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Fairtrade - more than a shopping option

Glenn Power highlights good practice in arguing councils could do far more to promote Fairtrade

Fairtrade councils are missing major opportunities to boost sales of fairly traded products by millions of pounds, through a lack of awareness or priority, in four main areas:

  1. Getting contractors to supply thousands of school canteens with Fairtrade bananas, fruit juices, and bulk sugar. (As well as other less competitive products occasionally).
  2. Using ethically sourced 'work wear' garments such as Fairtrade cotton polo shirts for the council or a contractor
  3. Raising awareness of ethically sourced school uniform items.
  4. Not specifying fairly traded products in tender documents for all catering facilities.

Fairtrade is more than a shopping option for enlightened consumers. Although many Labour party members regularly buy Fairtrade products, and most urban councils have achieved 'Fairtrade status,' the vast majority have been tokenistic where it counts - procurement. After fairly traded hot drinks are used in meetings and town hall catering the project is usually shelved. While busy councillors and officers can't be blamed for not being aware of all opportunities, most have done little to learn from best practice, particularly in England, and very few Labour party members are active as volunteers in the local Steering Groups that Fairtrade councils commit themselves to consult. Typically these rely on church groups and supporters of NGOs like Oxfam. Fortunately there is some best practice to learn from. In Scotland and Wales real efforts have been made as part of campaigns to achieve Fairtrade Nation status. Value Wales, the Welsh Assembly's procurement arm, has promoted 'sustainability risk assessments' for procurement officers throughout the public sector a bureaucratic sounding exercise that makes managers check the working conditions in their contractor's supply chains. If only the last Labour government had been as ethically proactive!

East Dunbartonshire council near Glasgow systematically raised awareness of appalling labour conditions in Asian clothing industries and supported volunteers in visiting local schools to on information distribute Fairtrade uniforms. Edinburgh's Lord Provost hosts annual Fairtrade award ceremonies for schools, including an art competition with a prize of 40 Fairtrade T-shirts printed with the winning designs. 38 schools entered.

Two common misconceptions block progress. First, legal restrictions requiring councils to obtain 'best value' for council tax payers, often misinterpreted as meaning only the cheapest products can be bought. While prices can be a real barrier, it is rarely insurmountable, because of the second misconception fairly traded products are always much more expensive. This is only true for newer items such as rice with low sales volumes. As volumes rise price differentials shrink drastically, as supermarket shelves now show, with long established Fairtrade tea and coffee almost reaching price parity with equivalent quality brands a fact that proves how little producers get paid as a proportion of retailers' prices. A farmer's share is so small that even large increases in their wages do not necessarily increase end prices significantly.

Everything depends on volume, which is why councils particularly are in a great position to make small price differentials disappear, as Camden and Islington recently proved. Since a 2010 joint contract their schools catering contractor supplies Fairtrade bananas and fruit juices to all school canteens they serve, at no extra cost, as such large volumes contractors can absorb limited wholesaler price premiums for one or two items of many. Councils just need to make their ethical commitment clear in tender documents, and conversations with bidders, and show that officers know that providing ethical products is economically possible for schools. Sadly, only councils in Bristol and South Wales seem to have done this. Only Greenwich council staff use Fairtrade cotton work wear.

High volumes apply to most of the public sector. NHS catering has been supportive of Fairtrade, the BMA even fund a unit promoting ethical supply chains. Unfortunately as yet there is no ethical supplier for the huge volume cotton products used in hospitals. Universities have made the most progress by far, thanks to high profile student campaigns. NUS shops now only stock clothing certified by the Fairtrade Foundation, (which protects cotton farmers), or the Fairwear Foundation or WRAP, (which upholds labour rights and minimum wages in clothing factories).

Schools have huge untapped potential. Most have designated uniform items which they control, such as polo shirts printed with school logos. Ethical and Fairtrade cotton companies now supply this market at price premiums of £1-£2, sometimes less. Head teachers and governors can take a collective decision that all of such items must be ethically sourced. If they do volumes jump to hundreds of items per year and prices come down, yet to date out of Britain's 25,000 schools fewer than 100 have taken this step. (Only a tiny minority of parents buy Fairtrade uniform items from &S and Tesco Online).

Schools can be reluctant to make parents pay more, but price differentials are small and only for one or two items. The most significant barrier is a lack of awareness of ethical options. Distributing information to schools is probably the biggest impact a Fairtrade council could have. Students are very sympathetic. They learn about fair trade by the end of year 9, as a national curriculum topic in citizenship and geography.

In September Tower Hamlets council passed a detailed Fairtrade procurement policy, available on Fairtrade London's website. (http://www.fairtradelondon.org.uk/latest/). Ask your councillors to adopt similar initiatives, and if you live in a 'Fairtrade Town' join your local Steering Group. A Fairtrade Information Pack was also posted to all Tower Hamlets schools, covering teaching resources and suppliers of products such as uniforms and delivered catering for staff rooms.

For copies email Glenn Power: powerglen@gmail.com

Although 72% of consumers now recognise the Fairtrade Mark, there is surprisingly little awareness of what lies behind the slogan, 'A better deal for producers.' Essentially Fairtrade certification combines a minimum wage with development schemes, because as well as guaranteeing to pay individual producers a minimum price based on living costs, Fairtrade companies also give additional 'social premiums' to whole communities to fund projects like health centres and schools, or investment in sustainable production. Schemes are decided democratically by communities organised in co-operatives. Socialists should support all of those elements. The fair trade movement also makes the political point that most trade with developing countries is inherently unfair. With the EU, the IMF, and World Bank forcing blanket market liberalisation on vulnerable primary economies in the 'developing' world, and with the Doha Round of WTO talks blocked by G20 vested interests, trade is set to remain rigged against poor countries. For example, the dumping of subsidised US cotton on world markets severely depresses prices, to such an extent that NGOs estimate that it costs West African cotton farmers $250m in lost revenues annually a missed opportunity to achieve Western countries' stated aims of fighting poverty and reducing aid dependence.

Events since the 2008 credit crunch are providing severe lessons on the downside of 'free market' capitalism. The hard realities of trade relations are no exception. Despite recent food price spikes, for the most part commodity producers are still easily replaceable, unorganised, and ruthlessly exploited. British supermarket banana price wars have helped to devastate plantation workers' living standards. Many now earn less than $1 a day. Just five multinational corporations control over 90% of internationally traded bananas with massive mono-crop plantations, principally in South and Central America. Cost cutting imperatives have led to the ruthless suppression of trade unions by local vested interests. In Guatamala five union leaders representing banana plantation workers have been murdered since 2007. No arrests have been made. (Banana Link has more details.)

Encouraging ethical trade is one partial solution. Pessimists in terms of public support for progressive politics should note in 2010 Fairtrade companies were making a real difference to over seven million producers' lives, and sales rose by 38%, despite the recession. More products are becoming available all the time, such as 'Fairmined gold,' sports balls, cola, and Palestinian olive oil. For details see websites of the Fairtrade Foundation and Traidcraft. Until now British councils and schools have only scratched the surface of the contribution that they could be making a fact worth mentioning to a councillor near you.

Glenn Power is a member of Tower Hamlets Fairtrade Network

Chartist 254 January/February 2012