Changing the world with ethical shopping
Fair trade wins fans as it helps poor farmers
Issue: Nov 2009
Fair trade farmer Bertha Fanueli Matowo on her shamba or coffee farm, on the slopes of Mt Kilimanjaro, Tanzania
Photo credit: Cafédirect
Fair trade products are beginning to line more supermarket shelves in recent years. Their variety has increased too: from coffee, tea, bananas, ice-cream, and even flowers. For an increasing number of consumers, the Fairtrade label – a distinctive blue-green symbol – is a reassuring guarantee that they are buying ethical products that weigh less on their conscience. This is why many are buying into the idea, despite the higher prices.
Fair trade, which began in the late 1980s, is a social movement that promotes an alternative market structure. According to the UK-based Fairtrade Foundation, it is about “better prices, decent working conditions, local sustainability, and fair terms of trade for farmers and workers in the developing world.”
Companies that take on the Fairtrade label are required to pay sustainable prices (that never fall below market price) in order to prevent discrimination against the poorest, most disadvantaged producers. The aim is to help the poorest improve their lives and have more control over their future.
The fair trade debate
Fair trade retailers say their coffee, which comes at a fair price, won’t leave a bitter taste in your mouth
Photo credit: Bridgette See
These aims, though noble, have been met with cynicism from all quarters even as the movement gains tremendous momentum worldwide. Free trade proponents say fair trade’s guaranteed prices lead to a false economy and perpetuate the poverty cycle; fair trade stalwarts say commercial coffee giants have joined the movement to exploit its marketing edge, without real commitment to the principles of social justice and change.
Daniel Jaffee’s Brewing Justice: Fair trade coffee, Sustainability and Survival is a recommended read for those wanting to understand the complex issues surrounding the fair trade debate. Jaffee, an associate professor of sociology at Washington State University in the US, visits fair trade farmers in Oaxaca, Mexico to find out how they have benefited; he also talks to other farmers who have chosen not to join the movement. The author goes deeper to examine the politics of the Fairtrade labelling system, which have led to splits within the movement.
Jaffee’s verdict is that fair trade does work for the most disadvantaged farmers. In Oaxaca, fair trade families have more food security, they earn higher gross incomes, and they engage in environmentally sustainable farming methods which have a long-term impact beyond the dollars and cents. But Jaffee also points out the limitations of fair trade including the static nature of the guaranteed minimum price which has led to decreasing profit margins for the farmers. In essence, committing to the rigours of fair trade standards can be a lot of hard work that translates into marginal economic benefits, though there may be substantial social and ecological benefits.
A good brew
Despite the criticism and controversy, more and more companies have committed themselves to fair trade. One of the earliest was UK company Cafédirect which specialises in selling fairly traded coffees, teas and hot chocolate. The 18-year-old company (which went public in 2004) now works with 40 grower organisations, across 14 developing countries. Its website claims that this encompasses more than 260,000 farmers and directly improves the lives of more than 1.2 million people.
“Our growers are more than just suppliers,” Cafédirect’s International Business Manager Alex Georgiou told INSIDE. “They have two representatives on our board and own shares in the business. We also re-invest more than half of our profits in the growers’ organisations, funding environmental, economic, and social sustainability projects.”
Georgiou added that since 2000, Cafédirect has paid more than US$25.6 million above the market price for coffee, tea and cocoa to its growers. Each year, the company also invests at least half of its profits in programmes to strengthen growers’ businesses.
Aligaesha’s work includes encouraging more women to be involved in growing fair trade coffee
Photo credit: Cafédirect
Besides sporting the familiar Fairtrade label, Cafédirect’s packaging have pictures and testimonies from farmers benefitting from the scheme. Emiliana Aligaesha, a coffee grower in Tanzania, is quoted on a package: “Because of Cafedirect, my community has improved in many ways – just like our coffee.” According to Georgiou, Aligaesha is the first woman in nine years to be elected as a board member of the Karagwe District Cooperative Union, a union of 65 village-based cooperatives in north-western Tanzania. Besides maintaining a coffee nursery and irrigation systems, Aligaesha also facilitates workshops that encourage more women to be involved in coffee growing groups.
While Cafédirect’s largest market is still the UK, it says new markets like Singapore are showing promising sales growth. Besides being sold at supermarkets like Cold Storage at Bugis Junction and ThreeSixty MARKET PLACE at ION Orchard, the company’s organic espresso coffee is available at all Cedele cafes, including the outlet at Raffles City Singapore.
Cedele now brews Cafédirect’s organic fair trade espresso beans to make its coffees, including lattes and cappucinos
Fair trade ice-cream fans now have more flavours to choose from
Cedele, a homegrown bakery, food and beverage chain, has replaced all of its coffee selections with organic, fair trade ones. The new brews cost about 60 cents more than before.
“Our customers were very receptive to the change and they’re aware that by drinking organic fair trade coffee, they’re contributing to the community. In fact, with organic fair trade beans, the aroma of our coffee is more robust and nutty,” said Cedele’s executive director Yeap Cheng Guat.
Ben & Jerry’s, which also has an outlet at Raffles City Singapore, is another company that has committed itself to the fair trade movement. Since launching its fair trade Vanilla flavour in 2006, the US-based ice cream company has expanded the range to include its Coffee, Chocolate, Coffee Coffee Buzz Buzz Buzz, and Chocolate Macadamia
“We hope to create a difference in the lives of the farmers. The premium we pay for the fair trade ingredients will help them provide the basic needs for their families and communities such as healthcare, education and safe housing, thus taking a positive step to changing their lives,” said Benjamin Tng, Brand Champion for Ben & Jerry’s Singapore.
Making a difference
Despite their higher prices, fair trade products continue to garner fans. According to the Fairtrade Foundation, the total retail sales of fair trade coffee in the UK has increased 10-fold since 1998, to be about US$219 million.
This is why in Brewing Justice, Jaffee appeals to consumers to pressure the fair trade labelling system to push for internal reforms so that it would “reconnect fair trade with its roots as a social movement that prioritises questions of justice”.
Perhaps he need not worry too much. Well-informed groups of ethical-minded consumers (from on-line communities to whole brick-and-mortar towns dedicated to selling and buying fair trade products) continue to mushroom every day. Their vision: to use their purchasing power to create a kinder world that gives the poorest a chance to change their future.
Ben & Jerry’s is available at:
Raffles City Shopping Centre
252 North Bridge Road
Tel: 6336 2143
Opening Hours: Cedele is available at:
Sundays to Thursdays: 11.00am-10.00pm
Friday and Saturdays: 11.00am – 11.00pm
Raffles City Shopping Centre
252 North Bridge Road
Tel: 6337 8017
Mondays to Sundays/Public Holidays:
9.30am – 10.00pm