Why are foodies turning their backs on Fairtrade?

By Julian Baggini,

February 23,2015

The Guardian

The ethical labelling scheme has seen sales fall for the first time ever, with critics arguing they can source better quality ingredients by trading on their own terms.

At Workshop Coffee in Clerkenwell, London, discerning customers savour the tangerine acidity of their £4 Colombian coffees. It looks like caffeine heaven, but head of production Richard Shannon says there are those who think something is missing. “Some people are adamant that if it doesn’t have a Fairtrade logo then we must be holding the farmer down and standing on his neck whilst we steal his coffee.”

Workshop is one of a number of high-end food companies that says it is committed to fair trade, but doesn’t have the certificate to prove it. With the Fairtrade logo now appearing even on mainstream brands such as Starbucks coffees and four-finger Kit Kats, this absence is becoming more and more conspicuous, especially during Fairtrade fortnight, which starts this week. But for a variety of reasons, many speciality providers, which invariably boast about their impeccable sourcing policies, are choosing not to sign up to the Fairtrade labelling scheme.

This is bad news for Fairtrade, which saw UK sales of products carrying its logo fall for the first time ever last year, by 4%. This has largely been attributed to growing discount retailers such as Aldi and Lidl carrying far fewer Fairtrade lines than declining supermarkets like Sainsbury’s and the Co-op. But it seems Fairtrade is being squeezed at the top as well as the bottom of the market, by high-end companies like Workshop who believe the Fairtrade model doesn’t suit them. The most common complaint is that Fairtrade doesn’t reward quality. “Fairtrade coffee is futures coffee,” Shannon explains. “The prices were arranged last year for the coffees that are being grown this year.” This is no good to speciality roasters, who need to see the quality of each crop before deciding how much, if any, to buy.

But even if going Fairtrade meant no loss of quality, many suppliers believe their trade is already fairer than Fairtrade. Take the price paid. Last year, Workshop Coffee paid on average £6.50 per kilo, nearly twice as much as the Fairtrade price. (“For us the main thing is quality,” says Shannon, “and we’re prepared to pay for quality.”) Similarly, in Denmark, high-end chocolatier Mikkel Friis-Holm reports paying 10 to 20 times the Fairtrade price for cocoa. And, as they point out, Fairtrade doesn’t provide farmers with any greater guarantee of future income, since it sets a minimum price but not a minimum size of order.

Growers for the speciality market, meanwhile, are increasingly able to call the shots. As the premium coffee market expands, says Shannon, producers get more power to choose who they sell to and for how much. “We’ve had coffees that we’d almost printed the bag labels for, and then all of a sudden we get told: sorry that coffee’s not going to you any more.” The growth of the market also creates opportunities for more producers to benefit. “Each year new farmers jump on board,” he says, as they see their neighbours being highly rewarded for focusing on quality.

Many of the uncertified also believe there is more dignity for the farmers outside of the Fairtrade scheme. The renowned Breton chef Olivier Roellinger, whose restaurant Les Maisons de Bricourt earned three Michelin stars before he famously gave them back, sells his own range of fairly traded spices. But he doesn’t describe them as such “because I respect my producer. It’s a noble path to be a merchant, to have a good life and make a sustainable business.” Roellinger wants to treat his developing world suppliers like any other, paying a fair price when they have quality produce to sell and trusting them to manage the ups and downs of fat and lean years.

“When you get to the bottom of it, [the Fairtrade scheme] is kind of neo-imperialistic,” he says. “It’s something we impose on them.” He’s thinking particularly of the pressure for producers to form groups, usually co-operatives, in order to join. “Can you imagine what British farmers would say if their American customers came to them and said: well, I’m only going to trade with you guys if you get together and I can buy from all of you at the same time?”

The uncertified also have doubts about the effectiveness of Fairtrade in securing a good deal for workers. The system can guarantee prices for producers and a premium for social projects, but it can’t ensure that those who receive these payments spread the benefits. Many Fairtrade co-operatives employ people who are not members, and research last year suggested that “wages are typically lower, and on the whole conditions worse, for workers in areas with Fairtrade organisations than for those in other areas”. One of the worst misuses of the Fairtrade dividend was in a tea co-operative, where “the modern toilets funded with the premium were exclusively for the use of senior co-op managers”. This is where many outside the certification system think they have the edge. By engaging in direct trade and visiting individual suppliers, they can have full confidence in those they buy from.

Harriet Lamb, CEO of Fairtrade International, is sceptical. “In nearly 15 years, I have yet to meet a company who didn’t tell me that they were at least as good as Fairtrade, and usually better.” So while the organisation’s third-party audits “are absolutely not the only answer, the question remains: how else are you and I to know or judge what a company or a producer says?”

As for the quality of Fairtrade produce, she insists: “There is no reason why companies cannot buy the best and highest qualities as Fairtrade. Indeed, there are lists and lists of Fairtrade certified producers who are award-winners. And if a company knows of a group producing at a particular high quality, they can always support them to become Fairtrade certified.”

Yet rather than being threatened by the outsiders, Lamb is encouraged. It’s a good challenge to think how we can recognise those dedicated companies and continue to do what has always been at the heart of Fairtrade – make that direct link between producer and consumer that can drive wider change.”

Fairtrade’s success might be one reason why many are now looking beyond its certificated products. As the ethical consumer market matures, Workshop’s more scrupulous customers are less likely to ask: “Is it Fairtrade?” and more likely to enquire “Is it fairly traded?” It’s a question we should all get into the habit of asking, knowing that pointing to the now familiar Fairtrade logo is only one way of answering “yes”.