developing world allow them to do just that. This, invariably, comes at a cost to the societies which are affected by such trade agreements.
Seeking to re-address this imbalance, fair trade as a movement and Fairtrade the organisation both seek to end many of the intermediaries in global supply chains. This means more profits to those who produce goods, but also, more control. Sustainable trade is not only about paying the right amount of money to producers. It’s also about those producers and their communities retaining control of their product. And, hopefully, eventual freedom from hegemonic systems.
So let’s have a look at what happens when the purchasing demand of the Global North marries with the mismanagement of supply chains.
The once-humble avocado has been lifted to lofty heights of late. They’re no longer the domain of the 80s prawn cocktail. Incredibly, avocado street food pop-ups and avocado-only restaurants are now a thing.
On the surface this seems fine, avos are healthy, nutritious, and delicious. Dig a little deeper though and the dialogue becomes decidedly muddier. Driven by demand, global avocado sales have gone through the roof and production can’t keep up.
In Mexico, where the majority of the world’s Hass avocados are grown, drug gangs have cottoned on the the fact there is serious money to be made. Cartels have taken to extorting and controlling local farmers. The fruit has even been dubbed “oro verde” or green gold, and serious gang wars and violence have resulted. Writing for the Wall Street Journal, José de Córdoba notes that “there are no conflict-free avocados”.
Avocado farms naturally produce more one year and less the next. Rising overseas prices coupled with low yield years means some locals are priced out of buying avocados, a staple Mexican food.
The Case for Quinoa
Similar fears have been expressed over quinoa.
2013 saw a spate of reports claiming that the global demand for the new ‘superfood’ meant that locals were being disadvantaged. This narrative prevailed until 2016 when solid research showed that this wasn’t the case. Locals had in fact benefited. Quinoa consumption in Peru did fall as prices rose. But it did so on a steady curve, not in line with the movement in price, suggesting that changing preferences were as much at play as prices.
But this is not to say that the quinoa debate is over. Now that the grain has become so profitable, farmers in Europe and elsewhere are starting to cultivate it in the hopes that price will rise again. The Fairtrade price per kilo is around $2.60, but the current market rate is only $2.00. This will likely not impact well on Andean growers.
Pinole, Setting the Bar High
Global supply chain management should strive for transparency and ethical, fair trading agreements. Particularly when the product in question is from a country that has been marginalised in the past.
One up and coming superfood is Pinole. Alex Littaye of Azure Foods aims to bring Pinole, an antioxidant-packed powder made from blue corn, to the global market.
What’s refreshing about Alex’s approach is that she is very aware of the potential for exploitation. In a recent podcast interview she noted:
“[The] thing that I am careful and cautious of is this neo-colonial narrative where, white girl studied at Oxford, comes and tries to support community, but at the end of the day the community has no freedom on how their income is generated. If I give this infrastructure and the skills to the community then they can actually decide if they want to keep working with me, or if they want to diversify further for their own local markets”.
In conjunction with the local producers, Alex also has an eye on agrobiodiversity. This is farming in a way that is not only sustainable but beneficial to the environment. This is achieved by growing different crops on one section of land, instead of vast stretches of a single crop.
Alex also has a very clear picture of what she does not want to run into. “I’m trying to avoid replicating the quinoa situation”.
Imagine if all food companies had an outlook like Azure Foods?
This kind of ethical approach where control of the product remains in the hands of those who produce it is unusual in today’s global marketplace. In the absence of more companies who operate like this, the best we can do is choose brands who cooperate with watchdogs such as Fairtrade.