Fairtrade: How What We Buy Shapes the World and Why It Matters

Maddy Harland
Monday, 24th February 2014

It's Fairtrade Fortnight. Maddy Harland explains what Fairtrade is and why it is at the heart of the third permaculture ethic, Fair Shares

Every time we log on to Facebook or view other social media we are likely to see distressing photographs of homeless Orangutans driven out of rainforest habitats by the global demand for palm oil plantations followed by equally homeless tribal people.

It doesn’t have to be like this and Francisco Van der Hoff Boersma (Father Frans), the co-founder of Fairtrade, shows us that we have the power to change it. We can shape the world from our pockets.

In the 1970s, Father Frans had to flee Chile after a coup d’état and arrived in Mexico where he saw how individual coffee growers were being squeezed by middlemen fixing prices and selling on their crops to the big coffee manufacturers. He persuaded the ‘campesinos’ (Spanish for peasants) to form democratically run cooperatives that had the power to seek a fair wholesale price. Today, as a direct result of this model, a wide variety of Fairtrade products are sold directly to home and export markets worldwide at a fair price for both consumers and producers.

Father Frans' set up a model that works like this: Instead of middlemen buying coffee from individual growers at the lowest possible price that kept the campesinos in poverty and reliant on charity, he helped them to organize themselves into a large coffee growers cooperative, the Union of the Indigenous Communities of the Isthmus Region (UICIRI). The co-op enabled them to obtain a fair price for their organic coffee that not only paid for their labour but also allowed them to maintain their environment and social structures.

This simple trade mechanism, Fairtrade, makes perfect sense in an imperfect world. Growers are given a fair price for their crops, allowing small farms to be economically viable.

Organic coffee farming is hard and unpredictable, but can be rewarding and enjoyable. UCIRI member Enan Eduardo Lopez with his daughter Tañia picking coffee cherries ©Permanent Publications

Fair Shares?

Fairtrade does two things. It creates a financial framework for growers all over the world and ensures there is no unfair price fixing. It is proven to lift people out of poverty, creating dignity and greater self-sufficiency in peasant communities. This buys health and education for the poorest peoples of the world and removes the need for western ‘charity’.

Fairtrade also allows consumers to choose products with confidence that have been traded ethically. It does not have to raise prices for the consumer, although in the case of bananas being used as a commodity in the supermarket 'wars' to win customers, it should. Fairtrade can be an option for all, and not just an ethical choice for the affluent. It does not even substantially reduce profits for the manufacturer. It just cuts out an exploitative link in the chain.

Guadalupe Echevarria, who, with her husband Manuel Iglesias, was one of the founders of UCIRI. Being born a twin, it was assumed she would take on the role of community healer, which she has done for most of her long & healthy life ©Permanent Publications

Changing the world with our pockets

If we want to change the world, we can start by voting with our pockets and supporting this grassroots movement. Of course, there are people on the poverty line who cannot afford 'Fairtrade' coffee or chocolate - fresh ground coffee and organic, ethical chocolate are luxuries - but it is too easy for some of us reading this column to say we cannot 'afford' to be ethical.

Let's be really honest. What can we afford? What choices do we make? If we educate ourselves about the child labour involved in non-Fairtrade chocolate from internationally known brands, for instance, we wouldn't consider ever eating again. It would stick in our throats.

Non-Fairtrade coffee or chocolate produced in industrial-scale monocultures and often with child labour, goods full of palm oil from places where Orangutans have been wiped out... I can't eat this industrially produced muck. Fairtrade has given me a living decision to try and use what money I do have wisely every day.

Our choices has the potential to become a very powerful mechanism. Imagine if just 30% of our society made these choices! Those huge corporations that wield their might in the global marketplace would have to change their ways. They would have to ensure a Fairtrade marque to gains sales. No doubt they would do what they could to manipulate the system but educated consumers would have the power to call them to account and not buy into compromise.

Occupy the market

Fairtrade gives power back to the people, enabling us to develop a more ecologically balanced ?and less exploitative world. I believe that Fairtrade is a vital constituent of the third permaculturte ethic, Fair Shares, and it is something we can actively support every day.

We are in the middle of an economic crisis. Let’s occupy the market with solidarity and justice and create economies that work for people, not corporations. Rather than wait for governments to act, let’s act from our pockets and create a ‘solidarity economy’ - with solutions from ‘below’ - so that we the people can exercise the power to remove exploitation and homelessness from the world. Let's not let our own cynicism govern our own choices.

Further Resources

Francisco Van der Hoff Boersma has been tirelessley pioneering soltuions for Fairtrade since the 1970s. His book Manifesto For The Poor – solutions come from below is his compelling story of how he co-founded the Fairtrade movement, the rationale behind it, and why it is a vital ingredient to creating a more just and sustainable world. It is published this month by Permanent Publications, the book publishing arm of Permaculture.

Maddy Harland is the editor of Permaculture – solutions for self-reliance, an international magazine available in print and digital format. You can download a free copy HERE or support us by taking out a subscription.

For more about Fairtrade Fortnight 2014