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And the answer isn’t a simple one. With many certification schemes and company strategies, it can be a confusing time for customers.
As regular readers of this blog will know, the Co-op has been a firm supporter of Fairtrade for a very long time. In fact, long before any of our high street rivals. I think it’s safe to claim that over the last 25 years we’ve made Fairtrade mainstream in British retailing.
From a commercial perspective, it wasn’t always easy for us. But we made a long-term commitment, supported by our millions of members, and we worked to show our customers how paying a fair price to farmers on the other side of the world could make an enormous difference to the quality of their lives and the communities in which they live.
And it wasn’t just about paying a fair price. We wanted to support a scheme that guaranteed farmers control and autonomy and which encouraged local democratic decision making. A quarter-century on, Fairtrade has become one of our strongest ‘proof points’ of Co-op integrity and social responsibility. We know that it now encourages customers to shop with us and to become Co-op members.
Confusing the consumer
But across the retail sector, it’s become a confusing landscape for customers. There’s starting to be a bewildering range of ethical badges which retailers and brands choose to put on their products, including ones which are self-audited.
Do customers understand the difference between these rival ethical labels often with similar sounding names to Fairtrade? Do they understand the trading relationship between the retailer and the supplier? What standards are being measured? And who is doing the measuring? And crucially, are these alternative schemes helping the producers keep control of how they use the money they earn?
Unfair to farmers
It’s the most vulnerable in our food chain who are paying the greatest price for this confusion.
Low wages, irregular income and uncertain futures are rife around the world. Over the last five years, the price of coffee and cocoa in the international commodity markets has regularly fallen to levels which don’t meet the Fairtrade minimum price – causing uncertainty for those at the sharp end of the market. Fairtrade creates the security that means those farmers can afford to keep growing cocoa and coffee beans and put food on their own tables for their own families.
When retail margins in the UK become ever tighter, our commitment to the producers on the other side of the world needs to become more important, not less. But instead, we’re seeing that when ‘push comes to shove’, short-term local profit counts for more than global justice and retailers start to create ethical schemes that are less expensive to run.
At the Co-op, we’ve just signed up to the new global Fair Trade Charter put together by the World Fair Trade Organisation and Fairtrade International. The charter is designed to be a common reference point for the Fair Trade movement around the world. This common reference point is critical for the future of just trading relationships between retailers in the global north and farmers in the global south.
Making it work for everyone
To make Fairtrade work for everyone – the producer, the retailer and the consumer – requires an on-going conversation with our customers about what global economic justice needs to look like. That’s a tough conversation to have in a shopping aisle! But actually, that’s exactly where it needs to be taking place. The challenge is how to do it well.
We know that Fairtrade is the best model out there if we want to be serious about economic fairness. At the Co-op we want everyone to follow Fairtrade standards because the system has been proved to work and the British public now recognise and trust the Fairtrade name.
But there’s clearly more work to be done in helping everyone understand exactly what Fairtrade stands for. That means ending the proliferation of ethical labels and putting our full weight behind a conversation about global fairness.
Retail Chief Commercial Officer