The annual Fair Trade fortnight is in full swing with a range of events and activities taking place all over the country providing opportunities to learn more about the system and meet people involved in and inspired by the movement. This year’s campaign is running under the slogan “Meet Foncho” and brings producers from major banana growing countries to the UK to share their first-hand experiences of the fair trade and, most importantly, collect mass signatures in support of the petition against recent supermarket banana price cuts. Several high-profile events took place this week-end in London bringing together producers, activists, representatives of church and charitable movements as well as a number of high-ranking officials, but I decided to travel to Manchester for a somewhat quieter and more intimate gathering at Manchester Art Gallery in hope to have an opportunity for a closer insight and more personal acquaintance with fair trade people.
The event was centred around a presentation by Juliet Arku-Mensah, a banana farmer from Ghana where she is currently a Fairtrade Officer. Manchester was just one of the many stops in a two-week-long journey around the UK Juliet has embarked on with the aim of sharing her experiences as a fair trade producer. She started off by talking the audience through the entire process of planting and growing bananas, focusing on the difficulties involved in producing a perfect fruit and delivering it to western consumers. An important issue (the one I have written a couple of blog posts on – check this and this one) was raised regarding stringent cosmetic standards and requirements that retailers impose on producers. This results in vast amounts of perfectly edible and healthy bananas being thrown away due to less than impeccable appearance – a hint of a bruise, a spot or a somewhat imperfect shape are all signs of a fruit that, as Juliet has repeated several times, “consumer will not accept”. This overburdens farmers with extra efforts required to grow cosmetically irreproachable bananas, and, most importantly, generates excessive waste and environmental damage as all fruits that do not quite fit the “beauty ideal” end up rotting in landfills. Giving bananas away or using them as compost provides only partial solution and can’t deal with the huge quantities of rejected fruits. I would be very interested to know the stance of the Fair Trade Foundation on this issue as well as whether there have been any attempts to negotiate cosmetic requirements with retailers – given that Fair Trade certification aims to “set clear criteria to ensure that products are produced and traded under fair and environmentally responsible conditions” (Fair Trade Foundation, 2014), the issue of waste is clearly problematic.
Talking about major barriers to getting Fair Trade certification, Juliet has especially mentioned yearly audits by third-party companies the high costs of which have to be covered by the farmers themselves. This is another issue that I’d really like to have an expert opinion on – could the high audit fees be absorbed by retailers or incorporated into the product price and whether the Foundation has ever raised / considered raising this as a concern.
Overall, though, Juliet has highly praised the differences that Fair Trade has made to the life of her community and the developments it has allowed people to have – three new schools, improved transportation, educational scholarships and grants are among the key ones. Though the scheme is quite hard to comply with, it does offer the most fair and beneficial trading system that is currently available to the third-world producers, Juliet believes.
By the way, good news for all fair trade fans – the range of fair trade labelled foods available to consumers will soon be diversified – Juliet’s community in Ghana is about to start growing pineapples.
Fair Trade Fortnight is still running and you can search for events near you here – don’t miss your chance to learn more about what stands behind the most well-known ethical label on the market.
FairTrade Foundation (2014). Fairtrade standards. Fairtrade.org.uk. Retrieved March, 4 2014, from http://www.fairtrade.org.uk/what_is_fairtrade/fairtrade_certification_and_the_fairtrade_mark/fairtrade_standards.aspx