It’s important right from the start to point out the difference between ‘fairly traded’ products, bought using ethical sourcing, and Fairtrade, which is an organisation in it’s own right which works with growers to ensure they receive fair pay for their efforts. The distinction is important mainly because the latter has it’s own strict criteria, and the former is simply a phrase we use for a social, market based movement, without necessarily a written philosophy belonging to anyone. In reality if we talk about ‘fair trade’, we can’t claim to be true to the principles of the Fairtrade organization, but we’ll be close. An example of where they differ; ‘Fairtrade’ accepts no genetically modified cotton, whereas genetically modified cotton could well be traded fairly.
So what can fair trade achieve and is it really making a difference? Well, lets break it down into a few basic facts. Fair traded cotton isn’t necessarily organic, although ‘Fairtrade’ and other organizations do work towards helping growers in the transition towards what is in principal a better paid crop.
While growers in the developing world are struggling with the rising price of fuel, pesticides and insecticides they are faced with falling prices for their cotton due to huge subsidies paid to growers in the USA, Europe and china, who then overproduce and flood the market with cheap cotton. Subsidies can be high enough that producers can put cotton on the market below the cost of production. Many west African farmers survive on less than $2 a day, yet it makes up 40% of the export income for that region.
While cotton prices have recovered a little recently, the value of cotton is still 1/3rd of what it was in the 80′s. One of the stickiest problems with certifying cotton to improve standards is that cotton, in comparison to some other crops, such as coffee, takes a more tortuous route from grower to shop. Coffee is often roasted by the grower, and then will go directly to a seller via a fair trade initiative, however cotton often goes from the grower, who may have little industrial capability via a number of industrial manufacturers before arriving at the shops.
Because of this groups such as ‘Fairtrade’ ensure that these later players in the chain not only pay the agreed acceptable amount to the grower, by being certified themselves, but that this certification requires, as much as is possible, that they meet internal acceptable standards for how they treat their own staff.
But its still early days. According to http://www.globalenvision.org, not enough farmers have gained access to the ‘Fairtrade’ price, and there are 10 million people dependent on cotton in Western Africa alone. However Fairtrade reports use Camaroon as an example where there are 320,000 cotton farmers of which 10 per cent belong to a Fairtrade certified organization. They receive 30% more than non certified growers. Having 10% of growers signed up is a good start, and there are other initiatives providing fair prices to growers, but there is clearly a long way to go.
One of our biggest steps will be to address the west’s unfair subsidy system, which requires pressure from organizations, but also the public. What we need to do, beyond buying fairtrade, is to raise awareness of the imbalance, by talking about it, and also to lobby politicians to start to take an interest, and show them that their voters want to see some change, beyond their own buying power.